Chameleons Of The White Shadow
The last time Joseph Tawadros recorded in New York was with the cream of the world’s jazz musicians. This time he assembled elite players from the shadowlands between genres.
In advance one might have puzzled over how a banjo or an organ would blend with the Arabian-night exoticism of Tawadros’s oud and the pops, hums and sizzles of his brother James’s Arabic percussion. But Australia’s leading player of this fretless lute knew what he was about. He must have heard in his head just how the staccato, metallic banjo would merge with the more voluptuous sound of his own instrument, perhaps because the banjo has something of the timbre of the Turkish baglama, which has shared many a night with the oud.
Besides, the player in question would be Bella Fleck, who has not just radically expanded the banjo’s possibilities, but has created a nameless genre that borders bluegrass, jazz and rock.
The two instruments sing together, with Fleck taking to Tawadros’s serpentine melodies and electrifying unison passages as if born to them, and when they exchange improvised passages there is a deep joy in the air.
Richard Bona is just as versatile on the electric bass. Born in Cameroon and residing in New York, he is a multi-instrumentalist and singer who can go anywhere across the Afro-funk-jazz spectrum. His wicked sense of groove slots easily into this music, and compounds the effervescence that is always implicit in James Tawadros’s extraordinarily melodic percussion playing, whether on req (small tambourine) or bendir (frame drum).
Perhaps the biggest surprise is just how well Joey DeFrancesco’s mighty Hammond organ works in this music. And yet, amid the many contexts in which DeFrancesco has made himself New York’s first-call organist, one of his hallmarks has been an ability to make the instrument slippery rather than have it delivering solid blocks of sound. Here he catches the midnight-blue quality in a Tawadros tune like Shelter and exalts in it.
Roy Ayers showers Freo with his quicksilver vibraphone, and Howard Johnson even makes his virtuoso tuba playing seem a natural fit on one piece. Less unexpected is the way that Jean-Louis Matinier’s glorious accordion washes across three tracks, because the Frenchman has collaborated so fruitfully with another expert on the oud, Anouar Brahem.
Somehow Tawadros has accommodated all these great players so that their own musical souls can shine, but without the music becoming a clutter of contrasting instruments and approaches.
Through it all courses his oud, the very blood of the music: elegant, grieving and fiery by turns – or even simultaneously! The solo Last Embrace would make a marble statue discover it had a heart. The new batch of compositions, meanwhile, enhance his growing stature as a substantial composer. Also beautifully recorded, Tawadros’s tenth album is a magnificent achievement.