Album review

Dhafer Youssef – ‘Streets of Minarets’

Dhafer Youssef – Streets of Minarets

(Back Beat Edition – Album review by Graham Spry)

Over the last two decades, Dhafer Youssef has been one of Europe’s most reliably intriguing and innovative musicians. He combines proficiency on the oud with a truly remarkable voice that swoops through the octaves. Although his chosen instrument and singing style broadly belong to the musical traditions of his native Tunisia, his compositions can’t be so easily pigeon-holed. He has gained huge respect from many of the world’s greatest jazz musicians, including Herbie Hancock and Dave Holland whom, about a decade ago, he invited to record an album with him at the historic Sunset Studio in Los Angeles. Along with Hancock and Holland, Youssef assembled a veritable roll call of internationally famous musicians including Marcus Miller (bass), Nguyên Lê (guitar), Rakesh Chaurasia (flute), Adriano Dos Santos Tenori (percussion), Vinnie Colaiuta (drums) and Ambrose Akinmusire (trumpet). And these are the musicians who appear on Streets of Minarets, Dhafer Youssef’s latest album.

One might have thought that with such a stellar line-up of sidemen there would have been no hesitation in releasing an album from these sessions, but at the time, against everyone else’s advice, Youssef decided not to do so because he believed that the album lacked ‘soul’. Exactly what was missing is difficult to understand given the huge wealth of musical talent, but in Youssef’s case it’s likely that ‘soul’ is meant in a spiritual sense. Although Youssef has dallied in a wide range of musical styles throughout his career, he has consistently conveyed a sense of spirituality in his music, most evidently through his extraordinary vocal style.

However, after a period of ill health during the pandemic lockdown, Youssef was inclined to revisit the tapes of these extraordinary studio recordings. On this occasion, to give the album the soul he felt it missed, he rewrote and rearranged the music with the help of Rakesh Chaurasia, Adriano Dos Santos Tenori,Nguyên Lê and producer Steve Argüelles.

There are twelve tracks on Streets of Minarets beginning with the title track where Youssef’s beguiling voice gradually builds up over a wash of electronica before his vocals weave in and out of the other instruments. It is the oud that dominates in the beautiful instrumental Bal d’âme, then followed by the two contrasting tracks of the SharQ Suite. Akinmusire’s trumpet dominates on the tranquil first part, SharQ Serenade,whereas the second, Funky SharQ, highlights the frenetic sound of a group ensemble.

There are three parts in the second suite, Omar Khayyam Suite: Flying Dervish, which comprise an evocative Intro that allows scope for Youssef’s extraordinary vocal range; a funky middle section built on the rhythm of an infectious acoustic bass; and a relatively sparse Outro where Youssef’s oud is once again predominant.

The remaining tracks pay tribute to the musicians in Youssef’s band. Sudra Funk is a song originally composed for Dave Holland many years earlier and since totally reimagined. Whirling in the Air is a duet of Youssef’s oud and Chaurasia’s flute that is clearly evocative of the Indian subcontinent. Spinning Hermit is perhaps allied to the flying dervishes of the Omar Khayyam Suite during which the pace of the oud, guitar and percussion change tempo over a soothing melody. Herbie’s Dance can only be a tribute to Herbie Hancock in the style of his Jazz Fusion period of the 1970s. The charming final track, Ondes of Chakras, is the single taken from the album where the interplay of oud and flute once again invokes the spirituality of Indian music, appropriate for a song whose title explicitly mentions the mystical energy points of the body.

There has been an uncharacteristically long gap between Sound of Mirrors in 2018 and Youssef’s latest album, and it is good to see that there has been no diminution in quality over that time. Those who witnessed his triumphant appearance at the recent EFG London Jazz Festival in November (LINK TO REVIEW BELOW) will enjoy hearing again the magnificence of his singing and the sophistication of his compositions. He is touring Europe over the next few months, but unfortunately there are no future dates as yet in London or the rest of the United Kingdom.

LINK: Alison Bentley’s review of Dhafer Youssef at the 2022 EFG LJF

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