1st Beirut Jazz Festival hits all the right notes

The Daily Star, Lebanon
July 6 2004

1st Beirut Jazz Festival hits all the right notes
Mixing international and local musicians, 4-day concert series lights
up Lebanese capital

By Jim Quilty, Ramsay Short and Kaelen Wilson-Goldie
Daily Star staff

Beirut: Now, jazz is not church music, nor has it ever been. It does
not require silence to breathe. Arguably, in fact, it plays best
against the clank and clatter of ice, glass, and a hack redolent of
emphysema. That said, In-Version, the local jazz ensemble that opened
the first Beirut International Jazz Festival, deserves full marks for
art in a hostile environment.

The secondary venue for the festival sits in the foothills of the
Marina Tower, the not-yet-tall monolith that will one day loom over
this site. The tower’s dedicated workmen continued their labors –
sandblasting by the sound of it – until well past 8.30pm, when
In-Version began their set. At first the racket was simply annoying.
Later on, though, as Joelle Khoury doggedly led her group through a
series of seamless post-bop improvisations, the noise seemed to
recede to become merely an unfortunate accompaniment.

In-Version’s playing was just as busy as the workers, but far more
melodic. It’s comfortable jazz, the sort of stuff first generated by
Miles Davis’ 1960s ensembles – and emulated by mainstream players
ever since.

There is a minimal audience, still outnumbered at this hour, by staff
and bemused photographers. Most are arrayed in front of the festival
food court’s several kiosks. Indeed, from time to time it is possible
to discern a smattering of applause, wafting above the soundtrack
that emanates from the Jack Daniels ad, running in continuous loop on
a flat-screen television.

One audience member, apparently noting your scribbling, asks if
you’re a journalist. You ask him if he’s annoyed by the Jack Daniels

“Not at all,” he avers. “Are you part of the Jack Daniels Group?”

You assure him that, though you have consumed the product on a number
of occasions, you try to remain nonpartisan in your habits.

There is a good deal of Jack Daniels being consumed, in fact, a
pastime aided by the pairs of black-Jack clad, in-line-skate-mounted
youngsters propelling themselves around the venue in co-ed pairs. The
first such duo intercepts you on the way to the venue, inviting you
to throw back a chilled, paper shot-glass of the featured bourbon.
You oblige. Another is poised in front of a dartboard, inviting
thirsty passers-by to try their luck.

Later, in the In-Version set, another pair, armed with a miniature
crap table, glides by and invites you to roll the bones. “Try to roll
a seven,” the girl enthuses. In return for these exertions, she
assures you, you will be rewarded with a shot of Jack Daniels.

“Are you a journalist?” she asks.

“Afraid so.”

“Oh,” a wave of something like disappointment sweeps across her face.

“Are you being paid well for this?” you inquire.

She smiles like a plastic bride atop a wedding cake. “Well yes!” She
glances at her taciturn escort. “Well enough!”

The first act to test the main stage of Beirut International Jazz
Festival was Abed Azrie’s Arabo-Flamenco fusion project “Suerte.” The
stands were perhaps one-third full.

After an instrumental opening that moved from the Arabic vernacular
to the Spanish and back again, Azrie himself took the stage with the
Spanish vocalist whose crystalline soprano would answer his Arabic
sub-tenor over the course of the evening. Clad in a red, thigh-length
Nehru shirt, and dancing back and forth from emcee to vocalist to
maestro, Azrie is an affable thespian. He is evidently a gentleman as
well, insisting on starting his opening number from the top when he
realizes his partner hasn’t been miked. His vocals, however, are no
match for those of his counterpart.

Azrie’s Suerte ensemble is 16-strong, and at first glance its
contours would be familiar to anyone implicated in the Lebanese
supper club circuit. The Lebano-Egyptian rhythm section – tambourine,
dirbekeh, bongos and frame drums – and Lebanese qanun player are
complemented by a Franco-Syrian string section – violin, viola, cello
and double bass – and accordion player. Nationalities aside, this is
very much an Arabic music ensemble, but it is given a Spanish
inflection by a pair of flamenco guitars and a couple of
hand-clapping vocalists.

