by Ian Mann
August 10, 2016
"Via Maris" succeeds thanks to its exoticism and sheer vivacity, plus the brilliance of the musicianship, both individually and collectively.
(Two Rivers Records TRR 013)
“Via Maris” is part of the recent crop of releases from the recently founded Two Rivers record label.
The brainchild of Iraqi born, London based singer Alya Marquardt the label operates out of both London and Berlin and has already acquired an impressive roster of international artists. The label’s output encompasses a range of musical genres including jazz, world, experimental and improvised music.
This album by the London based group Melange epitomises the label’s approach with its colourful mix of jazz and various ethnic musics from around the Mediterranean. The band is led by cellist Shirley Smart and the line up is a perfect representation of cosmopolitan 21st century London with the musicians variously hailing from Greece, Spain, Morocco, Iraq, Italy and the UK. “Via Maris” represents the group’s second album release and follows in the wake of 2014’s “Random Roads”, an album that also added the music of South America to the band’s remit.
Alongside Ben Davis and Lucy Railton Shirley Smart can be considered as one of the best improvising cellists in the UK. She has previously appeared on the Jazzmann web pages in reviews of albums by vocalist/violinist Alice Zawadzki and pianist/accordionist Maurizio Minardi. The latter, Italian born but London based, is also part of the Melange line up, here specialising on the accordion. He and Smart also perform as an accordion/cello duo.
Smart’s story is a fascinating one. Classically trained at the Guildhall School of Music she performed as part of the London Symphony Orchestra and also studied in Paris and Switzerland before moving to Jerusalem in 1989. Although initially intending to stay for a year Smart remained in the city for a full decade, fully immersing herself in the diverse range of musics to be heard in another of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities.
A chance meeting in a Jerusalem restaurant led to Smart joining the Moroccan jazz fusion group Sound of the Ground and she subsequently became a part of several other musical projects and ensembles playing a variety of Middle Eastern and North African musics and touring extensively throughout those regions. An acclaimed educator Smart held teaching posts in Tel Aviv and Ramallah before eventually returning to London where she is currently leading the London Cello Society’s “Beyond Cello” programme which incorporates workshops and performances examining the role of the cello in jazz, world music and more.
The appropriately named Melange was originally formed in Jerusalem and is centred around the nucleus of Smart, guitarist Peter Michaels, oud player Stefanos Tsourelis and drummer/percussionist Demi Garcia Rabat. This core is augmented by Minardi on accordion, Joe Browne on saxophones, Jake Painter on trumpet and Michele Montolli on bass with some tracks featuring the full octet.
“Via Maris” was recorded in London and features a mix of traditional and original material, some of it written by members of the group. The album’s liner notes offer brief but informative insights into each piece beginning with the rousing opener “Bia Oula Bik” which features the full eight piece band. The title means “Between You And Me” and was written by the Moroccan musician Abdelwahab Doukkali. The tune charts the end of a love affair and expresses both anger and regret via the solos/cameos of Tsourelis on oud, Smart on cello, Brown on tenor sax and Painter on trumpet. The ensemble sound is remarkably full with the leader’s gutsy cello representing a particularly distinctive component.
“Anosis” translates as “buoyancy” in Greek and the tune is an original written by the group’s oud player, Stefanos Tsourelis. Performed by the core quartet it’s the composer’s oud that takes centre stage on a gently lilting, lyrical tune that emphasises Tsourelis’ skills upon his chosen instrument. He combines well with the contrasting string sounds of Michaels’ guitar and Smart’s cello while Sabat’s delightfully detailed hand percussion provides succinct commentary and punctuation.
Smart’s own “Marrocai” shows the quartet in a different light as they romp in lively fashion through a piece that the composer describes as “a fun show tune”. Driven by Sabat’s subtly propulsive percussion the piece features a “mawaal-style” cello solo from the composer, her playing evoking the wail of the muezzin. By way of contrast Michaels’ guitar solo crosses the Mediterranean and adds the sound of flamenco to an already rich musical mix.
“Foq El-Nakhal” is a traditional Iraqi folk song, the title translating as “Above the Date Palms”, here introduced by the melancholy tones of Smart’s unaccompanied cello. However the music quickly gathers momentum as the quartet coalesce with the distinctive sound of Minardi’s accordion being added to the equation. It’s the Italian who takes the first solo, quickly demonstrating his abilities on what is arguably his ‘second instrument’. Tsourelis exhibits similar skills on the oud as does the leader on cello. A word too for the busy but nuanced percussion of Sabat which consistently drives the music, yet never imposes.
