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Joachim Kuhn / Majid Bekkas / Ramon Lopez - Out Of The Desert Rating: 4 out of 5 Absorbing and exciting cross cultural music. As impressive an album of "world jazz" as I've heard.

Pianist Joachim Kuhn was born in Leipzig in 1944 and initially trained in the old East Germany as a classical musician. He moved to the west in 1966 and became an increasingly important figure on the avant-garde jazz scene in both Europe and the U.S. He has never been afraid to mix musical genres and at sixty five still has a fresh and enquiring approach to music making.

Kuhn now lives in Ibiza making it easy for him to travel to both mainland Europe and North Africa.
If Kuhn lives at a geographical crossroads his musical journey has also reached a similar point taking him from classical music via jazz to the genuinely exciting cross cultural music heard on “Out Of The Desert”.

The seed for this current album were sown in 2003 at the European Jazztival at Schloss Elmau near Munich. Here Kuhn met and worked with the Moroccan singer and musician Majid Bekkas, the pair striking an immediate musical bond. After numerous concert appearances Kuhn and Bekkas plus Spanish drummer and percussionist Ramon Lopez recorded the album “Kalimba” for ACT in 2006.
Schloss Elmau also provided the meeting place for Kuhn’s recent album of piano duets with the   brilliant young musician Michael Wollny “Live At Schloss Elmau” (also ACT), a record also reviewed on this site.

“Out Of The Desert” re-unites this core trio but delves even deeper into the music of North Africa. Recorded entirely in Morocco three of the album’s six tracks also feature a trio of Gnawa musicians from Sale, Morocco, two others feature Kouassi Benan Joseph from Benin on talking drums, percussion and vocals. The occasion of Kuhn’s sixty fourth birthday found him playing in the middle of the Sahara with a group of Berber musicians “Source Bleue des Meski”, the event marked on this album by the recording of Kuhn’s composition “Seawalk”.

Much of the music on “Out Of The Desert” is improvised, using the compositions of Kuhn and Bekkas as a framework. The album is consequently more organic than many jazz/world crossovers where the “world” elements often function as a kind of adornment. I’ve not heard the core trio’s previous album “Kalimba” but reports indicate that “Out Of The Desert” is more authentically “African”. Certainly there is genuine musical dialogue here and the results are always interesting and often beautiful, even if many of the elements are unfamiliar to European ears. Kuhn is the glue that holds it all together but this is very much a meeting of equals and the pianist does not allow himself to overly dominate proceedings.

The record commences with Bekkas’ composition “Foulani” described as a “desert blues”. Bekkas plays the guembri an instrument I have seen variously described as “the Berber bass lute” and “camel hair bass”. Certainly it fulfils the bass function here augmenting the colourful percussion of the three Gnawa musicians Abdelfettah Houssani (djembe-or hand drum), Abdessak Bounhar (karkabou-or hand held cymbals) and Rachid El Fadili (karkabou). The percussionists fill both a textural and rhythmic role with Bounhar and El Fadili also providing the “chorus” to Bekkas’ lead vocal.
Kuhn is initially happy to take a back seat with sympathetic chording but he subsequently becomes more involved, taking a sparkling solo in the middle of the track, the ideas tumbling out in a manner that recalls the lyricism of Keith Jarrett and the percussiveness of McCoy Tyner. It’s a highly effective start and if the lyrics are incomprehensible to Western ears the sheer soulfulness of the singing is never in doubt. Desert blues indeed.

The three Gnawa musicians also appear on Kuhn’s “Transmitting”, a piece based on his harmonic concept the “Diminished Augmented System”. The piano is more dominant here, delicately sketching the minimalist melody with sympathetic support coming from Lopez and the Gnawa percussionists. There is a hypnotic quality to this slowly unfolding music with the karkabou almost metronomic in their steady pulse. Despite deploying the same group of musicians this is totally different in both feel and concept to the opening track but in it’s own way it is equally effective.

