Various Artists

Beirut-Ystad
Olof Bright Editions OBCD 16-17

MAWJA

Studio One

Al Maslakh Recordings MSLKH 07

MAWJA

“Live One”

Chloë 008

Tom Chant/Sharif Sehnaoui

Cloister

Al Maslakh Recordings MSLKH 05

Despite the political instability and sectarian violence that continues to disrupt the country, improbably enough the nascent Lebanese Free Music movement seems to progress from strength to strength.

Not only does Beirut’s annual festival of improvised music attract major Free Music stylists from overseas, but Lebanese improvisers are starting to travel and make an impression elsewhere. This situation is reflected in this set of impressive CDs. Just as importantly, it also confirms the universality of improvisation. Reductionist and electro-acoustic, the results heard from the locals are no more stereotypical Middle Eastern than others’ improvisations reflect Continental Europe or the United States.

To move from the general to the particular, Beirut-based trumpeter and cornetist Mazen Kerbaj’s two CDs with Massachusetts-based cellist Vic Rawlings and New York state-based bassist Michael Bullock as MAWJA, were recorded at four different gigs the brassman played with the two in the United States. British saxophonist Tom Chant’s duets with guitarist Sharif Sehnaoui were recorded in Paris; while Beirut-Ystad, which was recorded in an art museum and studio in Hammerhög, Sweden, features seven Lebanese improvisers collaborating in different formations with12 of their European counterpoints from Sweden, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands

In common with many 21st Century improvised music sessions, the Lebanese-plus creations can be divided into acoustic and electric CDs. For example, both MAWJA discs focus as much on Rawlings’ surface electronics and Bullock’s electronic feedback as the instruments’ unvarnished timbres; whereas Cloister is all acoustic. A two-CD-set, Beirut-Ystad showcases ad-hoc new groupings on nearly every track, with the players using a combination of electronic and acoustic instruments.

When it comes to the Kerbaj/Rawlings/Bullock CDs, there’s almost no difference between how the three approach a live or a studio session. However “Live One” appears more animated, perhaps because the two performances – although only slightly lengthier than a couple on Studio One – seem to gain additional energy and new ideas from the surroundings. On the nearly-30 minute Washington D.C. performance for instance, the metallic buzz and motor-grinding never masks unique, individual textures. Expanded spectral interaction includes bubbling mouthpiece assertions, dog-like yaps and slide-whistle-like interjections from the cornetist; full frontal slaps and pats plus sul ponticello scraping from the stringed instruments; and percussive pulsations that range from ring modulator pulsing to what could be electric shaver action and marbles being rolled in irregular patterns. Inchoate and suggesting crossed wire interference and intermittent AC/DC pulsations, the backing oscillations ratchet through the undertow to expose an intermezzo of jagged, fortissimo whines, which finally subside into rough, connective timbres.

Woody belly-and-waist reverberations from the cello and bass plus flutters and puffs from Kerbaj as well as fungible, contrapuntal modulations from a variety of electronic add-ons are present on this CD’s other track as well as on all of Studio One. This isn’t surprising since both discs were literally recorded within days of one another. However the improvisations seem to be most expressive when the traditional instruments’ properties can be isolated from the envelopes of concentrated jackhammer pressure, dense band-saw-like buzzing and woozy feedback.

Thus a single clear brass note or an emphasized deep breath from the trumpet or gentle rubs or fortissimo snaps from the strings provide more of a context for the lengthening knob-twisted sputters and drones surrounding and sonically replacing these timbres as the six tracks evolve. Flanged resonations, wire-in-socket shrills and triggered, spacey wave forms pitch-slide from background to foreground , while double-tongued, brass flourishes, wood rubbing or spiccato plucks are also stripped to their spectral nodes. The resulting echoing flanges, sideband clanging and stretched tonal twitters reveal themselves as being directed by humans, making the cumulative interface that much more impressive.

In a similar fashion Beirut-Ystad helps to define and expand this electro-acoustic divide. Interestingly enough though only six of the 17 tracks feature electronics. Even the most highly electric ones such as “CH/JH/JR” and “JH/JR/PS” create a rapprochement between the two approaches. On the later piece, Per Svensson, one of the major figures in Swedish noise music, displays chiming guitarist runs and flat-picking to counteract the grinding input and output signals plus lap top extensions and flanges from Danish laptopper Jakob Riis and Lebanese electronic manipulator – and philosophy teacher – Jassem Hindi.