The energy levels are maintained on “Longa Kismet”, composed by the group’s guitarist Peter Michaels in conjunction with Felipe Karam. The Longa is a type of Turkish dance which has subsequently been adopted into other forms of Arabic music. Frenetic and introspective by turns it includes some dazzling playing from Tsourelis and Michaels with Smart introducing a hint of free improv style dissonance into her cello solo.
The Tunisian Anouar Brahem, who has recorded for the ECM label, is probably the oud player who is best known to Western European listeners. Doubtless he has also been an inspiration to Tsourelis who impresses with his playing on an arrangement of Brahem’s “Halfaouin”, a piece written as the title music for the 1990 film of the same name. This evocative interpretation sees the group expanded to a six piece with the addition of Minardi and Browne. It’s the latter’s keening but melodic soprano sax that helps to give Melange’s version of the tune its distinctive flavour.
“Erotikos” is a 17th century melody by the Cretan romantic poet Vikentios Kornaros which begins with Tsourelis picking out the tune on oud underscored by the sympathetic drone of Smart’s cello. The music gains momentum with the introduction of Sabat’s hand drums which in turn offer sympathetic support to Jake Painter who who contributes a superb trumpet solo, one imbued with a burnished Mediterranean sultriness. The consistently impressive Tsourelis subsequently takes over on the oud before coalescing with Painter at the close.
The group return to the ‘Longa’ form with “Longa Sha’anaz”, written by the Turkish composer Adham Efendi. Performed by the core quartet the music features characteristically tight and effective group interplay with solos by Tsourelis, Smart and Michaels, subtly steered and propelled by Sabat’s low key but vital percussion.
Smart’s “Azraq” is named after the Arabic word for ‘Blue’ and was inspired by the seas around the Levant. The piece reflects the changing moods of the oceans beginning in frenetic fashion with complex rhythms and melodic motifs providing the jumping off point for Tsourelis’ oud improvising. The central passage is gentler and more impressionistic, reminiscent, perhaps, of drifting under blue skies on a calm, open sea. The music picks up speed again in the closing passage with oud, guitar and cello intertwining above Sabat’s busy percussive undertow.
The final three pieces on the album feature an expanded Melange line up. Written by Michaels and Karam the title of “Kiselo Mlkako” is Bulgarian for “sour milk” and recalls the time that Michaels discovered that eating Bulgarian yoghurt is not conducive to the English constitution! It’s probably best not to dwell on the story but instead concentrate on the music which surges along with a vivacious urgency with bassist Montolli providing additional rhythmic drive and Minardi’s accordion adding splashes of instrumental colour. A darkly humorous, sometimes dissonant episode mid tune hints at Michaels’ gastric discomforts before the piece finishes with a flourish.
The sextet is extended to a septet on an arrangement of the traditional “Longa Sakiz” which emerged out of the group’s regular Gypsy Nights jam sessions which they host in Brixton, London.
This high energy romp features a brief but blistering tenor sax solo from Browne that manages to cram both r’n'b style honking and free jazz squalling into a remarkably short time slot.
We finish as we began with the full octet, this time playing “Sound of the Ground”, named after the first band that Smart joined when she arrived in Jerusalem. Originally titled “Touchia Sakhli” this piece is Smart’s arrangement of a suite of melodies derived from Algerian classical music. It’s as exotic and exciting as everything else on the album and includes some precision ensemble work allied to typically brilliant individual cameos.
When I first heard this album with its broad range of Mediterranean music styles I was a little unsure. It’s certainly not a jazz album and as such won’t be for all readers of these pages but I have to say that it quickly won me over thanks to its exoticism and sheer vivacity, plus the brilliance of the musicianship, both individually and collectively. One would imagine that Melange would also represent a highly exciting live prospect with their blend of exciting international music and exotic instrumental line up.
At times it reminded me of the kind of ‘world jazz’ played by such London based artists as Nicolas Meier and Jonny Phillips (Oriole), and maybe even Alec Dankworth’s ‘Spanish Accents’ group too.
Of these Meier, with his fascination for Turkish and Middle Eastern music, is easily the closest parallel with Sabat having also played in Meier’s band (plus Dankworth’s too on occasion). Perhaps the percussionist could act as the catalyst for a collaboration between Smart and Meier, a tantalising prospect.
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