As this musical configuration suggests, Suerte is interested in
blending cognate elements of the Spanish and Arabic traditions,
specifically that “energy” that the Spaniards call “duende” and the
Arabs call “tarab.” Azrie’s biography suggests that this “world
music” sensibility is connected to the performer’s upbringing in the
ancient trade entrepot of Aleppo – where he was inspired by Greek,
Turkish, Iranian and Armenian influences.

This is not the first time that Arabic and Spanish traditions have
been spliced together. The Arabo-Andalusian work of Spain’s Radio
Tarifa, Elham Madfai’s guitar arrangements of Iraqi songs, even the
eccentric tarab-flamenco blend witnessed when Lebanese legend Wadia
Safi performed with the young guitarist Jose Fernandez – all are
symptoms of a common condition. Quite naturally, these musical
experiments express different degrees of seriousness and none have
been particularly balanced – with Arabic or Spanish elements ruling,
depending on the band leader’s training.

The same is true of Suerte. Here the flamenco component of the
ensemble is clearly subordinated to that of the Arabic. The
distribution of musical duties within the ensemble, too, is a trifle
utilitarian. Certainly Azrie is correct in recognizing the redundancy
of an oud in a group featuring both guitar and qanun, and it was
interesting to hear dirbekeh alongside flamenco-style hand-clapping.
It would be far more engaging, though, to have heard these “Arabic”
drums converse with the sharper percussive intonations of the Spanish
cajon (box) – a flamenco mainstay.

It is challenging to create a proper musical dialogue. This music is,
like its maestro, affable enough, and when it was energetic it could
please the audience. For the most part, though, Suerte was more an
exchange of monologues. There are points at which the ensemble
settled into a proper conversation, when the chugging string-and-drum
rhythms of the Arab-ish ensemble were not merely accentuated by the
guitars and the clapping hands, but moved onto a different axis. But
such transport was brief and rare.

It was a brave choice for John Kassabian, director of the Beirut
International Jazz Festival, to invite Jacques Loussier and his trio
to perform at the inaugural event on Friday.

The nearly 70-year-old French pianist was little loved by jazz
critics or serious heads in the 1960s when he took baroque music and
underpinned it with jazz rhythms. For them, jazz music had to be
rooted in blues. How could classical music – and how could Bach in
particular – be jazz? For the music buying public at large, however,
it was jazz, and it was popular – with Loussier’s “Play Bach” records
selling in the millions.

Though the crowd was not full strength on Friday – sadly but
tellingly so in a town where straight-ahead jazz is more popular –
Loussier and his trio enchanted the audience with magical and
accomplished improvisations on Bach, Ravel and Debussy.

In two sets of familiar works, a relaxed and humble Loussier
demonstrated how the spontaneity of jazz can link with the symmetry
of Bach – and both his bassist and drummer dazzled with intricate and
powerful solos on the themes.

Seated in front of the mock sails on the stage in Beirut Marina –
pianist on the left, bass in the middle, and drums to the right –
Loussier opens with a fugue that was blissful in its simplicity.
Whether on that composition or Bach’s equally exceptional “Prelude in
C Major,” Loussier demonstrates deft alternations, at once dreamy and
at once fast. His understanding of Bach is exceptional and technique
exquisite, but it is in his improvisational ability that Loussier
shines the most.

His exchanges with drums and bass are as tight as any funk band and
the trio’s understanding of each other is impeccable. In
10-minute-long solos, the bassist makes Bach jazz, blues and funk
with staccato plucking and dynamic riffs. His equal is the drummer,
with powerful cymbal work, brushwork and precision timing.

The Jacques Loussier Trio ends their show with a staggering version
of Ravel’s “Bolero,” Loussier leading with the tune and the familiar
snare rolls coming in thick and fast, moving the march along.

