Nicholas Christian/Matt Milton/Eddie Prévost/Bechir Saade

A Church is Only Sacred to Believers
Al Maslakh: MSLKH 10

Berg-Und Talfahrt

A Night in Sana’a

Arm 02

When it comes to sound production, musicians from what are generally thought of as Arab countries are no more monolithic in its creation then those from the west –especially if free improvisation is involved. Which is why these two discs are so fascinating, different and memorable. Even though both involve musicians of Arab background and are in the main concerned with free music, neither is like the other in any way shape or form.

For instance one of the featured improvisers on A Church is Only Sacred to Believers is Lebanese-born bass clarinetist Bechir Saade. While he’s part of a committed group of Beirut-centred improvisers who include guitarist Sharif Sehnaoui and trumpeter Mazen Kerbaj, the now London-based reedist is here as one of the members of percussionist Eddie Prévost’s on-going improvisational workshop – and not a token one at that.

Like most CDs involving the AMM-affiliated percussionist, the textures on this five-track date are non-specific. Furthermore, although bass guitarist Nicholas Christian is French, while Prévost and violinist Matt Milton are British, among the minimalist, non-specific textures there’s no hint of Arabic hysteria, Gallic sneering or British coldness – to cite a few expected national clichés.

A Night in Sana’a is a far different dish of couscous. Recorded in Yemen, it showcases a band of five local musicians, who are thrown into usual circumstances; when encouraged to improvise with two free music masters: German tenor saxophonist and clarinetist Peter Brötzmann and American drummer Michael Zerang. As expected so-called Arabic sounds are prominent on these six selections. Yet despite the American also being of Iraqi descent, sonic Arabism doesn’t predominate. Instead the local sounds are confidently mated with the reedist’s and the percussionist’s atonal and exploratory impulses.

Brötzmann’s grit is especially apparent when you contrast “Ya Nasim Al-Sahri” and “Aza-Hu Wa Adhla-Ni”, the traditional melodies which open and close the program. This side of belly dance music, the former’s undulating line is borne on the clanging strokes of Yasir Al-Absi’s darbuka and harmonic spectralism from the string section. Only in the final variation does the tenor saxophonist wade in, perforating a space in the sound for his muscular blowing. By the concluding track however the effects of protracted exposure to free playing are patently obvious. Besides blasts and split tones from Brötzmann, the piece includes a sprawling and squeaky respite from Abdul-Aziz Mokrid’s violin and twittering ney timbres from Ali Saleh. Moderating percussion slaps and rebounds emanate as much from Al-Absi’s single drum as Zerang’s full kit.

Earlier on, the strings and percussion pounding and sawing is so intense at spots that it’s reminiscent of the massed Africanized sessions put together by Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders in the 1970s. A track like “Jumpin’ and Rollin’” for instance imports the feeling of Chicago’s jazzy R&B to the Persian Gulf. Saleh’s repeated pinched ney ejaculations are in Yusef Lateef territory, while the clicking ostinato and staccato arpeggio from Achmed Al-Khalidy’s giant zither-like kanun, Khalid Barkosch’s cello and Mokrid’s fiddle recall the soulful strings prominently used on LPs of that time.

Mid-way through in fact, the string players appear to have become emboldened enough to start playing counter lines to contrast with Brötzmann’s wildly undulating multiphonics. Although his explosive reed-biting cries frequently almost physically blow them out of the way, the darbuka keeps pumping bongo-like pulses. “Song for Fred” despite its prosaic title can probably be deemed the set’s ballad. Oddly enough the resulting sweet harmonic fiddling and pizzicato strums advance as if the three string players are actually emulating either Neapolitan mandolin music or the ragged synchronization of an American hillbilly string band.

While the drummers spike the rhythm in pedal point, the string players even solo.

Barkosch does so with a yielding, largo and widely spaced line; and Mokrid with a spiccato turn that skirts Europeanized lyricism by adding spirited stops and slides. Since in the main the strings are twangy and twisty, there are points at which the tempo drags a bit. Overall, the beat could better be described as heave rather than swing.

Swing – or even a regular pulse – is far from the consciousness of the London quartet, with Prévost refusing to lay down any sort of beat, preferring to drag his drumstick along cymbal tops, or sound throbbing reverberations on his bass drum. Since instrumental properties are merely used as sound sources, while the players extend their techniques to their limits, the common performance currency is sul ponticello fiddle runs, buzzing textures from the bass, sliding cymbal ruffs and unvarying tongue stops and breaths from the clarinetist. Throughout the five “songs” however there’s a sense of developing parallelism, with individual output never solipsistic, but instead contributing to the common weal.

Operating by slowly propelling pointillist lines into the improvisations, the effect is that of experiencing creation in real time – although frequently one or more of the musicians fade in-and-out of sync. Wavering chalumeau split tones from the reedist and percussion thundering share space with gradually fraying sul ponticello runs from a bassist who stays very much in the background. Only on “Song Four” is there some sign of string concordance. During a section of angled counterpoint which stretches the nodes to near breaking point, electric bass rumbles at its lowest pitches, and shrill violin scratches amplify and echo burbling bass clarinet tongue stops.

Suggesting electronics without anyone plugged in besides Christian, polyphonic pitch-sliding characterize the adagio expositions. Concentrating individual squeaks, smears, strokes and sputters into a funereal whole, only rarely does any one player solo in the conventional sense. Even if that does happen, it involves bird-like twitters from Milton; spittle-encrusted, ghost notes and tongue slaps from Saade; Christian’s buzzing pulses; and Prévost’s thumps which suggest blunt objects dragging across hard surfaces. If there’s ever a timbres that resembles the Adhan or call to Muslim prayer, it’s accidental rather than arising from Saade’s past memories. Connective and contrapuntal to the end, the measured interaction eventually merely ceases.

These discs can be classified in three ways: as ones which illuminate the differences between improvisers with Arab backgrounds and others; as examples of either ethnically-inflected or self-contained free improv; or merely as two slabs of fine music.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Church: 1. Song One 2. Song Two 3. Song Three 4. Song Four 5. Song Five

Personnel: Church: Bechir Saade (bass clarinet); Matt Milton (violin); Nicholas Christian (electric bass) and Eddie Prévost (percussion)

Track Listing: Night: 1. Aza-Hu Wa Adhla-Ni 2. Borne Back Home 3. Jumpin’ and Rollin’ 4. The 3 Back 2 for Procedure 5. Song for Fred 6. Ya Nasim Al-Sahri

Personnel: Night: Peter Brötzmann (tenor saxophone and clarinet); Ali Saleh (ney); Abdul-Aziz Mokrid (violin); Khalid Barkosch (cello); Achmed Al-Khalidy (kanun); Michael Zerang (drums) and Yasir Al-Absi (darbuka)