In contrast, on “JH/JR/PS”, in spite of the arena rock feedback, watery sputtering and twittering wave forms from Riis and Hindi, Beirut’s Charbel Haber’s guitar is only rarely masked. And that happens only when crackling circular pulsations reach a nearly painful aural threshold. Droning simultaneously the two seem to suck up most of the sonic impulses.

On the other hand, despite the robust whooshes and rondo wiggling vibrations from the laptop of Sweden’s Lise-Lotte Norelius on AS/CS/LN” and “CH/LN/MG”, the spiccato scrapes of Hammerhög resident Amit Sen’s cello are clearly heard. Intermittent trills and reductionist timbres from Paris-based Christine Sehnaoui are also plainly audible, while the characteristic yelps and growls from Sweden’s Mats Gustafsson’s baritone saxophone demonstrate how he has been able to overpower not only electronics, but not be intimidated by veteran Energy players such as saxophonist Peter Brötzmann.

Combining the properties of acoustic styling and electronics, the four plectrumists on “Guitars” produce the only other track that could be termed full-out electronics. Yet here the typewriter-like clinking, triggered wave forms and motor-turning coexist with plucking and ringing standard string tuning. Berlin’s Annette Krebs and Stockholm’s David Stackenäs – a sometime Gustaffson collaborator – use table-top guitars, while Haber and Beirut’s Sharif Sehnaoui – a member of the group Rouba3i with Kerbaj and Christine Sehnaoui – strum their guitars in the usual manner.

Providing linkage not only between acoustic and electronic interface, but also between Free Jazz and Free Music plus Europe and the Middle East, is veteran percussionist Sven Åke Johansson. Swedish-born, but a long-time Berlin resident, Johansson, who played with Brötzmann and others in EuroJazz’s infancy confirms his support for young improvisers by joining Rouba3i for one improv and partnering Christine Sehnaoui in two other groups – one completed by Gustaffson and the other by Dutch crackle box inventor Michel Waisvisz, who was in a trio with the percussionist in the 1970s.

That track plus the ones with the three young improvisers provides some of the most emotionally profound sounds on the two-CD set. “Roubait3i+Sven Åke Johansson” finds the drummer linking the tick-tock rolls, conga-like hand beats and cymbal scrapes of Free Jazz with the near-reductionist ethos of the other three. Kerbaj contributes mouthpiece kisses and reverberating gargling; C. Sehnaoui abrasive aviary cries and irregular vibrato, while the most physical of the trio, guitarist Sehnaoui squeezes out undulating electronic flanges. Johansson adds brush swipes and drum-top reverberations.

On the other track, because Waisvisz’s primitive electronics are so lo-tech, the snaps and wiggles he produces successfully destroy any fourth wall that exists between his instrument and C. Sehnaoui’s and Johansson’s acoustic ones. A three-sided Catherine Wheel, the resulting miasma finesses altissimo screeches, hollow body tube blows, accordion-like bellows, rustles and floor scrapes and what sounds like backwards running tape flanging. Each player’s high pitches bond for the finale.

With acoustic instruments paramount, the most notable of the other tracks are those in which the minimalist fare developed by the Lebanese musicians is given a boost into expanded overtones with the harsh baritone saxophone honks and tongue slaps from Gustafson. Otherwise the Middle Eastern musicians – who also include bassist and video artist Raed Yassin –zigzag through a diminishing timbre collection of horn-pressured growling striations and choked parlando; string pulses that encompass tangling, untangling and shifting parameters; plus concussive or distracted percussive scrapes.

More representative of the cross-Continental exchange though is the meeting of Krebs’ table-top instrument and the bass clarinet of London-based, Lebanese bass clarinetist Bechir Saadé. Almost an object lesson in the potential rapprochement between east and west available, this acoustic and electronic interface evolves over 10½ minutes. During the course of the performance it’s buoyed as much by Krebs’ suddenly interjected sound samples plus intermittent on-and-off buzzes as Saadé’s unforced, tongue-stopped and split-tone reed output. Combining barking shouts, harmonica-like wheezing and linear body tube gusts, the reed output balances the scattered, triggered and crackling string pulses. Harmonized, the sound is gradually drained into silence.