Earlier in the evening, local Lebanese singer Randa Ghoussoub had
entertained with classic jazz standards, and it was good to see how
much she has improved and evolved in the last three years – enough to
command stages worldwide. Post-Loussier, Lebanese percussionist
Ibrahim Jaber and the local Latin-jazz band Gros Bras played on to
end the night.

The Beirut International Jazz Festival – scheduled over four nights –
has been a musical highlight in Lebanon this summer, with
accomplished acts and a great open atmosphere reminiscent of Istanbul
and even Montreux. It has also provided a wider audience than usual
with a chance to see world-class musicians spreading world-class
music and opening minds to more than the average pop that is played
on most Lebanese radio stations. But with Raymond Gaspar, CEO of
Radio One in Beirut and Dubai, as President of the BIJF, perhaps
things will change.

There was a sense of anticipation in the air for the Beirut Jazz
Festival’s main-stage closer on Sunday evening. Shakti, the raga-jazz
fusion brainchild of John McLaughlin and Zakir Hussein, returned to
Lebanon – their last show being the cathartic Beiteddine performance
a couple of years back. It was a variation on a theme of Shakti that
took command of the Beirut Marina, one at once familiar and subtly

Shakti is hardly a new project. It first saw light of day back in the
1970s when jazz guitarist John McLaughlin – having steeped himself in
the waters of fusion with Miles Davis and the Mahavishnu Orchestra –
got together with an Indian ensemble led by Indian tabla virtuoso
Zakir Hussein. A couple of albums were released, then the two
performers diverted themselves with other projects.

The project was revived at the end of the 1990s with another pair of
albums and a series of concert tours. The new Shakti was comprised of
a varied ensemble of veterans – bansuri (Indian flute) virtuoso
Hariprasad Chaurasia, playing a prominent role – and youngsters.
Percussionist V. Selvaganesh provides even greater depth to Hussein’s
rhythmic gymnastics, while incendiary mandolin player U. Shrinivas
makes a perfect foil for McLaughlin’s increasingly contemplative jazz
stylings – playing to McLaughlin the way Trane did to Miles.

In this evening’s incarnation, Shrinivas and Selvaganesh returned to
balance the principals, with an additional layer of complexity coming
in the form of young vocalist Shankar Mahadevan – seated in the
center of the stage. The evening opened with an extended piece of
free improvisation called “Karoma/Five-Peace Band.”

Those who know Shakti’s older work are familiar with the ensemble’s
ability to shift nuance from raga to jazz to “Hindi rap” – the last
coming from the interplay between percussionists Hussein and
Selvaganesh. Mahadevan’s contribution further thickens this fusion
groove. His skills may be grounded in an age-old Hindi classical
tradition, but he is to this mix what a scat singer is to a jazz

With the group’s improv legs stretched, Mahadevan exited to allow the
quartet to run through some of their best-known tunes. The first of
these was Hussein’s “Ma No Pa,” a piece built around a progression of
guitar and mandolin interchanges and a sort of rhythmic dialogue
between guitar and tabla.

This concert provided a rare opportunity to see McLaughlin working in
a (relatively) intimate setting. The guitarist’s position in Shakti
is an ambiguous one. Many jazz aficionados and “world music” fans –
carried away by the sheer exuberance of the percussionists and
Shrinivas’ lightning-fast mandolin – have made the mistake of seeing
him as redundant to Shakti’s sound.

Like some of the most-accomplished jazz players, though, McLaughlin
has a habit of sometimes underplaying – a complaint Miles Davis once
made about Bill Evans, his pianist in the Kind of Blue sessions.
McLaughlin uses silences to color his notes and sometimes – as during
his previous, rather taciturn, Lebanon concert – his chord
progressions. For those who thought he was playing the silences a
little too much at the Beiteddine concert, it was a pleasure to find
him in a more gregarious mood this evening.

Indeed, during the dueling opportunities provided by fusion ragas
like “Maya” and “Finding the Way,” the beatific smile could
occasionally be seen to slip from the white-haired jazzman’s mouth.