Also from the pen of Kuhn “One, Two, Free” initially features Bekkas on kalimba (or thumb piano) alongside the vocals and percussion of Bessan Joseph. Bekkas’ guembri then provides the pulse for Kuhn to take flight on a typically inventive piano solo with Lopez and Bessan Joseph’s percussion chattering around the pair. After a brief vocal/percussion interlude Kuhn then switches to alto sax , wailing in impassioned manner over a forest of percussion. Eventually he returns to the piano and there is even some overdubbing ensuring that Kuhn is heard on both instruments simultaneously. The piece ends as it began with voice and kalimba bringing a neat sense of symmetry to an exciting musical journey that combines the primal forces of rhythm with a high degree of harmonic sophistication.

Bekkas’ “Sandia” sees the return of the Gnawa musicians who engage in vocal dialogue with Bekkas against a background of insistent guembri and percussion rhythms. Kuhn’s probing piano comes in part way through the piece with a typically thoughtful solo but he also leaves plenty of room for the self expression of his colleagues. The pianist’s second solo is more abandoned as the   percussive rhythms build in intensity. Like the rest of the record this is gripping, involving music that demands the listener’s attention.

The aforementioned “Seawalk” features the five Berber musicians of Source Bleue des Meski on a variety of percussion instruments (djembe, conga, tamm, derbouka). Appropriately the birthday boy’s piano takes the lead here but the constantly unfolding rhythms and colours created by the percussionists plus Bekkas’ guembri are a particular delight on this wholly instrumental piece. 

Voices are back for Bekkas’ closing “Chadiye”, perhaps the most overtly African track on the album and featuring the voice and percussion of Bessan Joseph alongside Bekkas. Even here Kuhn’s piano weaves in and out, intelligently probing the spaces left by his colleagues and contributing a feverish solo mid track.

“Out Of The Desert” is an album of contrasts but still comes across as a remarkably unified whole. The contrasts between the European and African instruments and harmonies and the very different writing styles of Kuhn and Bekkas add a variety and breadth of colour to the album.
Simultaneously the shared spirit of adventure, mutual respect and sheer joy of music making turns these performances into a cogent and totally absorbing album. Kuhn and his collaborators have created a unique musical world that brings out the best from seemingly antithetic sources. “Out Of The Desert” is as impressive an album of “world jazz” or “third stream” music as I’ve heard,  readily accessible but lacking nothing in artistic integrity. Highly recommended to all adventurous listeners.

Out Of The Desert

Joachim Kuhn / Majid Bekkas / Ramon Lopez

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Reviewed by: Ian Mann

Album Review

4 out of 5

Out Of The Desert

Absorbing and exciting cross cultural music. As impressive an album of "world jazz" as I've heard.

Pianist Joachim Kuhn was born in Leipzig in 1944 and initially trained in the old East Germany as a classical musician. He moved to the west in 1966 and became an increasingly important figure on the avant-garde jazz scene in both Europe and the U.S. He has never been afraid to mix musical genres and at sixty five still has a fresh and enquiring approach to music making.

Kuhn now lives in Ibiza making it easy for him to travel to both mainland Europe and North Africa.
If Kuhn lives at a geographical crossroads his musical journey has also reached a similar point taking him from classical music via jazz to the genuinely exciting cross cultural music heard on “Out Of The Desert”.

The seed for this current album were sown in 2003 at the European Jazztival at Schloss Elmau near Munich. Here Kuhn met and worked with the Moroccan singer and musician Majid Bekkas, the pair striking an immediate musical bond. After numerous concert appearances Kuhn and Bekkas plus Spanish drummer and percussionist Ramon Lopez recorded the album “Kalimba” for ACT in 2006.
Schloss Elmau also provided the meeting place for Kuhn’s recent album of piano duets with the   brilliant young musician Michael Wollny “Live At Schloss Elmau” (also ACT), a record also reviewed on this site.

“Out Of The Desert” re-unites this core trio but delves even deeper into the music of North Africa. Recorded entirely in Morocco three of the album’s six tracks also feature a trio of Gnawa musicians from Sale, Morocco, two others feature Kouassi Benan Joseph from Benin on talking drums, percussion and vocals. The occasion of Kuhn’s sixty fourth birthday found him playing in the middle of the Sahara with a group of Berber musicians “Source Bleue des Meski”, the event marked on this album by the recording of Kuhn’s composition “Seawalk”.

