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  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 6, No. 5, 2007

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Montreal Jazz Festival 2005 EMI Classics







Piano Keyboard


John Kelman


Featured artist: DHAFER YOUSSEF

[John Kelman is the Senior Editor at All About Jazz. Throughout the year he reports on jazz festivals throughout the world including one of his favourites, the Montreal Jazz Festival, that featured Dhaser Youssef.]


Tunisian-born/ Paris-based singer/oudist Dhafer Youssef boasts a career that has been gradually building up steam over the past few years by incorporating the musical culture of his birthplace with everything from the Norwegian Nu Jazz aesthetic to contemporary classical music. Appearing on albums including Norwegian guitarist Eivind Aarset’s Connected (Jazzland, 2004) and fellow Parisian/guitarist Nguyên Lê’s Homescape (ACT, 2006), his own discography reveals a forward-thinking artist who clearly believes that the undeniable evidence of diverse cultures coming together in music means hope for the ideological and political clashes so prevalent in a modern dysfunctional world.

As virtuosic as other well-known oudists including Rabih Abou-Khalil and Anouar Brahem, Youssef has taken a different path by processing his lute-like instrument electronically, and working with samples and loops similar to guitarist Bill Frisell’s loop-heavy performance. But unlike Frisell, who was working with a conventional configuration of bass and drums, Youssef was accompanied by tablaist Jatinda Thakur and The Divine Shadows Strings, performing material largely culled from Divine Shadows (Jazzland, 2006), which also featured a host of Scandinavian guests, including Aarset, percussionist Marilyn Mazur and sampler Jan Bang.

The Divine Strings -- first violinist Joanna Lewis, second violinist Ivana Pristasova, violist Petra Ackermann and cellist Melissa Coleman, all of whom, like Thakur, reside in Vienna, Austria and are evidence of that city’s cosmopolitan nature -- were more than simply accompanists for Youssef’s warm oud and powerful voice. Instead, the quartet interacted liberally with Youssef -- at times playing contrapuntal devil’s advocate, elsewhere working in strong unison. Demonstrating drama and nuanced subtlety, one of the hundred-minute performance’s finest moments was Youssef’s “Cantus Lamentus,” dedicated to Arvo Pärt. With its long, droning notes and tranquil tone, the work recalled the Estonian composer’s tintinnabuli-styled Alina (ECM, 1999), but with Youssef’s plaintive vocal, the piece departed from the near-ambient nature of its source for more dynamic territory.

It may not be jazz by conventional definition, but improvisation was easy to find, wrapped in clear form. Youssef and Thakur, in particular, interacted throughout the performance, feeding off each other's energy while never overpowering the strings. At one point Thakur’s percussive but uncharacteristically gentle konnakol singing acted as a contrast to Youssef’s more passionate delivery, ultimately coming together in cross-cultural harmony.

A well-deserved standing ovation at the show’s end brought the group back for a piece that featured an innovative solo from Coleman, who explored not only the harmonic and dynamic range of her instrument, but its textural potential as well. Always an expressive instrument, it responded especially well to Coleman, who derived breathy, flute-like sounds from it that she would contrast with harsher bowing. Youssef, clearly as captivated by the solo as the audience was, would not let her finish when she gave her cue for the rest of the group to enter, instead pushing her to continue. When the group did finally enter, Lewis delivered a violin solo that, while honouring the conventions of the song’s structure, was equally passionate and exploratory, additional evidence of so many artists who are refusing to be limited by traditionally accepted boundaries of style or genre.

Breaking boundaries is, in fact, what Youssef is all about. By combining Middle Eastern-informed music with technology, a classical string quartet and tablas, Youssef demonstrated the power of music to break down walls. His singing -- rarely articulating words but, instead, more purely emotional vocal sounds -- was both mournful and hopeful. Words simply weren’t necessary to convey his meanings; the emotions were never less than crystal clear. If it’s possible to assimilate so many diverse elements into a new whole that still reflects the distinct cultures from which the end result is sourced, perhaps there’s room for optimism elsewhere as well.


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Paco de Lucia
Joe Pass
Miles Davis
T. Monk
The Bird
Dizzy G.
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