CD review

Jazz at Berlin Philharmonic X – “East – West”

Jazz at Berlin Philharmonic X – East-West
(ACT 9913-2. CD review by Alison Bentley)

The bands on this live recording from the Kammermusiksaal of the Berlin Philharmonie in November 2019 seem to feed on the audience’s enthusiasm – and you as a listener feel part of it too. The live setting brings an intensity and focus, fusing music from South Korea, Spain, North Africa and France with jazz and improvisation. Nine musicians in three bands bring their blend of Eastern and Western styles.

Jazz at Berlin Philharmonic X: East - West The album opens with Majid Bekkas’ guembri, a kind of Moroccan bass lute, pacing energetically round Nguyên Lê’s sinuous e-guitar in the traditional Aicha. Bekkas’ throaty vocals are echoed by the guitar’s wide vibrato. Lê is French-Vietnamese, and his ornamentation seems drawn from traditional Vietnamese music. Raw energy builds, as Bekkas whoops to spur him on.

Trio NES (made up of vocalist/cellist Nesrine Belmokh, cellist Matthieu Saglio and percussionist David Gadea) takes over the stage, with Lê staying to join them for a couple of songs.

Belmokh and Saglio have co-written their songs with a twist of their North African and Spanish musical roots. Belmokh sings Bye Bye in English, and her voice is beautiful: a Baez-like vibrato, but with jazz phrasing and Arabic fluttering ornamentation – she comes from an Algerian family. From France via Spain, Saglio’s improvisation pulls on Andalusian and Arabic strands. He swaps phrases with Lê in an earthily emotive response to the latter’s liquid tones. An Afro-Latin groove builds and Belmokh sings soulfully: “Music is my exorcism.” Her lyrics are poetic and full of striking philosophical images. You Made It Hard For Me sketches bluesy guitar over a gentle reggae backbeat, with delicate percussion from Gadea. Belmokh clusters her lyrics together, like Stephen Marley singing with Erykah Badu. “I lose on my way a lot of energy/ building my path very much consciously.”

Lê leaves the trio for two songs in Arabic and English, lyrics by Leïla Guinoun. Ahlam (“Dream”) has a Latin groove with Eastern percussion and Autumn Leaves-ish chords. Saglio’s solo invokes woody quarter tones, and Belmokh’s solo is full-voiced and free, perhaps drawing on Arabic maqams. The audience whoops as Rimitti’s groove gets into its stride. Saglio and Belmokh trade 4s in jazz style but with Arabic flourishes, as the percussion goes into overdrive.

Black String play traditional Korean instruments, apart from Jean Oh’s e-guitar.  (“We call our music borderless contemporary Korean music.”) I feel a pang of audience envy, as I wish I could see as well as hear these fascinating instruments interacting. Black String is a translation of geomungo – a kind of huge fretted zither which band leader Yoon Jeong Heo plays across her knees in ostinato riffs. The instruments blend together indistinguishably. (There’s also a yanggeum in the mix, its strings struck with bamboo.)

In Hanging Gardens Of Babylon, Aram Lee’s daegeum (Korean flute) glides smoothly alongside the e-guitar’s wide vibrato. Their compositions have a rock element too, driven by Min Wang Hwang’s janggu drum. He also plays the ajaeng, a bowed zither with silk strings. Nguyên joins them for Elevation Of Light, which opens with acoustic instruments, the daegeum flute tracing the melody. A thundering beat in seven draws on heavy metal for the guitar solos, with ethereal complexity and Eastern ornamentation. The daegeum flute in the rock context even recalls Jethro Tull. NES and Bekkas come back on for the encore, the traditional Bania. Bekkas’ vocals are as impassioned as a Sufi singer, and everyone’s strings are deliciously tangled in magical cross rhythms and dramatic solos.

Jazz at Berlin Philharmonic curator and ACT label boss Siggi Loch dedicated this evening to his friend and mentor, the late Nesuhi Ertegün, who believed in “jazz with no borders.” These fine musicians bring East and West together – and the listener feels there among them, part of the audience cheering them on.

LINK: Preview the music and buy the album 

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