Much of the music on “Out Of The Desert” is improvised, using the compositions of Kuhn and Bekkas as a framework. The album is consequently more organic than many jazz/world crossovers where the “world” elements often function as a kind of adornment. I’ve not heard the core trio’s previous album “Kalimba” but reports indicate that “Out Of The Desert” is more authentically “African”. Certainly there is genuine musical dialogue here and the results are always interesting and often beautiful, even if many of the elements are unfamiliar to European ears. Kuhn is the glue that holds it all together but this is very much a meeting of equals and the pianist does not allow himself to overly dominate proceedings.

The record commences with Bekkas’ composition “Foulani” described as a “desert blues”. Bekkas plays the guembri an instrument I have seen variously described as “the Berber bass lute” and “camel hair bass”. Certainly it fulfils the bass function here augmenting the colourful percussion of the three Gnawa musicians Abdelfettah Houssani (djembe-or hand drum), Abdessak Bounhar (karkabou-or hand held cymbals) and Rachid El Fadili (karkabou). The percussionists fill both a textural and rhythmic role with Bounhar and El Fadili also providing the “chorus” to Bekkas’ lead vocal.
Kuhn is initially happy to take a back seat with sympathetic chording but he subsequently becomes more involved, taking a sparkling solo in the middle of the track, the ideas tumbling out in a manner that recalls the lyricism of Keith Jarrett and the percussiveness of McCoy Tyner. It’s a highly effective start and if the lyrics are incomprehensible to Western ears the sheer soulfulness of the singing is never in doubt. Desert blues indeed.

The three Gnawa musicians also appear on Kuhn’s “Transmitting”, a piece based on his harmonic concept the “Diminished Augmented System”. The piano is more dominant here, delicately sketching the minimalist melody with sympathetic support coming from Lopez and the Gnawa percussionists. There is a hypnotic quality to this slowly unfolding music with the karkabou almost metronomic in their steady pulse. Despite deploying the same group of musicians this is totally different in both feel and concept to the opening track but in it’s own way it is equally effective.

Also from the pen of Kuhn “One, Two, Free” initially features Bekkas on kalimba (or thumb piano) alongside the vocals and percussion of Bessan Joseph. Bekkas’ guembri then provides the pulse for Kuhn to take flight on a typically inventive piano solo with Lopez and Bessan Joseph’s percussion chattering around the pair. After a brief vocal/percussion interlude Kuhn then switches to alto sax , wailing in impassioned manner over a forest of percussion. Eventually he returns to the piano and there is even some overdubbing ensuring that Kuhn is heard on both instruments simultaneously. The piece ends as it began with voice and kalimba bringing a neat sense of symmetry to an exciting musical journey that combines the primal forces of rhythm with a high degree of harmonic sophistication.

Bekkas’ “Sandia” sees the return of the Gnawa musicians who engage in vocal dialogue with Bekkas against a background of insistent guembri and percussion rhythms. Kuhn’s probing piano comes in part way through the piece with a typically thoughtful solo but he also leaves plenty of room for the self expression of his colleagues. The pianist’s second solo is more abandoned as the   percussive rhythms build in intensity. Like the rest of the record this is gripping, involving music that demands the listener’s attention.

The aforementioned “Seawalk” features the five Berber musicians of Source Bleue des Meski on a variety of percussion instruments (djembe, conga, tamm, derbouka). Appropriately the birthday boy’s piano takes the lead here but the constantly unfolding rhythms and colours created by the percussionists plus Bekkas’ guembri are a particular delight on this wholly instrumental piece. 

Voices are back for Bekkas’ closing “Chadiye”, perhaps the most overtly African track on the album and featuring the voice and percussion of Bessan Joseph alongside Bekkas. Even here Kuhn’s piano weaves in and out, intelligently probing the spaces left by his colleagues and contributing a feverish solo mid track.

“Out Of The Desert” is an album of contrasts but still comes across as a remarkably unified whole. The contrasts between the European and African instruments and harmonies and the very different writing styles of Kuhn and Bekkas add a variety and breadth of colour to the album.
Simultaneously the shared spirit of adventure, mutual respect and sheer joy of music making turns these performances into a cogent and totally absorbing album. Kuhn and his collaborators have created a unique musical world that brings out the best from seemingly antithetic sources. “Out Of The Desert” is as impressive an album of “world jazz” or “third stream” music as I’ve heard,  readily accessible but lacking nothing in artistic integrity. Highly recommended to all adventurous listeners.


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