Middle East Meets West by Way of Jazz

If you don’t know what an oud is, you will by the end of the show, Wynton Marsalis said to a young audience member at the start of the performance.

Oud virtuoso Naseer Shamma fronted the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis on Thursday night at the Marcus Performing Arts Center for a program titled “Middle East Meditations.”

Artists mixing jazz with music from other cultures is not a new idea. Duke Ellington’s Far East Suite came about thanks to a 1964 tour of Japan; Miles Davis and Gil Evans’ album Sketches of Spain takes inspiration from Spanish composer Joaquín Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez and Charles Mingus’ Tijuana Moods was inspired by street musicians and “anything that you could imagine in a wild, wide-open town.”

To be fair jazz is nothing if not a cultural melting pot. Yet the oud is not an instrument that immediately comes to mind. The Iraq-born Shamma said the stringed instrument’s origin from 2350 B.C. qualifies it as a classical instrument. This was something more than simply grafting oud solos to a jazz ensemble—on this evening music was the common denominator, it’s as simple as that.

With Marsalis and Shamma offering brief introductions to Shamma’s tunes, as arranged by various band members, subject matter veered from the Hanging Gardens of Babylon to the vision of a better tomorrow for today’s children to a simple love song. A template for some of the pieces was for Shamma or the band to set up a framework that allowed soloists to shine. Shamma’s flights often swirled to dervish filigree and were brought back to the moment by Chris Crenshaw’s earthy trombone melodies. If your brain was caught wondering where the jazz begins and the Arabic music ends, you were not alone.

A song Shamma characterized as a promise to his seven-year-old daughter was built on a racing tempo in the second section followed by a Marsalis solo that reached to the trumpet’s upper register; the music would rise and fall several times during the piece. Another tune referencing the Hanging Gardens, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, had the 15-piece orchestra working as a well-oiled machine, thanks in part to saxophonist Sherman Irby’s nearly imperceptible cues to the band.

With a rhythm section keeping pulse via rhumba-like beats, the clarion trumpet brass section and reed players doubling on woodwinds, there was no doubt of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra’s world-class status.

There was a sense of joy in this music. Throughout the night performers exchanged knowing glances when someone took virtuosity to a new level. A noted humanitarian, Shamma serves as the UNESCO Artist for Peace and is goodwill ambassador to the International Red Crescent and Red Cross Societies (IFRC) among other peace-promoting efforts. Of his ongoing musical partnership with Marsalis, he recalled the tune he began within 15 minutes of their first meeting.

And the evening also brought a sense of humor; Marsalis recalled Shamma noting the Tigris–Euphrates rivers region as the cradle of civilization. To which Marsalis replied he was from New Orleans on the Mississippi River, “the cradle of catfish.”

Now you know what an oud is, I’m proud of you Marsalis said, once again addressing his young friend at the evening’s conclusion.

by Blaine Schultz
Source: The Shepherd

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