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Arts Festival Review: Absolute Arabian Nights

Arts Festival Review: Absolute Arabian Nights

Review by Tyler Hersey

Absolute Arabian Nights
Absolute Ensemble with Marcel Khalifé, Bashar Khalifé and Bassam Saba
Michael Fowler Centre
March 6, 2008

The Absolute Ensemble is a small group of classical and jazz musicians who cultivate a progressive edge while honoring the depth of the eclectic traditions which they explore. Beyond simply using "Arabic" or "Mahler" or "Zappa" as buzzword ingredients in a trendy musical fusion, the Ensemble pulls emotional resonance from their arrangements of material drawn from the breadth of world culture.

For Absolute Arabian Nights, conductor and musical director Kristjan Jarvi assembled a program which displayed both the virtuosity of his players and the soulful and profound nature of Middle Eastern music. Joining the group for the second half of the program was Lebanese singer and oud (Arabic lute) player Marcel Khalife, a UNESCO Artist for Peace whose stirring songs combine traditional melodies and instrumentation with lyrical political activism.

The concert began squarely on the jazz fusion side, with several pieces featuring fiery improvisations from Daniel Schnyder on soprano saxophone and Bassam Saba on the nay, a middle eastern flute. Burping brass and driving electric bass painted images of modern car traffic filling ancient Tunisian streets, underpinned by exemplary work from Damien Bassman on drums and April Centrone on various hand percussion instruments.

A fantastic reading of Schnyder's 'Concerto for Nay and Orchestra' revealed both the power and subtlety possessed by the Ensemble, combining jazz swing rhythms and middle eastern tonality into a piece which recalled the looping fanfare of klezmer music while providing a wonderful vehicle for solos from violinist Adam Taubitz. At times Jarvi's athletic conducting style flirted with hip hop dance moves, and the Ensemble as a whole displayed more knee movement than any classical group I've seen. From Schnyder's spraying squats to the shimmy of the woodwind players and brief appearances by two traditional belly dancers, the Absolute Ensemble came prepared to get down, even if the crowd preferred to stay seated.

Khalife's entrance to the stage provided weight and star power, and his every move was warmly received by an audience obviously familiar with his work. A quiet duet between Khalife and Wellington pianist Donald Nicholson was a moody contrast to the preceding workouts, with dense chords from the piano providing a slow, rich blanket underneath the singer's pure vocal tones. The final selection from Khalife's song book - after beginning with an impossibly difficult audience sing along - built from a simple folk melody into a pulsing, majestic rush.

The wonderful thing about this electrified chamber group is that it can produce a massive wall of sound while remaining tight and focused. Melodic doubling and harmonies between the clarinet, flute, and violin were spot on even amongst the quickest flurry of notes, and the percussion section remained firmly in the pocket while navigating slippery time signatures. The playing from every performer was superb, providing a night of high energy and deep emotion.


Absolute Arabian Nights on the Arts Festival website
Scoop Full Coverage: Arts Festival 2008

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