Dörner, Hautzinger, Kerbaj, Hübsch

Ariha Brass Quartet
Al Maslakh 18

By Ken Waxman

Challenging the reductionist idea that music from the non-western world only fits in the so-called ethnic category are Beirut’s committed free improvisers. Like outsiders whose grasp of a language’s grammar sometimes exceeds that of natives, within the past decade Lebanese sound explorers have proven their skill playing alongside advanced improvisers from elsewhere, at the city’s annual free music Irtijal Festival, or in ad hoc settings in Lebanon or Europe. This CD confirms this combination as Beirut-based trumpeter Mazen Kerbaj’s ideas are integrated within the Ariha Brass Quartet (ABQ) which also includes Austrian trumpeter Franz Hautzinger as well as Germans, trumpeter Axel Dörner and tubaist Carl Ludwig Hübsch.

Multi-ethnicity of the quartet aside, the key to the five tracks here is not that they’re improvised by a brass quartet or even by a group of brass instrumentalists. Instead the four use their tubing, valves and metal as idiosyncratic sound sources with few antecedents. Hübsch’s hippo-like guttural snores serve as the connecting ostinato throughout, with the trumpeters dividing other textures among themselves. Individual narratives take the shape of insect reflecting buzzes, calliope-like chirps, unaccented breaths, bent timbres, string-scraping imitations and pseudo Jew’s harp resonations. Rhythmic judders propel each piece, with sustained silences appearing like desert oases to confirm time passing and forward motion. Occasionally, as on “Mar Mikhael in the Afternoon”, piercing tones or glottal groans perforate the group sound, but they’re quickly subsumed beneath the vibrating undertow. The ABQ also binds drones, rubs and skitters to realize an electronic-like texture from all-acoustic instruments.

Like singing birds perched on a telephone wire, the brass players pass the theme from one to another in conversational form on the concluding “The Last Supper in Sin el Fil”. Religious and/or geographical association aside, the track finally defines separate muted-trumpet personalities in the form of bubbling blows from one; high-pitched whines from another; with the third propelling dry air. Joined by echo-chamber-like reverb from the tubaist, the four reach a crescendo of ratcheting tones before subsiding into a retreating closeness that confirms the distinctiveness of the group’s work as well as its identity.

—For MusicWorks #125 Summer 2016