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.
The musical traditions of the Arabic world are fused with jazz improvisation and European classical techniques by Lebanese-born oud player and composer Rabih Abou-Khalil. The CMJ New Music Report noted that Abou-Khalil has "consistently sought to create common ground between the Arab music mileau of his roots and the more global musical world of today." Down Beat praised Abou-Khalil's music as "a unique hybrid that successfully spans the world of traditional Arabic music and jazz." Although he learned to play the oud, a fretless, Lebanese lute, as a youngster, Abou-Khalil temporarily switched to the classical flute, which he studied at the Academy of Music after moving to Munich, Germany, during the Lebanese Civil War in 1978.