Writing about music is like dancing about architecture

Sunday, 6 February 2011

AHMED ABDUL-MALIK - EAST MEETS WEST

How much difference can we accept in our society?Are there some basic tenants of Western society that are inviolable and we should uphold these, even at the risk of losing sight of some of the other elements that make up our society? How far should people integrate into a society at the risk of losing their own cultures?
I think that these are questions that were as important in the America of 1959 when this record came out as they are now.
There was, of course, the Civil Rights Movement, which after the Montgomery Bus Boycott had somewhat lost momentum by 1959. Its greatest successes were ahead of it. There was the long shadow of the McCarthy-ite hearings, the witch-hunt that trampled on the rights of Americans in the quest to root out suspected Communists. America was still the home of the company man and non-conformity was uncommon, and slightly feared. Perhaps Abdul-Malik, given his interest in music and instruments from the Middle East followed the increasing American influence in the area. After the Suez Crisis in 1956, American oil companies increased their presence in the region and the American government increasingly provided help to undemocratic leaders in order to provide 'stability' and indeed by 1959 there had been a US military presence in Saudi for nine years.
However, unlike popular conception, the 50s in America were not in cultural-stasis waiting for the explosion of the 60s. Rather it was a period of intense experimentation and searching for new forms and approaches and few areas were are exciting as jazz. Musicians were bringing many different influences to jazz. Influences from Africa, from the Far East even from European classical traditions. Why not from the Middle East?
Abdul-Malik was born in Brooklyn to Sudanese parents. Unlike many other US jazzmen he did not come to Islam later in life but was born into it. Introduced to jazz at an early age he soon became an in demand bass player (we've already come across him on Art Blakey's African Drums and you can hear more of him with Coltrane at the Village Vanguard or on Monk's Misterioso). Perhaps inevitably he began to mix the music of America with the music of his roots.
This record shows how that mix might work. Using some of the top hard bop musicians in New York,  flautist Jerome Richardson, Benny Golson and Johnny Griffin on saxes, Curtis Fuller on trombone, Al Harewood on drums and Lee Morgan on trumpet, they are joined by Naim Karacand on violin, Mike Hamway and Bilal Abdurrahman on darabeka and Abdul-Malik himself on oud.
Like all marriages this one has some areas of harmony and others of tension. The two tracks that are at the East and West extremes are Takseem (Solo) and Searchin'. Takseem has no traditional jazz elements too it. The hard-boppers must have all popped out for a coffee or something while this track was recorded. A rhythm is laid down with the darabeka while oud and violin extemporize around the beats. Over the top is some very beautiful singing by Jarkarawan Nasseur. I am afraid that I do not know what she is singing about but it sounds to me as though it is the song of a sad woman who's man has left her.
This is immediately followed by Searchin which is straight ahead funky bop. It seems almost a shock after being taken on a journey to the Middle East to be returned to New York via a track that could be by the Jazz Messengers.
But it is Isma'a (Listen), the first track on side two that really shows what a true meeting of the two musics could produce. Starting with the opening  of the oud and the darabeka the track begins from the 'East' with a repeated motif which is then joined first by drums and then by the sax. Using the initial motif rather in the same way as they might use a complicated bass line, the drums and sax weave around the oud and darabeka and the song gathers pace. Then, Lee Morgan's trumpet cuts through, at first repeating the line of the oud but then in a wonderful and imaginative solo, soaring above the East and West elements into pure delight. That Lee Morgan sure could play! As the song comes to an end one by one the Western elements drop out until it is just the oud playing the refrain. Really exciting stuff that ends too quickly. I could have had a whole side of just this song. Apparently that arch-bandwagon-jumper Herbie Mann covered Isma'a on one of his albums but I have yet to hear it.
So, can a jazz record point that way through the thorny questions of multi-culturalism and integration? Of course you cannot learn how to live from a record. However, maybe there is something to be learnt from a Muslim in a Christian country who learnt to play a style of music that was indigenous to his adopted country but at the same time tried to bring something of his parent's country to that music.

Hunt it down and enjoy it.

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