Live review

The Egyptian Jazz Projekt at Grand Junction (2022 EFG LJF)

The Egyptian Jazz Projekt

(Grand Junction, Paddington, EFG London Jazz Festival, 15 November 2022. Live Review by Rachel Coombes)

Egyptian Jazz Projekt at Grand Junction. Photo by Rachel Coombes

Founded in 2015 by the jazz vocalist Ahmed Harfoush, the Egyptian Jazz Projekt has a mission to restore the rich melodic soundworld of 1950s and 1960s Egypt, revitalising classic songs by drawing on popular jazz idioms. And yet, as Harfoush explained to the audience at his Grand Junction show on Tuesday night, the project is not one of musical ‘reinvention’ as such, since so many of the originals are themselves founded on the harmonic and melodic structures associated with jazz.

Acknowledging this, the singer and his London-based band have inventively, and sensitively, arranged a collection of works from the so-called ‘Golden Era’ of Egyptian song, seamlessly intertwining them with several standards from the Great American Songbook (we heard Charlie Chaplin’s Smile, and Cole Porter’s So In Love). Naturally, the show was in part a nostalgic homage to a bygone era of black and white films, to Egyptian film stars, and to the Arab musical luminaries of the mid-twentieth century (principally Abdel Halim Hafez and Mohamad Abdel Wahab). But there was an exciting freshness to the show, thanks in part to the infectious enthusiasm of Harfoush himself. Towards the end of the show, audience members (many of whom were non-Arabic speakers) migrated to the aisles to dance.

Joining Harfoush on stage were band members Stefano Marzanni (piano), Ian Marcus (double bass), Dom Hall (drums) and Tom Smith (clarinet). The ensemble was tight knit and precise, with the character of each song skilfully defined by the musical ‘conversations’ that played out between Smith and Harfoush. Kan Agmal Yome (by Mohamad Abdel Wahab) provided a case in point: Harfoush’s melodic lines were echoed playfully by motifs in the clarinet, creating a particularly agreeable musical ‘grammar’. In other tunes such as Ya Albi Ya Khali (Abdel Halim Hafez), punchy ‘stabs’ in the clarinet helped to propel the rhythm forward.

The energetic walking bass in the medley Bee Albak / Mashghoul (Abdel Halim Hafez) gave the song an effective sense of solidity that mimicked the thick orchestral scoring of the original tunes. The condensing of orchestral textures down to four instruments was a challenge embraced by Harfoush with many of these songs: the famous Abgad Hawwaz (sung by the singer and actress Leila Mourad in the 1951 film Ghazal El-Banat) worked particularly well, as did Bokra we Baado (Abdel Halim Hafez). The generally exuberant mood was suspended briefly for a poignant rendition of Balash Etab (Abdel Halim Hafez), arranged for voice and piano; Marzanni’s rhapsodic piano introduction set the tone for this mournful love song. The long melodic lines offered Harfoush a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate his vocal sensitivity.

The site of this particular performance – the cavernous neo-Gothic church of St Mary Magdalene near Paddington (otherwise known as Grand Junction) – seemed strangely suited to Harfoush’s ambition to celebrate the universality of his country’s music. The erosion of perceived cultural barriers between ‘Western’ music and ‘Middle Eastern’ music seems to be at the core of the Egyptian Jazz Projekt. Within this imposing ecclesiastical environment, the audience were compelled by the band to come together and dance to these treasures of Arabic music.

Ahmed Harfoush. Photo credit: Stephanie Claire

The evening was presented by Arts Canteen, an organisation which empowers and celebrates artists from the Arab world, in collaboration with Grand Junction as part of EFG London Jazz Festival.

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