Mazen Kerbaj / Sharif Sehnaoui / Raed Yassin

June 25, 2012

Music to Our Ears

Al Maslakh Recordings 14

Sei Miguel/Pedro Gomes

Turbina Anthem

No Business Records NBCD 29

Abstracting and reconstituting timbres and textures from acoustic instruments to produce unique performances are the raisons d’etre of these challenging CDs. Recorded in two cities not known as epicenters of improvisation – Beirut and Lisbon – Music to Our Ears and Turbina Anthem prove that at least some Portuguese and Lebanese sound explorers are investigating the same forms as players elsewhere and with equally provocative results.

Not that either group works in isolation. Members of the “A” Trio have gigged internationally, bassist Raed Yassin was an Amsterdam resident, and the others – guitarist Sharif Sehnaoui and trumpeter Mazen Kerbaj – sometimes play in Europe. Also a visual and video artist, Yassin, who has worked with American percussionist Michael Zerang and German trumpeter Axel Dörner, here prepares his bass with Tibetan bowls and other implements. Sehnaoui has also played with those two along with British saxophonist Tom Chant. An acclaimed cartoonist and diarist, Kerbaj has used his distorted and re-shaped trumpet to improvise with the likes of French saxophonist Stéphane Rives and Austrian trumpeter Franz Hautzinger.

Paris-born pocket trumpeter Sei Miguel has been one of Lisbon’s primary Free Musicians since he moved there in the 1980s. Besides local players he has also worked with Americans such as guitarist Joe Morris and pianist Dave Burrell. Founder of Forumúsica, a Portuguese musicians’ co-op and a full-time computer programmer, Miguel’s partner Pedro Gomes is concerned with less technical, more organic guitar playing.

Comparing the two sessions though reveals that Gomes’ electric guitar playing takes advantage of focused amplification plus sounds that can be tweaked using various techniques. Sehnaoui on the other hand sees his acoustic guitar as an undifferentiated sound source, more often than not using mallets to smack the strings with the instrument held in a horizontal position.

There are even sequences such as the final “The Pale Star V. firmament” where the Portuguese duo’s interface is so traditional it could slip by the uninitiated without comment. Gomes fingerpicks and strums while Miguel creates a muted legato overlay. The majority of the other tracks are more overtly experimental however, such as when the trumpeter’s long-lined grace note expansion turns to pressurized licks, as the guitar part consists of amplified scratches on what could be hard metal. Similarly clanging and pumping strings overcome any tendency towards Iberian traditionalism on Gomes’ part during the course of “Jura”.

Overall the most characteristic versions of the Gomes-Miguel strategy are on “Ascent” and “African Raincoat”. Rumbling amp distortion and crunching string motions operate as tight counterbalance to the trumpeter’s rubato yet distanced grace notes and flutter tonguing on the former. As for the latter, Gomes manages to have it both ways, with his chromatic solo rutted with stutters and shakes making it both lyrical and craggy, while parallel to these brass timbres, Miguel crunches and slaps machine-like fills.

Guitar and pocket trumpet undeniably maintain their expected identities on the Lisbon-recorded session, whereas in Beirut the undifferentiated sounds which predominate, end up being close cousins to synthesized granulation without involving electronics. Equipped with Jazz-classic satirizing titles such as “Three Portraits in No Color” and “The Shape of Jazz That Came” the shorter tracks manage to further obscure the situation with auxiliary sound colors. Sehnaoui’s knife-edge bottleneck runs and taut strums are omnipresent, while Yassin’s friction-laden propulsion is, in the main, concerned with wood rubbing as well as cross-bowed spiccato ringing. Kerbaj produces the most distinctive tones with bird-like chirps, buzzes and flashing tone fluttering sounding more as if they’re arising from a metal saxophone than a metal trumpet, which may be elongated with plastic tubing.

Designed as the magnum opus, “Textural Swing” offers up more than 33 minutes of textural drones, spins, shades and shudders, but there’s no swing in a Jazz-like or any equivalent Western musical fashion in it. Instead the piece is rife with flanged staccato runs from both string players and buzzy brays from Kerbaj that seem to arise from pressing the trumpet bell against unyielding metal. Atmospheric and with sequences that seem to drift in-and-out of aural focus throughout, the concession to traditional musical hierarchy only arises when the bass player’s stentorian strokes back up the trumpet solos, which ranges from comb-and-tissue-paper-like blats to internal valve-work snuffles. Eventually as Kerbaj’s output become louder and less reflective, the multiplied cries and clatters are squeezed to silence.

Instances of thought-provoking, if hardly easy listening, these dates demonstrate how with determination unusual textures can arise from the juxtaposition of strings and brass. The CDs also expose the improvisational fruits from a couple of underrepresented musical scenes.

–Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Music: 1. Textural Swing 2. Three Portraits in No Color 3. The Shape of Jazz That Came 4. Tomorrow, I’ll Make Breakfast

Personnel: Music: Mazen Kerbaj (trumpet); Sharif Sehnaoui (guitar) and Raed Yassin (bass)

Track Listing: Turbina: 1. The Pale Star I. manhã da noite 2. Spoon 3. Two Faces: O Deus-Martelo 4. Ascent 5. The Pale Star II. cànone 6. African Raincoat 7. Primeira Canção 8. Blue Blade Raga Rag 9. The Pale Star III. Imaginary grass 10. Bright Star Anyway 11. The Pale Star IV. das cinzas 12. Jura 13. Segunda Canção 14. The Pale Star V. firmament

Personnel: Turbina: Sei Miguel (pocket trumpet) and Pedro Gomes (guitars)