—a pianist who appears to have made it his life's work to figure out just how far Arabic musical traditions can be thrust into the American jazz idiom—has unleashed perhaps his most audacious project yet.
Typically an acoustic player most often fronting a trio, Yamani makes a brave about face with King Matar," a quarter-tonal jazz/electro tribute to the virtuoso Lebanese/Syrian buzuq player Matar Muhammad (1939-1995), who lived most of his life in the pianist's homeland, Lebanon. The result is a trippy electro-jazz wig-out that fidgets between Levantine microtonal melodies, yet is delivered on blaring synths over trancey beats that might even work on a dancefloor.
I basically took one of his signature licks in Bayati maqam — which he uses to end an improvisational segment—and wrote this from it," explains Berlin-based Yamani. This track is basically a taksim
which starts in G bayat and goes all over the place but is engulfed with the jazz chords and electronic vibe."
Talk is already underway to publish a transcription of Yamani's swirling microtonal synth improvisation—grounded in the Arabic maqam tradition—while the single comes accompanied by an artsy video in collaboration with Ali J. Dalloul, a Middle Eastern filmmaker who recently went semi-viral from a quarantine video series using voice messages from friends.
The visually arresting clip was pieced together from Yamani's father's old VHS and 8mm tapes, shot across the region between the mid-'80s and 2003—contrasting vignettes picturing stark deserts and storied historical sites with weapons and chaotic Beirut city scenes—edited and primitively cut and phased together as a self-conscious piece of retro psychedelia.
Born in 1980 and brought up amid the Lebanese Civil War, close to the border between East and West Beirut, Yamani emigrated in 2005 to study jazz piano at The Netherlands' Prins Claus Conservatorium. He won the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz's Composers Competition in 2010 and a year later moved to New York City where he launched a successful jazz career, where he was invited to perform alongside Wayne Shorter
at the United Nations' Manhattan headquarters in 2012.
A self-described Jazz/Afro-Tarab" musician intent on integrating unfamiliar harmonic approaches into the art form, last year Yamani took part in America's official International Jazz Day celebrations by presenting a Zoom lecture entitled Reharmonizing Arabic Music with Tarek Yamani" via the Herbie Hancock
Institute of Jazz.
The electro flavours and freewheeling spirit of King Matar" perhaps share just a tiny smidgen of kinship with Brad Mehldau
's recent electronic experiments, but like the American pianist, Yamani will likely remain remembered for his work in front of a grand piano. Yamani's recorded output so far has attracted widespread praise for intuitively melding traditional maqam with Western jazz sonics in an acoustic context; his first two albums—Ashur
(2012, Edict Records) and Lisan Al Tarab: Jazz Conceptions in Classical Arabic
(2014, Edict Records) exploring traditional Levantine and Arabic harmony in the context of a traditional jazz piano trio.
His third outing Peninsular
(2017, Edict Records) was born out of a research and performance commission from the Abu Dhabi Festival, entitled Portraits in Khaleeji Rhythms and Jazz," exploring the shared languages between jazz and the Gulf, with each of the album's nine tracks built around a different traditional rhythm. The year-long project also bore a book, authored by drummer/collaborator Rony Afif
and edited by Yamani, titled The Percussion Ensemble of the Arabian Peninsular
and offering an academic study, transcription and history of 36 regional rhythms.