BEIRUT: There is no chanting to be heard during the Tarek Yamani Trio’s Tuesday evening concert at the Beirut Souks shopping mall. The band leader utters a few amiable introductory remarks between tunes. Late in the show, drummer Khaled Yassine’s little boy leads a brief, unscheduled, shout-out from the audience.
Otherwise, the instruments do the talking.
The gig sees Yamani, Yassine and contrabassist Makram Abol Hosn course through an archipelago of some half-dozen tunes – a couple of jazz standards, a couple more classics from the MENA region that Yamani’s arranged for jazz ensemble, two of Yamani’s own numbers and a pair of pop tunes, with some seasonal flotsam bobbing in the shallows.
Tuesday had been a damp day and promises to be a sodden evening, so there are a few empty chairs in the lateral wing of seating set up in for this, the 11th concert of Beirut Chants, one of the few audience-gathering musical events to be staged in this delinquent year.
It’s chilly too, by Beirut standards anyway, with the pianist wearing (fingerless) woollen gloves when he sits at the keyboard.
The set gets rolling with the trio’s reading of the classic Egyptian tune “Muwashah Hubi Zurni.” Yamani’s is a full-on jazz arrangement of the tune’s modalities, a rollicking middle-distance sprint for all three musicians that navigates a busy, urban-sounding landscape before glancing back at the muwashah’s base melody.
Those interested in the ongoing conversation between jazz and oriental classical music may recall that another Lebanese musician has given “Muwashah Hubi Zurni” a jazz arrangement – vocalist Rima Khcheich, in one of her collaborations with bassist Tony Overwater. It’s a mark of the form’s adaptability, and the musicians’ talent, that these two settings are at once so appealing and so utterly distinct.
Yamani’s interpretation of the number does, however, tax one of the microphone stands leaning into the guts of the Yamaha – forcing the pianist, then a technician, to discipline it several times over the course of the evening. Otherwise the performance sounds smooth as glass.
The gig moves on to a somewhat more recent tune, Herbie Hancock’s “The Sorcerer,” first recorded in the late ’60s.
In the trio’s hands, Hancock’s number becomes more of a showcase for the easy rapport of its players, in this case Yamani and Yassine – who through the late ’90s and 2000s came to be recognized as the most versatile percussionist around, as comfortable in big-ticket ensembles as in experimental sessions a la Irtijal.
Rather than sticking to Hancock’s piano-centered prototype, Yamani veers to a more generous, if bossy, variation. The smiling Yamani repeatedly rolls the tune forward in intensity, then sits back from the keyboard, as if lobbing the melodic line to the grinning drummer, who, catching it, briefly improvises a staccato percussion interlude.
This game of call-and-response continues until the percussionist abruptly ceases his improv mid-phrase, as if signalling it’s about time to get on with things.
Though the musical paddleball plays out between piano and drum battery, it’s a concise grace note from Abol Hosn’s bass that brings “The Sorcerer” home.
The trio returns to the “East-West conversation” with Yamani’s “Sama’i Yamani,” which delights in eliding the club jazz gestures and pacing with keyboard flourishes redolent of an “Arabian Nights” film score. Yamani’s arrangement of Zaki Nassif’s “Nakili ahla Zahra” is, like most of the tunes in this evening’s concert, driving, crisp and accomplished.
Yamani’s “Fi Hulal al-Afrah,” which follows, is another jazz interpretation of an historic muwashah, this one credited to Kamel al-Khula‘i. The trio interpretation is, if anything more embedded in the modalities of tarab.
So it’s a little surprising when the playlist next swerves to a jazz setting of James Warren’s “Everybody's Gotta Learn Sometime,” a pop tune from the 1980s that a fellow named Beck resurrected for Michel Gondry’s fantastic 2004 film “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”
To conclude, this evening with the affable Tarek Yamani Trio hopscotches from a cool, if unrecongisable, reimagining of John Coltrane’s “26-2,” through a nudging wink at “Jingle Bells” (Christmas is only 10 days away), to end with a highly percussive contemporary number the composer calls “New Dabke.”
These players need no chant to be festive.
Beirut Chants ends 23 December. For more, see: https://www.beirutchants.com/calendar