Dhafer Youssef - oud, voc (website)
Eivind Aarset - g, elec (myspace)
Audun Erlien - el b (myspace)
Rune Arnesen - d (myspace)
At the very beginning of the year, I heard Anouar Brahem's Astrakhan Café over at M's (you may remember him from Lisbon) parents' house in France. I was totally enchanted and, as soon as I got back here, I bought it. It was surprising to me how close Dhafer Youssef got to the open-ended-but-not-meandering feeling of Brahem's acoustic oud-clarinet-percussion trio with this electric Norwegian band (Youssef's last album came out on Bugge Wesseltoft's JazzLand label).
Erlien would generally lay down hazy, syncopated, slightly dub-ish vamps, creating a little push-pull friction with Arnesen's drums, which generated much more forward momentum, but without being overwhelming. Eivind Aarset did an amazing job providing enveloping textures, whether from his laptop or real-time sampling, and carefully-dosed guitar sounds. He also used a drier tone to produce an uncanny guitar version of the oud. On an unaccompanied intro to "Soupir éternel," he played few notes, but each one was sublimely coaxed out of the instrument. When Youssef joined in, it was to play and sing a simple, sing-song modal melody that, uncharacteristically, sounded almost medieval. Youssef's voice was strong, deep and clear. He sang wordlessly, but drew clearly on his Tunisian origins.
More typically, the band would string together percussive melodies (or were they melodic riffs?) separated by pauses and suspensions. The longer the concert went on, the more it seemed that all this occurred by happenstance, as if tune fragments were plucked from some vast store, expanded upon and then discarded. This patience and the lack of the quite common, almost teleological drive towards a big climax was refreshing. Sometimes it was just a matter of a livelier melody sharpening a form's edges, but it could be even less than that: the sound engineer modifying the sound of the drums, for example, could be a peak.
One of the last songs upped the energy level by adding some blues and rock into the mix, before settling into a simmering groove that set Arabic riffs into slightly more conventional rock band dynamics. Overall, Youssef suggested a palette that was clearly bounded yet with seemingly endless space to roam.