Akinmusire and Youssef canvas in divergent tones during painterly Barbican displays

 

What links Dhafer Youssef, the Tunisian vocalist and oud virtuoso with Californian trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, aside from the fact that Akinmusire features on Diwan Of Beauty And Odd, Youssef's latest album?

If you saw their double bill at the Barbican on the final weekend of the London Jazz Festival then you already know the answer. It's range, control and a painterly approach to sound.

Youssef is the showman, the crowd-pleaser. He elicits whoops of delight as he sings, graining laments with guttural inflections before soaring into his upper register, borne by reverb. He goes so high it's uncanny – a weird but wonderful sound, like he's broadcasting a signal from the outreaches of the solar system. It earns him standing ovations, but to my ear Akinmusire's palette is broader and more intriguing. He's the old master in disguise.

DhaferYoussefLJF2016 MG 1906

When he joined the muezzin for a handful of numbers in the second half he glided effortlessly alongside him. With his own quartet, playing music from The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier To Paint, he shredded notes, sawed at intervals and carved out lacerating solos full of shakes, leaps and sudden stops, retreating to the back of the stage then striding up to the mic to renew the attack. We heard velvety phrases, burnished tones, grunts, strangled half-notes and bestial snuffles. His trumpet sounded like shakuhachi and then a viola. Canvas after canvas was daubed with sound.

DhaferYoussefLJF2016 DSF5827

But that's where the comparison ends. Diwan Of Beauty And Odd was all about wiry oud melodies, dancing riffs and irregular signatures, enhanced by the sunlit piano lines of Aaron Parks, the jostling muscularity of Ben Williams' bass and the punishing fills of the brilliant Justin Faulkner on drums. The Imagined Savior was (is) much less accessible, a psychologically complex, emotionally exhausting set, tormented by the throbbing of Harish Raghavan's bass and the discordant churn of Sam Harris' piano and Justin Brown's flailing cymbals. The melodies are abstract, the time even more so. It's an exercise in tone colour, mood, gesture, impression and implication. There's precious little for you to hold on to, you just have to grit your teeth and slide into it, like black bath water.

If I'm totally honest, it frightened me a little. It made me worry about Akinmusire's emotional state and about my own and I've never felt that at a jazz gig before. Perhaps that's why I loved it.

– Thomas Rees
– Photos by Roger Thomas

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