Saturday, June 15, 2013

CD Review: Uri Gurvich - BabEl

Uri Gurvich

BabEl has an interesting concept: assemble a group of musicians who all hail from different countries, with the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel framing the compositions. In the story, the people all spoke the same language until God intervened and then everyone spoke a different language and they were dispersed around the world. The album, in theory, brings things back around, where players of different languages can speak one musically. If it all sounds like another attempt at watered down world music, remember this is a Tzadik records release, known for its "Radical Jewish Culture" series.

In some ways, BabEl sounds a bit straightforward. Israel native Gurvich (now living in New York) plays alto saxophone with a clean, crisp tone. This is no chaotic blowing session, but a series of melodies that seem to take on more depth as the album proceeds. The opening notes of the album actually come from Brahim Fribgane's oud, which only appears on a few songs. "Pyramids" evokes Egyptian music, as well as a bit of spaghetti western loneliness. Gurvich plays in a fleet-fingered manner during his solo, which Fribgane also does during a rubato section, accented by drummer Francisco Mela's commentary, before the oud plays a lyrical solo in tempo.

"Nedudim," which translates to "journey," has an electric keyboard riff from Leo Genovese that sounds like a Farfisa organ. That provides the contrast to the arrangement, which sounds like an extended composition more than an piece with an open spot for solos. Ironically, the alto solo in "Scalerica de Oro" has the strongest jazz feeling up to that point, with electric piano and oud rising behind Gurvich, with at least one of them utilizing a wah-wah effect. Ironic because this is the only non-original track, a Traditional Sephardic song in Ladino (the language of Jews of Spanish origin) which is sung at weddings to wish the bride good luck. The 21st-century arrangement, which includes vocals and "mazel tov" in the climax courtesy of all five musicians, puts an interesting spin on the piece without sacrificing the power of its origins.

From there, the album continues with something of a blend of Israeli melodies and Coltane-styled execution. The three-part "Higiga Suite" has some strong rubato and heavy comping from Genovese before Gurvich plays a solo that highlights the vocal quality of his alto. "Camelao" begins with a solid foundation from bassist Peter Slavov and, after some urgent trade-offs between alto and piano, Mela combines his trap kit and well-placed percussion in a strong solo.

Sometimes the interplay between the members of the group flows so well, the music almost seems a little laidback. But Gurvich has a lot going on in his writing and his band that requires - or perhaps demands - a deep examination, which yields some great satisfaction.

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