Live Reviews: Tarab

Francesco Turrisi (piano), Gabrielle Mirabassi (clarinet), Roman Bunka (oud), Ronan Guilfoyle (bass), Bijan Chemirani (percussion) / National Concert Hall, Dublin / 24 April 2008

Two Italians, a German, an Irishman and a Franco-Iranian (or Irano-Frenchman)… Piano, clarinet, oud, bass guitar and percussion… Three cultural institutes and the Improvised Music Company… What should we expect? Jazz with a touch of world? A bit of this, a bit of that? A musical purée? As it happened, we needn’t have worried. Francesco Turrisi’s Tarab knew where they were going. From their base in Italy, they were going to let the Mediterranean breezes blow them East and West, North and South, through Turkey to the Arab world and back. The political map of the Mediterranean would show a large blue sea surrounded by clearly defined, differently coloured political units. But there’s another map that we should keep in mind. For thousands of years the Mediterranean has been a space crossed and recrossed by all kinds of forces: traders, fishermen, pirates, soldiers, scholars, Crusaders, colonists, refugees, adventurers, mystics, misfits – and musicians.

Francesco Turrisi, the leader of Tarab, is quite typical of Italian jazz, both in his interest in melody and in his openness to the folk and popular idioms of his own country and of its neighbours (taking that word in the most generous sense). The version of Tarab that performed in the NCH embodied such openness in its personnel as well as in the treatment of the material.

In his own solos, Turrisi tended to move themes from their folk roots or melodic base into freer territory before wending his way back towards the group. Fellow-Italian Gabrielle Mirabassi stayed closer to the original motif but sent it spinning through endless variations, with delightful command of timing and tone. The German oud player, Roman Bunka, has spent a lot of time working with Egyptian and other musicians, to the point where he seemed to be a Middle Eastern voice rather than a European voice with a Middle Eastern inflection. On bass guitar, Ireland’s Ronan Guilfoyle never sounded like a product of the Mediterranean, but the steady patterns he laid down and his almost plump deep notes had an important role in earthing the group sound, which might otherwise have become too airy. Guilfoyle also entered into productive dialogue with Bijan Chemirani, the young percussionist.

In a trio very much led by their father, Bijan Chemirani and his brother played in Mulhouse, France, a couple of years back. Working with the elements of Iranian tradition, the three percussionists collaborated in a demonstration of mutual understanding and almost casual virtuosity on the frame drum. Chemirani was equally at ease here, in a context which showcased his traditional patterning skills but also gave him the freedom to interact in a more individual style with his fellow-players.

In the wrong hands, the breadth of repertoire displayed by Tarab could come across as a rather meaningless cross-cultural anthology, but the group identity was both strong and versatile enough to make this a real journey rather than a collection of holiday snaps. We were led from the classical Arab world to Naples and other regions of Italy, the Lebanon and Turkey, with a Nick Roth-arranged klezmer interlude along the way. The journey was pleasantly unrushed, without the emphasis on mechanical massed climax that makes so much stadium trad – and some free jazz – tedious these days. Turrisi deserves credit for trusting his musicians in this way, starting and finishing in thoughtful mood and varying the pace throughout. Mirabassi could probably blow his own socks off time and again if he wanted to, but he preferred to trace the sinuous (arabesque?) lines of his imagination.

As the encore, ‘Tu Bella’, came to an end, audience and musicians could go their way contented.

Published on 1 July 2008

Barra Ó Séaghdha is a writer on cultural politics, literature and music.

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