Jedid, the title of the latest project by Iraqi musician Osama Abdulrasol and his quintet, might refer to an Arabic/Urdu word meaning “modern” or “new,” an apt label for a body of composition that seeks to bridge languages and musical styles with common themes in fairly refreshing ways. Abdulrasol, a master of the ‘ud and the qanun (Arabic lap harp), extemporizes on romantic and spiritual love: the vocals, by Belgian singer Helena Schoeters, draw on the work of famous poets and original lyrics. The others in the quintet (Philippe Thuriot, accordion; Lode Vercampt, cello; François Taillefer, percussion) alternately support and embrace the melodies of each track.
A key point of interest for this project is that the lineup is international (French/Belgian/Iraqi) and the languages of the lyrics reflect that, yet there is only a little Arabic sung on the album (3 tracks in all or part) despite the project’s frame. However, the linguistic and purely musical elements commingle effectively due to common expressive goals. For example, “Ghazel” overlaps Schoeters’ vocal ornaments and Abdulrasol’s qanun tremolos characteristic of Arabic love-song styles with seductive lyrics in French (“I love the taste of this forbidden fruit”). In the second half of the tune, Thuriot takes over melodic duties with some dazzling accordion work evocative of the iconic Parisian street sounds that have made listeners fall in love from afar for decades.
“78 Sky,” a piece based on Pablo Neruda’s Sonnet LXVI, examines the possibilities of repetition and dynamics alike, with Shoeters tracing the poem’s Spanish text but changing the order of the lines, just as the band behind her rises and falls at unpredictable moments. Immediately following, Vercampt’s contemplative cello work sets the stage for “Stairway (Sullem),” an examination of longing in French and Arabic alike, with a curious melding of Baroque arpeggiation and Arabic rhythmic schemes.
Aside from the heavier lyrical content, Jedid jams hard. “Gypsy in Baghdad” references styles from Prince-esque funk to Turkish court music repertoire to the globalized combination of clave and Romani-associated grooves. Abdulrasol’s qanun playing is at its peak virtuosity here, supported by a joyous rhythm section. Taillefer’s frame-drum playing leads the charge on “El Burjain (2 towers dance)” and commands the transitions between sections while inviting others to close in on solo ideas.
The second half of the record features a string of gorgeously orchestrated miniworks, including the three-piece Heloune Suite (Prelude/Camel’s Walk/Lucidity) which covers a range of inward-looking ideas, mostly through unmetered passages. “Habibu” returns to the theme of intimate love, and it is unabashedly fun: the particular space made for Schoeters’ vocals flowing into Thuriot’s laughter-like solo presents the musicians as almost smiling through sound. Abdulrasol’s final say, a qanun improvisation entitled “Mezaj (taqsim)”, allows the competing sentiments and styles of the entire work to resolve into something more complex yet satisfying, familiar yet unexpectedly new. – Dylan McDonnell