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[Ahmed] - Wood Blues

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    Posted: 15 Apr 2024 at 11:31am
Paying tribute to the late bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik in a 2022 live recording, this European jazz quartet turns an understated 1961 single into a thundering, hourlong rave-up. 

On a cold spring night in 2022, the jazz quartet أحمد [Ahmed] set up at one end of the long, narrow warehouse space of Glasgow’s industrial-chic Glue Factory. Their muse and namesake Ahmed Abdul-Malik was there in spirit. The setlist consisted of only one song: the late jazz musician’s “Oud Blues,” which runs to about four minutes in the original 1961 version. By the time أحمد [Ahmed] finished with it, they had been playing for nearly an hour.

Wood Blues is a recording of that phenomenal performance—at once a cover song, an avant-garde improv session, and a driving, swinging jazz concert. أحمد [Ahmed] have been honing the conceit for a decade: Every show, they choose an Abdul-Malik composition and turn it inside out. Pianist Pat Thomas discovered the little-known bassist and oudist in the 1980s and immediately recognized his significance. Born Jonathan Tim, Jr. in Brooklyn to immigrant parents, Abdul-Malik changed his name to assert his Islamic identity and Sudanese lineage. His family was from the Caribbean, not Sudan, but he reached back further, reclaiming his diasporic African heritage. As a bandleader, Abdul-Malik incorporated Arabic instruments—qanun, darbuka, a violin tuned to fourths and fifths—into his ensembles. His late ’50s and early ’60s albums like Jazz Sahara and East Meets West ushered in the new form of modal jazz alongside landmark recordings by Miles Davis and John Coltrane.

AHMED أحمد - Wood Blues cover

Thomas wanted to revive Abdul-Malik’s music, to turn a footnote into a headline. Saxophonist Seymour Wright shared his interest and joined Thomas’s trio اسم [ISM], with bassist Joel Grip and drummer Antonin Gerbal, to form أحمد [Ahmed]. Together, they’re something of a supergroup, each player a star in a different constellation of the European improvised music scene. They only perform live, with no practice or advance planning. But from their separate cities—Thomas and Wright in London, Grip in Berlin, Gerbal in Paris—they’re always thinking about Abdul-Malik. When they play one of his songs, all that thinking comes out in a torrent of sound.

Wood Blues is at once thrillingly violent and fervently faithful in its transformations of Abdul-Malik’s material, altering the original beyond recognition yet keeping its spirit alive. The recording begins with the audience chattering as Grip plays the walking bassline of “Oud Blues.” Thomas adds melodic piano flourishes and Gerbal lays down a shuffling beat. Wright supports with short percussive clicks from his saxophone, then extends those clicks into bursts, trading licks with Thomas, who bangs on the keys with increasing force. There’s a shift in the room as the audience goes quiet. Piano and sax merge into a single pummeling attack. Gerbal keeps time with a steady tom-tom pulse, and Grip carries the melody through the fray. The moment can’t last long, and soon the band is propelled by a frantic rhythm, Thomas pounding the piano, Wright blowing with frightening power, the crowd now shouting, screaming, dancing.

The keys to أحمد [Ahmed] are repetition and movement. Everybody plays at once through the whole concert, and everyone repeats themselves. But variations drive the music ineluctably forward. Gerbal and Grip lock into a swinging beat, responding to one another with a sort of ESP honed over more than a decade as a rhythm section. Thomas plays clusters instead of chords, dropping blocks of sound like a hammer on an anvil. Wright offers blasts of notes rather than flowing solos, a message in frenzied, honking Morse code that urges the others onward. By the end of the hour, they’ve moved through jazz, blues, and discordant free improv to arrive somewhere entirely unfamiliar.

All this leads them into some strange territory on Wood Blues. At times, Thomas turns his hands over and strikes the keyboard with his fists, causing the body of the piano to resonate like a bass drum. On his more daring excursions, Wright makes his saxophone into a vocoder, or a car alarm, or Woody Woodpecker. Gerbal’s drums can sound like an avalanche of crockery. Yet somehow the album always grooves, never losing sight of Abdul-Malik’s original composition in all the chaos. In the end, this is a celebration of “Oud Blues,” not simply an excuse to test their limits.

After the concert, Thomas is spent. Gerbal is soaked in sweat. Grip’s hands are bleeding. Wright is unable to speak, with lips and tongue like jelly. Soon each player will head home, not to see one another until it’s time to do it all again. But they’ll continue to think about this night, and this song, and Ahmed Abdul-Malik, plotting new courses through jazz and its hidden histories. 

from https://pitchfork.com 

Edited by snobb - 15 Apr 2024 at 11:35am
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