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Mazen Kerbaj - BRT VRT ZRT KRT / Rouba3i5

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Artist: Mazen Kerbaj

Album: BRT VRT ZRT KRT / Rouba3i5

Label: Al Maslakh

Review date: May. 18, 2006

Several years ago I remember investigating a fine compilation on the A Bruit Secret label entitled From:/To:. Along with contributions from many European electro-acoustic players, I was surprised to note the presence of Sharif Sehnaoui, a guitarist from Lebanon. Lebanon! Who knew? As it turns out, Beirut is home to a really vital scene with young players who have just begun to document their work. While a couple recordings have appeared on Creative Sources, the Al Maslakh label is this scene’s own and its first two releases (both limited editions of 500) are killer.

Gifted trumpeter Mazen Kerbaj first came to my attention on his duo disc with like-minded trumpet restructuralist Franz Hautzinger. Hautzinger’s wet, splattery, deconstructed sound on the quartertone trumpet seems to be an inspiration for Kerbaj’s wide-ranging solo work on this disc, BRT VRT ZRT KRT (Al Maslakh 01). Over the course of an hour, he delivers 15 incisive performances which focus on the instruments basic sonic and idiomatic properties – breath in the bell, the sharp click of the valves, and so forth. Kerbaj specializes in the low and the flatulent, but even in these registers his improvising isn’t declamatory (like, say, the great Bill Dixon) as much as it is furtive. Rather than splashing paint on a canvas, he traces invisible shapes in the air. That’s not to say that the range of techniques displayed is narrow, because precisely the opposite is the case. There are squeaking, chirping birdsongs on “PSHSHSSSHSSSSHP,” sympathetic whistles that float above the main line on “BLBLB FLBLB,” and didgeridoo fantasies (mixed with electronic-sounding mangling) on “ZRRRT.” What’s more, Kerbaj engages in some really interesting sound layering, where something like a whirring metallic crank supplements his breath work on “Cling Clang Clong.” Ultimately, like many solo improv albums, this sounds like a catalogue of techniques more than anything else. But it’s also a very compelling musical statement by an improviser who deserves attention, and who is quickly moving into the ranks occupied by fellow trumpet adventurers like Greg Kelley, Birgit Ulher, Hautzinger and Axel Dörner.

On Rouba3i5 (Al Maslakh 02) Kerbaj is joined by alto saxophonist Christine Sehnaoui, aforementioned guitarist Sharif Sehnaoui, and Norwegian percussionist Ingar Zach (the three Lebanese players constitute a regularly working trio who specialize in quartet recordings with invited guests; Ruba’i means “quartet” in Arabic). The recording consists of two substantive improvisations recorded at the Bustros residence in Beirut. What’s most impressive about it is the way the very distinct musical personalities combine to create an atmosphere rich with tension. Sharif Sehnaoui’s grainy string and pickup manipulations merge wonderfully with Zach’s massive textural shapes to form a lush quilt on which the horns can stitch arch patterns. The altoist impressively displays her control of altissimo playing, emerging as a really distinctive voice in this generally low, earthen, organic music (Zach’s rubbed tom heads are always delightful to listen to). She gets into a marvelous space with an especially flatulent Kerbaj midway through the first piece, as guitarist Sehnaoui angers an insect hive and Zach dives into subsonar depths. The second piece is still scrapey, slithering, and mostly non-idiomatic, but there is some movement that – relative to the rest of the stuff – can be heard as more idiomatically rhythmic or harmonic. For the most part, however, this is music of long droning passages pregnant with detail and glowing with an intensity that is never given vent. This tension, as if watching clouds gather, makes for some truly fine listening. These records will be difficult to find but are worth the search.

By Jason Bivins

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