…irrespective of genre has produced a recording that speaks clearly and directly to anyone prepared to listen.

Back Beat Edition BBE01CD

Dhafer Youssef (oud, vocals); Herbie Hancock (piano); Nguyên Lê (guitars); Rakesh Chaurasia (bansuri); Ambrose Akinmusire (trumpet); Marcus Miller (electric bass); Dave Holland (double bass); Vinnie Colaiuta (drums); Adriano Dos Santos Tenori (percussion)

This is the Tunisian oud player’s ninth album and has been five years in the making. Original sessions to record the music had proved unfruitful and disappointing and Youssef decided not to release the album. The music however would not leave him, and after a particularly difficult time for the oud master, the music finally revealed itself to him.

With an opportunity to pick his dream band, Youssef in a reversal of his normal practice of writing the music first, hand picked the musicians and then set about rewriting the music and arrangements for the new musicians. The resulting music is astonishing and quite a departure, yet paradoxically a logical follow on from his previous albums.

The music touches on many stylistic bases, but Youssef always remains true to his roots, and his singing and oud playing are quite extraordinary. Coupled with his forthright and courageous arrangements and the all-star cast assembled this is a very bold and personal statement.

The opening title track sets the tone nicely, preparing the listener for an hour of exhilarating music that is often unclassifiable, but ultimately stimulating and fulfilling.

‘The Street of Minarets’ opens with Youssef’s vocals with a swirling electronic backdrop that gradually develops with laid back and subtle percussion and Akinmusire’s delicately blown trumpet phrases, and the bass line that sits back in the mix gently tugging at the ear. Approximately halfway through the tempo kicks up a notch and Marcus Miller’s funky electric bass lines and the melody is strengthened with use of the of the ensemble’s unison passages.

This is immediately followed by ‘Bal D’ âme’ which is a duet for Youssef and Herbie Hancock on piano. A delightful and lyrical ballad it provides a much welcome relief from the energy of the previous composition. The sound of the oud and acoustic piano is a wonderful combination, and the gentle flow and sparse phrasing of the music is a real treat.

Youssef’s vision for the music is quite extraordinary, and the depth he brings to the compositions and arrangements ensures that there is not a dull moment on the album. To the contrary there is much to assimilate, and each hearing will bring forth new textures and details that may have previously gone unheard.

‘Sudra Funk’ for example maybe driven by Miller’s funky basslines, but the detail is in how the oud works its melodic lines around this and integrates with both percussion and Rakesh Chaurasia’s astonishing bansuri playing. Check out his solo on this track!

These little touches and exquisite pairings are again evident on ‘Whirling In The Air’ with the melody spelled out by oud and bansuri, and again on ‘Spinning Hermit’ with oud, bansuri and percussion leading proceedings, and not to be done guitarist Nguyên Lê takes a fine solo.

The work of Youssef and Lê playing similarly pitched but very different string instruments is a joy throughout, and extremely effective on the lovely ‘Ondes of Chakra’.

If the making of Street of Minarets was hard won Dhafer Youssef can be justly proud of the finished album, and irrespective of genre has produced a recording that speaks clearly and directly to anyone prepared to listen. A hugely rewarding album.

Reviewed by Nick Lea

Check out our interview with Dhafer here.