Maghreb Voices – Tunisian Jazz Pianist and Composer Wajdi Cherif, Part I

A Sweet Newness in the Exchange of Musical Traditions

Wajdi Cherif, Fuzzy Colours

2009, Wech Records

Wajdi Cherif, Jasmine

2006, Wech Records

?Jazz means working things out musically with other people. You have to listen to other musicians and play with them even if you don’t agree with what they’re playing. It teaches you the very opposite of racism and anti-Semitism. It teaches you that the world is big enough to accommodate us all.?

Wynton Marsalis

?The thing that is making jazz healthy today is that people are coming out of other backgrounds, from rock, folk, from ethnic music. It’s changing the music, and for the better.?

Billy Taylor

Once again cynics are arguing that jazz is dead as doornails, backing their claims with lagging record sales and the decades-long marginalization of a genre that once filled the dance halls, airwaves, and film studios. They trace the beginnings of jazz’s demise to the increased intellectualization that began in the late ?50s with Coltrane and Davis, and refer to fusion and other modern adaptations as rare flashes in the pan, incapable of reviving jazz’s importance as a cultural idiom.

But there are some very cogent arguments on the other side. Sure, jazz has moved from a mainstream popular musical form to being the subject of intense adulation of those elite few with the capacity to appreciate it.

Is that so bad? Think back, those of you who can, and remember all the caramel-coated fluff that was passed off as jazz when jazz was practically all there was to listen to. Do you really want to go back to those days? Or would you rather take your pick of whatever brilliant, well-trained, focused creative geniuses happen to emerge this year?

Wajdi Cherif, for example. Cherif’s music is a seamless blend of jazz, Western classical, and Arabic influences, his tunes as true to the Western classical tradition as they are original, maintaining the pure elegance of the best jazz while adding a necessary component, essential not only to the vitality of jazz but also to its ongoing existence: the influence of other cultures, in this case the musical genres of Cherif’s native Tunisia.

There is a full spectrum of emotion in the tracks on Jasmine, radiating sadness, warmth, a gentle and loving reassurance, tenderness, and wistfulness, with a very relaxed ambience in spite of quick, driving polyrhythms.

The Arabic influence and instrumentation is a little more salient on Jasmine than on Fuzzy Colours, with the oud and the percussion instruments granting a delicious texture to the improvisations, but in Fuzzy Colours (which also incorporates Latin sounds) Cherif has incorporated Arabic modes into his compositions and has revived, as is the wont of many Maghreb and Maghreb-influenced players, tunes penned eons ago by jazz greats like Gillespie (?A Night in Tunisia?), Juan Tizol (?Caravan?), and Miles Davis (?Nardis?), highlighting his awareness of the natural understanding that Arabic music shares with jazz.

Fuzzy Colours has brought remarkably lively interpretations to these standards and Cherif’s own compositions have beautiful melody lines and an innovative élan while sitting squarely within the jazz tradition.

There is a beautiful call and response between past and present with this kind of swap (guitarist Jan Wouter Oostenrijk is another prime example), when the new Arabic-influenced jazz players play these old jazz renditions of Arabic melodies, tunes that may seem quaint today in comparison with the sophisticated maqams and rhythms now being introduced by these same musicians, who nonetheless make humble bows to the great composers of the past before climbing onto their shoulders.

To be continued . . .

Maghreb Voices celebrates the art, culture, and struggles of the peoples of Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, in northern Africa.

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