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Thursday, October 20, 2022

‘A’ Trio - Folk (Al Maslakh, 2022)

By Eyal Hareuveni

‘A’ Trio is for sure the oldest free improvisation group to come out of Lebanon and, most likely, also the oldest one coming from all over the Middle East. Certainly, it is the first band that recorded a free jazz album in the Arab world (A, La CDthèque Productions, 2003). The trio - trumpeter Mazen Kerbaj, who is also a gifted visual artist who did the cover art, guitarist Sharif Sehnaoui and double bass player Raed Yassin, also organizes the only Lebanese free music festival, Irtijal, since 2001, and runs the record labels Al Maslakh (with the motto: publishing the un-publishable) and Annihaya. The A’ Trio celebrates this year its 20th anniversary with two albums, the live recording entitled The Binding Third (due out by Unrock) and the studio album Folk which offers a set of five new pieces.

The ‘A’ Trio in its early days relied on the free jazz legacy, but soon the music of the trio moved away from its structural-textural approach as Kerbaj, Sehnaoui and Yassin relied more and more on highly inventive and imaginative prepared and extended techniques. These techniques not only expanded the sonic palette of their respective instruments but reframed the trumpet, acoustic guitar and double bass as abstract sound generators. Kerbaj often divides the trumpet’s mouthpiece from its body and bell which is laid between his legs, and employs the trumpet’s bells as a springboard for assorted objects; Sehnaoui attaches an array of objects to the guitar’s strings and rarely touches the strings in a conventional way; Yassin usually lays his double bass on a chair and plays all over its wooden body and strings, with his hands, bows and objects.

The ‘A’ Trio calls its characteristic sound and dynamics “textural swing”, and, indeed, there is a strong visual dimension to the trio’s live performances and a captivating and powerful intensity that probably only a band coming from such a torn and about to collapse country as Lebanon can have. There is nothing folkish in Folk except its complete acoustic sound, captured with no cuts, overdubbing, or any kind of electronics at Audio Cue Studio in Berlin in March 2018. But there are a few elements that reference the past meetings of the ‘A’ Trio, as a collective and in their respective solo practices, with like-minded folks from all over the globe like the Australian jazz trio The Necks, the American folk outlier Alan Bishop (of Sun City Girls fame), and more recently British free improv pioneers AMM (with whom the trio released AAMM, Al Maslakh, 2017). The ‘A’ Trio has also collaborated with the Turkish free jazz collective KonstruKt; French poet Patrick Dubost; Lebanese punk-rock band Scrambled Eggs, Martin Küchen, David Stackenäs and Michel Doneda.

Folk presents the ‘A’ Trio in its most inventive form but also in its most playful side. Kerbaj, Sehnaoui and Yassin never surrender to familiar routes and conventions but know how to develop arresting and often ironic textures with great emotional intensity and wild imagination. The abstract but quite cinematic music flows organically despite the restless and sometimes chaotic usage of extended techniques, or the rare reliance on rhythmic patterns or loose melodic veins. It feels fresh and urgent as if time is running out fast and there is so much that this trio wishes to deliver. Only that last piece “A Tower with No Imam” has a conventional narrative, and its minimalist and dramatic atmosphere corresponds with the ‘A’ Trio with Alan Bishop's title piece of Burj Al Imam (Al Maslakh, 2015. برج - Burj - in Arabic means tower), a loose reworking of early Sun City Girls track “The Imam” (from Funeral Mariachi, Abduction, 2010). The new, much darker and more melancholic piece may be listened as a sonic warning about the deteriorating situation of Lebanon, with no Imam - no spiritual leader - to save it.

Like the description of ‘A’ Trio’s Al Maslakh label, the music of this unit is a sonic UFO created in an isolated place, far from seminal free music artists or legacies, and invents its own suggestive language and its own music on its own DIY terms. A great trio that guarantees to enrich the mind of anyone who cares to expand its sonic imagination.