Just when it seemed that the idea of musical fusions had reached their peak, that consumers preferred the nostalgic sounds of such world-music stalwarts as Buena Vista Social Club to anything daring and experimental, oud master and composer Rabih Abou-Khalil explodes everyone's expectations. You might think that the current conservative era would curtail interest in truly provocative and boundary-breaking sounds, but this incredibly prolific musician (13 albums and counting) continues to break the mold.
Fusing the indigenous music of the Arabic world with flagrant jazz improvisation and European classical technique, Lebanese-born Abou-Khalil makes music that is thrilling, evocative and at times outrageous. For his previous albums, Abou-Khalil surrounded himself with like-minded travelers, musicians who could quickly integrate themselves into his magical mesh and who (like Abou-Khalil) spoke eloquently, no matter their stylistic heritage. Turning the fretless stringed oud, a lute-like instrument, into a vehicle capable of scaling heights most would assign to jazz fusion, Morton's Foot finds Abou-Khalil matching his prowess and composing power with a septet of drums, clarinet, accordion, tuba, frame drum and a vocalist (Gavino Murgia) who combines Tibetan throat singing with a kind of Ennio Morricone exoticism that is scary and spellbinding.
For a lesson in speed and delicacy that even John McLaughlin could love, skip the opening track and head straight to "Lobotomie Mi Baba Lu," where Abou-Khalil spins more oud notes in 10 seconds than most jazz guitarists do in their short commercial lifespans. Resonant and lusty, this is the sound of a centuries-old instrument dragged kicking, screaming and shouting into the 21st century. Moving back, the opening track "Ma Muse M'Abuse" starts the set with something resembling sanity, but even then its mountain-climbing patterns and instrumental battle for the top is not for the fainthearted. As the drums trace a high-hat free groove of thudding toms and snare-drum whacks, clarinet maestro Gabriele Mirabassi smokes a wailing solo that could raise Benny Goodman from the dead. The title track is a showcase for vocalist Murgia, the guttural singer matching subtle clarinet slides and "Pinocchio"-quoting accordion, moving toward a climax that is pure carnival.
Lest you think Morton's Foot lacks comportment and grace, "Il Ritorno del Languore" slows the tempo but not the intensity level, alluding to the stillness of a sweltering Beirut summer, but also its requisite danger. "L'histoire d'un Parapluie" is a near dirge, a simple bum-bum tom rhythm underpinning a clarinet lament until a whirling dance figure slowly takes hold. Humor is a big part of Abou-Khalil's music, as in the controlled melody and counterpoint of "Waltz for Dubbya" and the New Orleans-meets-Jordan excitement of "Dr. Gieler's Weiner Schnitzel." The ingredients used in "The Return of the Maltese Chicken" must be heard to be believed.