Tarab is an unusual album for the great Lebanese jazz composer and oud player in that it features no Western instruments or musicians, except for Glen Moore on the acoustic bass. The melody instruments are the nay (Arabic flute) played by the Syrian veteran Selim Kusur and, as always, Abou-Khalil on oud or Arabic lute (which more or less functions like the piano in a standard jazz quartet). Rounding out the group are Nabil Khaiat on frame drums and percussion, and Rameesh Shotham on South Indian drums and other percussion. Everyone but Kusur has worked at least semi-regularly with Abou-Khalil. (Kusur did play on Abou-Khalil's Roots & Sprouts, an earlier instance of an album with no Western instruments.)
Blue Camel is the pinnacle to date of Lebanese oud player Rabih Abou-Khalil's achievement as a jazzman. In both mood and scope, it can almost be characterized as a new Kind of Blue. Both tense and reflective, it is perfect for listening after midnight. Abou-Khalil brings back Charlie Mariano on alto sax and Kenny Wheeler on flugelhorn and trumpet, and they generally alternate solos with Abou-Khalil himself. Rounding out the roster is Steve Swallow on bass, Milton Cardona on congos, Nabil Khaiat on frame drums, and Ramesh Shotham on South Indian drums and percussion. They form a tight ensemble and play comfortably with each other.
Arabian Waltz is the pinnacle of Rabih Abou-Khalil's achievement as a composer and arranger. It is a sublime fusion of jazz, Middle Eastern traditional music, and Western classical. In addition to Abou-Khalil on oud (the Arabic lute), Michel Godard on the tuba and the serpent (the tuba's antique kinsman), and Nabil Khaiat on frame drums, the album also features the Balanescu String Quartet instead of the usual trumpet or sax. The presence of the Balanescu might seem to pose a dilemma for the composer: traditional Middle Eastern music uses no harmony but a string quartet is all about harmony.
Composer and oudist Rabih Abou-Khalil generates variety and interest by bringing aboard different guest musicians for each album. The personnel on Sultan's Picnic is so similar to that of Blue Camel that one might expect them to sound similar. But there's a key difference in the presence of Howard Levy on Sultan's Picnic. Levy is a talented harmonica player who has done a lot of offbeat work, including a stint with Béla Fleck & the Flecktones. Despite the power of Charlie Mariano on alto sax and Kenny Wheeler on trumpet, this album is dominated by the idioms of the harmonica, specifically the jazzy, quirky, lackadaisical idiom popularized by Levy's work with the Flecktones. This domination is noticeable from the beginning, on "Sunrise in Montreal."
Rabih Abou-Khalil's ninth Enja release features one of his most expansive lineups to date - 8 pieces in all, including oud, brass, woodwinds, cello, and percussion. It's quite a departure from 1999's austere Yara. Here the tempos are bright, the unison lines darting and difficult, the improv heated, the tonal combinations ever-changing. Heavy-hitting jazzers dominate the band roster, including Dave Ballou and Eddie Allen on trumpets, Tom Varner on French horn, Dave Bargeron on euphonium, Antonio Hart on alto sax, and Ellery Eskelin on tenor sax. Gabriele Mirabassi's clarinet gives the music an almost klezmer-like sound at times (a tantalizing instance of Jewish-Arab reconciliation).
RabihAbou-Khalil has asserted himself in the avant-garde as a composer as well as an instrumentalist. This is not just because he is ahead of his time - but because he also questions what others might pursue without further reflection. With his original composing technique, his unconstrained, yet daring approach to classical Arabic music, he has found a musical language entirely of his own.Abou-Khalil's music thrives on creative encounters and not on exoticism. From a combination of diverse cultural elements something very personal and coherent emerges. Thus it would be fruitless to mull over descriptions such as Orient or Occident, jazz, world music or classical.