Shakti was not oblivious to the audience’s needs – Hussein was kind
enough to keep the congregation posted on the score of the European
Cup final between Greece and Portugal. Nor could it be said that the
players were shy about filling-up the open-air venue with as much
music as it could hold.

Over the course of the evening the volume became progressively louder
as the duels between the string players grew more insistent and the
percussionists’ improvisations became more elaborate – coming to a
sort of rapturous climax during “Finding the Way.”

It’s just as well that the sound crew was able to pump up the volume
since, about half way through the show, the concert was in danger of
falling victim to a sudden barrage of ambient noise – in the form of
top-volume Arabic pop music – pulsating venomously from the hotel
district, just west of the concert venue.

“Nothing personal,” someone shrugged. “Just a waterfront turf war.”

>From this point on Shakti most strongly echoed the influence of Zakir
Hussein’s more recent fusion experiment – the Tabla Beat Science
project he authored with Bill Laswell. As the band’s sound system did
battle with the competition across the way, the amount of
reverberation and other playback spinning off McLaughlin’s guitar
rose to an elastic drone. Like jazz, it seems, fusion must learn to
thrive in hostile environments.

With her left hand banging away on a piano and her right hand coaxing
the effects of a keyboard, Tania Maria, the legendary Brazilian
singer, composer, and arranger, bopped her carrot-colored mop of
curls to the rhythms of the Viva Brazil Quartet. Maria and her band
performed a solid show on Saturday night – musically tight,
temporally to the point, and consistently, almost efficiently,

Maria has been a bandleader since the age of 13 (she started playing
piano at 7), and her modus operandi onstage is very much that of a
diva with a rhythm section. Accompanied in Beirut by a drummer,
bassist, and lively percussionist, Maria was all smiles as she
alternately kicked her bandmates into punchy solos, then called them
back into a mesh of tight-knit rhythms.

Born in Sao Luiz in northern Brazil to a musically inclined family,
Maria blended such influences as Bill Evans and Sarah Vaughan with
Antonio Carlos Jobim and Milton Nascimento early on. She spiced jazz
standards and blues traditions with samba and chorinho. At this point
Maria has, to her credit, a score of albums (internationally
acclaimed and popular enough to snag a Grammy nomination) that
experiment with ever more complex fusions, while still maintaining a
distinct and recognizable style.

On Saturday, Maria caressed the keys of her piano to make jazzy
melodies, warm with nostalgia. The quartet added a sexy, rhythmic
punctuation as Maria faded skillfully in and out of the background.
She allowed the other musicians to shine, until those moments where
her voice took over.

If Maria is a composer, arranger, and bandleader all in one, she also
carries the weight of at least two musicians on stage. She scats with
all the strength and nimbleness of Louis Armstrong, but she adds an
entirely new vocabulary of staccato sounds and smoothes it all with
the simmering fuzz of Portuguese.

Thankfully, the hiss of construction from the new Marina Tower, right
behind the crowd, faded after the first two songs, and Maria and her
quartet were able to pierce the night with the crispness of an
ensemble that knows how to stay in sync.

As she pumped the pedals of her piano, the sequins of her black dress
dancing, Maria gave off the grace of a vibrant if weathered performer
(her high cheekbones and puckered mouth have become more and more
pronounced over the years). Decades of performing in bars and clubs
have endowed Maria with a keen sense of how to play the crowd, and
she did so masterfully on Saturday, roping them into an extended
sing-along to a Joao Gilberto standard, and then stunning them with a
final round of scatting.

Maria’s performance did betray an element of being somehow
perfunctory. Her band was so competent that never did you hear a
rough note or a raw surprise. Compared to the mesmerizing night of
music to follow with Zakir Hussein and John McLaughlin, Tania Maria
and the Viva Brazil Quartet come off as solid, pleasing but a bit
ho-hum. If the Beirut International Jazz Festival manages to line up
one, two, five, a hundred nights as accomplished as this in a run-up
to a finale anywhere near as breathtaking as Sunday’s, it will no
doubt join the rarefied ranks of the world’s most prestigious jazz