I have long been drawn to middle eastern music, having commented on it in earlier blog posts. There are many reasons to like this rich musical stream, but what draws me are the interactions that occur when eastern and western improvised traditions meet in mutual respect. This is often labeled as World/Jazz, but implying that it is new hybrid is somewhat problematic. Both improvised traditions have deep roots and a successful meeting acknowledges this. The blend of Jazz and middle eastern music is mainstream in the Mediterranean regions but not as well-known elsewhere. Adventurous artists like Dhafer Youssef, Rabih Abou-Khalil and Anouar Brahem have gained prominence in the west through collaborations with the likes of Kenny Wheeler, Charlie Mariano, Steve Swallow, Tigran Hamasyan, Marcin Wasilewski and others. Jazz lovers in New Zealand and Australia have already experienced the ancient Sephardic music of Spain through Caroline Manins ‘Mother Tongue’ projects. Also through Kiwi Jazz harpist Natalia Mann’s Turkish projects. Much of this music derives from the Sufi tradition but Sicilian and Flamenco Jazz fusions should not be overlooked either; both having rich Islamic and Jewish sources feeding them. The Moors ruled Sicily for 400 years and southern Spain for 500 years. Under the various Caliphates there was great religious tolerance and a spirit of scientific curiosity. The arts and musical traditions merged and flourished in that benign space.
Tim Sellars is a drummer/percussionist who graduated from Canterbury University Jazz School with honours. His studies led him to examine the rhythms and tunes of middle eastern music and he put together ‘Mukhlisa’ to further these explorations. The Auckland line up features two artists who we are very familiar with, Glen Wagstaff on acoustic guitar and Tamara Smith on flutes. For leader Tim Sellars, and for bassist Michael Story this was a first visit to the CJC. Of the tunes chosen many were traditional but the largest number were by a modern writer of Middle Eastern music Joseph Tawadros. His compositions fuse the traditional with Jazz and allow ample room for improvisation. Watching Tim Sellars on percussion is eye-opening as he coaxes so many complex rhythms and sounds from his array of percussion instruments, that it beggars belief. At times he used the Cajon (of African/Peruvian origin) but mostly he played frame drums (middle eastern). I love to hear the frame drum as it is the oldest instrument known to man. The genre includes the Riq (tambourine) which Tim played to perfection. Being an amplified acoustic ensemble the sound worked well in the club space. The guitar perhaps needed turning up a touch, to give it more bite. Tamara was her usual impressive self and her control and mastery of the instrument was evident throughout. She alternated between bass flute and alto flute; the tonal richness of both horns blending perfectly with the upright bass. Bass player Michael Story understood the cues and worked with Tamara; resisting any impulse to overplay. Acoustic ensembles like this require discipline and subtlety; overly showy solos can dominate and obscure the filigree of woven sound. Mukhlisa got that right and the solo work although appealing, was rightly subordinate to the overall integrity of the music. Glen Wagstaff is popular in Auckland and his charts for large ensembles have impressed club goers. It was good to see him in a different context and many of us eagerly await his album, which is due out in a month or so.
There is ample scope for a larger ensemble to grow out of this; perhaps one including arco Cello and Oud.
I am happy to see this music finding a home in New Zealand as it is a metaphor for a wider truth. We are living through a troubled era when many western peoples are recoiling from Islamic images. If they are only aware of conflict images or brutality then perhaps they are looking in the wrong places. In this music resides harmony peace and humanity.
the composition is Phoenix by Joseph Tawadros.
Who: ‘Mukhlisa’ – Tim Sellars, Glen Wagstaff, Tamara Smith, Michael Story
Where: The CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland 3rd February 2015