MELANGE BY NAME, melange by nature… this jazz-inflected world music release from cellist Shirley Smart’s London-based collective is gloriously difficult to categorise.
Along with Smart, the core line-up in this recording comprises Stefanos Tsourelis (oud), Peter Michaels (guitar) and Demi Garcia Sabat (drums, percussion) – a quartet whose celebration of Middle Eastern, North African and Mediterranean music is, by turns, joyous, atmospheric and often deeply affecting. But then add in significant contributions from Maurizio Minardi (accordion), Joe Browne (saxophones), Jake Painter (trumpet) and Michele Mintolli (bass), and the creative hues become more broadly pronounced.
In 1989, Shirley Smart swapped the UK for Jerusalem, becoming immersed in its cultural life for a decade. It was there that this eight-piece ensemble was conceived, bringing together musicians from Greece, Spain, Morocco, Iraq, Italy and the UK – and importantly, despite prevailing political and social tensions in areas of conflict, these artists were able to continue to compose and perform together, confirming music’s universal power to transcend and overcome such challenges. Smart’s open and eclectic vision for this group is surely founded on her experiences performing with Palestinian, Israeli and Moroccan bands, as well as tours across Europe, Russia, Jordan and Egypt.
The overriding impression is of live, interactive music, joyfully played – easy to imagine a distant, energised pulse or lyrical phrase caught on the breeze, gradually intensifying with each closer footfall until this impassioned music is seen and heard in all its colourful splendour. And however familiar or unfamiliar this exotic sound world – incorporating Arabic maqam, jazz improvisation and including traditional tunes plus original compositions – the impassioned instrumental textures and rhythms become wholly arresting. Indeed, to more Western ears, the sound of Stefanos Tsourelis’ oud immediately evokes the world of Anouar Brahem, as in spirited opening number Bia Oula Bik (Between Me and You) whose whirling vibrancy is accentuated by trumpet and sax, and also in sultry, percussively fragrant Anosis.
Throughout, the leader’s assured, often vigorous improvisations are integral to the overall palette, her own Marrocai burning brightly in festive folkiness, with Peter Michaels’ guitar and Tsourelis’ oud complementing the rich cello sonority; and Maurizio Minardi’s typically adventurous, evocative accordion in old Iraqi love song Foq El-Nakhal contributes greatly to an irresistible levity. Longa Kismet‘s smouldering mystery confirms just how effective the quartet of cello, oud, guitar and percussion can be, whilst the gentle introduction of Joe Browne’s chromatic soprano sax and Minardi’s subtle accordion in Anouar Brahem’s Halfaouine adds spice.
Certainly a journey into the unknown, this album delights at every turn: Erotokritos sounding fascinatingly medieval, Longa Sha’anaz‘s exotic riffs absolutely charming, Azraq (another of Smart’s originals) hitting a rocky groove as well as treading into dark, oud-improvised alleyways, and Greek- or perhaps Bulgarian-suggested Kiselo Mlkako fizzes with audacious, exuberant mischief (‘has to be heard!). Breathless, anarchic, tenor-screeched Turkish stomper Longa Sakiz, too, is a brilliant showstopper, whilst end piece Sound of the Ground parties on with an almost Mexican radiance.
Melange are a complete delight, and Via Maris an enthralling debut release. Available as CD or download, on Two Rivers Records, at Bandcamp.
Shirley Smart cello
Stefanos Tsourelis oud
Peter Michaels guitar
Demi Garcia Sabat drums, percussion
Maurizio Minardi accordion (tracks 1, 4, 6, 10, 11, 12)
Joe Browne saxophones (tracks 1, 6 , 11, 12)
Jake Painter trumpet (tracks 1, 7, 12)
Michele Montolli bass (tracks 1, 10, 11, 12)
Two Rivers Records – TRR 013 (2016)