Al Maslakh

Mazen Kerbaj and Franz Hautzinger
Abu Tarek
Creative Sources

Franz Hautzinger
Franz Hautzinger's Oriental Space

By Ken Waxman
September 18, 2005

Unbeknownst to most, over the past few years Lebanese players have quietly put together the only improvised music scene in the Middle East outside of Israel. Known as the most sophisticated of Arab nations before the disastrous civil war of 1975 to1990 and despite recent political instability, Lebanon is still open to outside influences and that's how a small group of questing players first discovered Free Music a few years ago.

Since that time this same group has organized infrequent local gigs and hosts a yearly improv fest in Beirut. As an outgrowth of this activity, collaborations between Lebanese and outside musicians are beginning to appear on CD, like the three here. Fittingly, each features trumpeter Mazen Kerbaj - also an artist and author - chief cheerleader and coordinator of the nascent scene.

Present as well on Rouba3i5 and Oriental Space is Lebanese guitarist Sharif Sehnaoui, who divides his time between Paris and Beirut and who helps spread the word about local improv. His wife, alto saxophonist Christine Sehnaoui, who plays on the first CD, took part with Kerbaj in Lebanon's first-ever improv gig in 2000.

Outsiders present on all three sessions testify to the Lebanese improvisers' successful outreach program. Oslo-based drummer Ingar Zach, who has worked with people like British guitarist Derek Bailey and bassist Barry Guy came to play at the improv festival and stayed to record Rouba3i5. Viennese trumpeter Franz Hautzinger, who has played with American guitarist Elliott Sharp and British drummer Tony Oxley, met Kerbaj by chance. Since then the two brass explorers have played duo concerts like the one approximated on Abu Tarek in Lebanon and Europe, and work as the Oriental Space quartet adding Sharif Sehnaoui and Vienna-based Helge Hinteregger, who has been part of Chris Burns' Ensemble as a saxophonist, on sampler.

Using only acoustic instruments, the four members of Rouba3i5 create two multi-faceted improvisations that, perhaps unsurprisingly, aren't reminiscent of any Middle Eastern sounds. Most impressive is the shorter - well less than 17 minutes - track, "Bustros Session 2", which, recorded with no cuts and no overdubbing, shows that the four have relaxed into rapprochement.

Launched by a punch from Zach's bass drum, followed by percussive rumbles and accents, the piece modulates into squeaks from the trumpet and tongue slaps from the alto saxophone. S. Sehnaoui then elaborates these statements with buzzing feints and what sounds like a drum stick hitting the front of his strings. Splayed strums then characterize his output as C. Sehnaoui expels cavernous blows and the drummer counters with presto woodpecker-like battering. When Zach transforms those smacks into road drill pressure, the alto squeals as the guitar advances the sort of metallic drones that could emanate from exposed telephone wires. Eventually these pulsations blend into one another, reaching a climax of irregular pitches, sharp oscillations and constricted cries, as Zach delineates an ending with his finger tips rubbing the drum tops.

Earlier, the almost-23-minute first selection is weakened by hushed passages that appear to lose volume due to lack of direction rather than as a stratagem. Luckily this happens infrequently, but some of the output could be a rehearsal for the finer points made in the second track. Oddly enough, C. Sehnaoui seems bolder here, with a catalogue of gestures that take in grace note expansion plus reed pops and tongue slaps. Mixing parakeet-like chirping with altissimo shrills, her sonic space is often invaded by amplifier drones and whammy bar distortions from the guitarist, abrasive scraping and woodpecker patterns from the drummer and bubbling tones and bumpy spetrofluctuation from trumpeter Kerbaj.

With S. Sehnaoui manipulating the only chordal instrument, Oriental Space, recorded in Vienna, reorders the sound priorities. Despite the presence of both Hautzinger and Kerbaj, the session isn't particularly brassy. Since Hinteregger is a saxophonist as well as a sampler player, the sequences introduced to the eight tracks often add pre-recorded extended reed textures to the live instrumental sounds.

Only on the final two selections "Fig Jam". a Lebanese delicacy – and "Later in the Afternoon" do extended samples of mumbling and murmuring male and human voices, take their places among finger-picking guitar runs and fervid brass mouthpiece osculation.

There may also be a snatch of an Arabic songster's voice midway through "In the Afternoon", the first instant composition. But this vocalization is buried beneath plinking guitar pulses, buzzy dual trumpet leads and a panoply of signals from the sampler including organ-like shakes, purported video game themes and what you could swear is the replication of a snooker ball rolling across the felt of a pool table.

Another anomaly is the intro to "Noujoum Funk", which replicates a stylus bumpily connecting to an LP groove. But this tune, like all the others, is designed as a showcase for acoustic instruments not electronics. Operating on top of the guitarist's hand smacks on his strings, the brassmen produce elongated drones, note flurries, choked textures and what appears to be tremolo air circulated through a cylindrical drainpipe.

Half-valve effects and watery bubbling appear on other tracks as the two trumpeters carve out individual territories. One, for instance, extends a single, unvarying buzzy line, while the other bugles a rubato rejoinder. Blocking air and spittle by valve twisting they change the density and tincture of their output. Harmonic concurrence to these prickly excursions is made easier on tunes like "Snow Sensitive Skin" since the concussion of foreign objects against Sehnaoui's strings and the mechanized, ring modulation-like sequences from the sampler redirect attention away from obstructed tubes and towards group expression.

Hautzinger and Kerbaj don't have this luxury on Abu Tarek where they improvise unaccompanied. Recorded in Lebanon, as was Rouba3i5, the disc highlights the density, volume and colors of two probing brass players. Impressionistic, at time the brass interchange takes on a jazzy subtext, although no one would confuse this CD for those 1950s Verve dates where Dizzy Gillespie and Roy Eldridge jousted musically.

With the nine tracks ranging from less than three to less than 7½ minutes, the two provide in condensed form a compendium of the procedures they mix with guitar and sampler textures on Oriental Space.

These take many forms. For example they can produce wet-sounding, rolling tongue thwacks, then turn their bells into cymbals as they beat on the metal while blowing through the lead pipe. Bugle-like calls take shape, but with sharp edges; strangled actions block pitches and broken octave grace notes are let loose. Barking, footstep-patterning tones and tongue fluttering are heard; as is air pushed through the instrument without valve movement.

Howls and whines plus animal-like whimpering are followed by throttled valve twisting that reveal sounds burrowed deep inside the horn. Elsewhere, a minimalist exercise in bubbled lip action and thwarted air pressure suddenly bursts forth with liberating wah-wahs and triumphant yelps.

Overall, Abu Tarek is most memorable when roles are divided and off-loaded. One trumpeter, for instance, plays a translucent note as the other fashions whinnying, desperate cries. Pedal point continuum is one's strategy as the other vibrates pitches concentrated with a blocked water key. Sibilant stops face off with valve percussion, and quick watery tones turn to foghorn breaths from the other hornman.

Free improvisation in Lebanon seems to be heading for international recognition as its partisans discover a characteristic originality in their playing and composing. Perhaps one day, musical happenings in Beirut will occupy the same space in the arts section of newspapers as its political events do on the news pages.