A Staggering Work of Stunning Beauty

I’ve been thinking lately about thinning out my music collection (now several thousand CDs strong).  I’ve been thinking about what I want to keep and what would I consider a master work.   I’m going to introduce you today to a recording that fits the description of Masterwork for me.    I bought this recording on a whim.  I had never heard of this artist before and came upon his music by chance.  I liked the cover art.   The name of the artist was intriguing because it didn’t seem to fit the category of jazz that it had been saddled with and it also didn’t fit the record label it was recorded on.   The description which was so general as if the writer wasn’t even sure how to categorize this music made me want to investigate this music.  While each track has it’s own title – I will not be singling out song titles in this review because one needs to look at them as a series of movements in the larger work.   To focus on titles would do a disservice to the overall recording.

Dhafer-Youssef-Birds-Requiem-500x495What is that recording?  BIRDS REQUIEM by Dhafer Youssef on Okeh Records.  Released in 2013.

Dhafer Youssef is an Oud player, vocalist and composer. His music is probably the most perfect fusion between jazz, muezzin, quranic and sufi musical styles and influences.  The EPK (electronic press kit) that was released for this album had Youssef talk about his experience with observing birds in flight.  For example, how a flock of birds hovering in their aerial ballet have a perfect ebb/flow, rhythm and pulse like a murmuration of starlings. The overall rhythm and pace of the album is expertly crafted with energetic and quiet points that are perfectly timed.  In fact listening to the entire album in one sitting is an audio equivalent of a massive murmuration.

While listening I find myself at times quietly inspired then lifted up in elation to the point of ecstatic release. The instrumentation is an absolutely wonderful surprise.   A real delightful feature is Youssef’s imaginative yet sensitive playing of the OUD (for those not familiar with this instrument: one might call it an anscestor of the lute and then later, guitar).  Piano playing by Kristjan Randalu lilts through the entire album adding snippets of melody.  I was surprised at the masterful contributions by trumpeter Nils-Petter Molvaer and electric guitar and effects man Elvind Aarset (both on the ECM label).  The drummer Chander Sardjoe is a study in both minimalist accents and a strong backbone of support.  The delightful contributions by Aytac Dogan on the zither-like kanun add such beautiful dressing on this feast for the ears.  And not to be left out is the surprising use of clarinet, which I have never, NEVER heard used this way.  The Clarinet is played by  Hüsnu Senlendirici who plays with soul and adds a sense of life that would be sadly missing if it were absent.  The musical cast is rounded out by the Bass playing of Phil Donkin which adds the appropriate bounce and lift.  I would be completely incompetent if I didn’t mention the voice of Dhafer Youssef which starts low and builds; rising in registers.  His voice (singing in arabic) starts mixing tones on overtones and is at times hard to distinguish between voice/clarinet/guitar ending in a climax, a musical grand release, a staggering work of stunning beauty.

In a world that is constantly on the move where music is more of a background soundtrack to the journey – this album definitely sets itself apart by becoming a destination.   A place to stop,close your eyes, be quiet, listen and feel.  I would strongly encourage you to purchase the downloads or (if you’re like me) the CD.   It is one of those things that while purchased actually becomes priceless.  A Masterwork in its own right.

Here is a video of a live performance of track 3 from the album titled Blending Souls & Shades (to Shiraz) the instrumental lineup is different (sans trumpet and clarinet) from the album but the song is still quite powerful.  Enjoy.

And Lastly, Here is another video of the track Soupier Eternal (from the DIVINE SHADOWS album) filmed in Tunisia. This trio format will give you some idea of the Clarinet/voice/guitar interplay that can frequently be heard on the album and how these three “voices” are a perfect complement to each other on both recordings.

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