Although individual pitches and tones are exposed, a similar strategy evolved about 18 months earlier on three long improvisations recorded in his Paris apartment by guitarist Sehnaoui with British soprano saxophonist Tom Chant, known for his work with drummer Eddie Prévost.

Gradually becoming comfortable with one another’s idiosyncrasies, each subsequent improv is longer than the proceeding one and fascination results from observation of the two pulling apart and knitting together pulses and tones. Sehnaoui, who spends as much time picking beneath the bridge of his acoustic guitar as near the sound hole, and who rubs and slaps his strings as often as he picks, also introduces arpeggios and jetes that could only result from using a bow. For his part Chant vacillates between watery trills, spittle-encrusted slurps and in continuously breathed phrases.

As Chant’s glottal punctuation becomes more wonky and striated – bringing the ligature and alloy of the horn into play as much as the reed – the guitarist treats his instrument as an idiophone with rattles and friction used as sound sources.

Eventually rasgueado pressure and string-hammering are emphasized by the guitarist to such an extent that it sounds as if he’s triggering electronic wave forms. Accordingly, the more-than-24½ minute final variation becomes an exercise in dissonance. Chant outputs ragged honks and windpipe narrowed breaths, while Sehnaoui becomes more percussive with slurred fingering leading to highly rhythmic agitato runs and arco-impersonating buzzing resonations. With Sehnaoui’s fingers propelling an orienteering race on the strings, the saxophonist’s irregular vibrato turns to whippoorwill-like caws echoing inside the horn’s body tube. Mixing spetrofluctuation from Chant’s horn with actions that sound as if Sehnaoui is detuning his strings as he plays, the finale includes a protracted bass string thump and dissolving irregular reed cries.

Much more successfully musically than any equivalent political meeting between Middle Eastern residents, Europeans and Americans, there’s a wealth of memorable improv to experience on these sessions.

— Ken Waxman

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Track Listing: Studio: 1 S1.1 2. S1.2 3. S 1.3 4. S1.4 5. S1.5 6. S1.6

Personnel: Studio: Mazen Kerbaj (trumpet); Vic Rawlings (cello and surface electronics) and Michael Bullock (bass and feedback)

Track Listing: Live: 1. Sept 05: WNUR Chicago, IL 2. Sept 05: Warehouse Next Door, Washington DC

Personnel: Live: Mazen Kerbaj (cornet and objects); Vic Rawlings (cello and surface electronics) and Michael Bullock (bass and feedback)

Track Listing: Beirut: CDA: 1. Roubait3i+Sven Åke Johansson 2. CS/MW/SÅJ 3. JH/JR/PS 4. Lotta Melin invites 5. AK/BS CDB: 1. Guitars 2. CS/MG/SÅJ I-II 3. DS/MG/MK/RY/SS I 4. DS/MG/MK/RY?SS II 5. BS/JR 6. AK/CS/MK I 7. AK/CS/MK II 8. AS/CS/LN 9. CH/LN/MG 10. CS/MG/MK/RY 11. CH/MG 12. CH/JH/JR

Personnel: Beirut: Mazen Kerbaj (trumpet and electronics); Bechir Saadé (bass clarinet and flute); Christine Sehnaoui (alto saxophone); Mats Gustafsson (tenor, slide and baritone saxophones); Sharif Sehnaoui and/or Charbel Haber and/or Annette Krebs and/or David Stackenäs and/or Per Svensson (guitar); Amit Sen (cello); Raed Yassin and/or Joel Grip (bass); Sven Åke Johansson (percussion, voice); Michael Waisvisz (crackle box); Lise-Lotte Norelius (laptop); Jessem Hindi or Hanna Hartman (electronics, miscellaneous little instruments); Jakob Riis (laptop) and Lotta Melin (conduction/dance)

Track Listing: Cloister: 1.Us Three 2. Four Sputnik 3. What About Seven

Personnel: Cloister: Tom Chant (soprano saxophone) and Sharif Sehnaoui (acoustic guitar)