Joe Higham & Al Orkesta – Where Are We Now? (2009)

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by S. Victor Aaron

The term “fusion jazz” has been used to refer to the melding of rock and jazz since the late 1960’s, but in truth, jazz has evolved largely by absorbing other forms of music from the beginning. I think that’s one of the very things that’s made this music form intriguing and engaging. But British-born and Belgium-based Joe Higham, along with his nimble ensemble Al Orkesta take “fusion” to a whole ‘nother level.

To understand the musical melting pot of Al Orkesta, it’s first helpful to understand the man behind the band. The multi-reedist Joe Higham first got his formal music training from Newcastle College of Arts and Technology in Britain before studying jazz at the Brussels Conservatory. From there, he has played within a broad range of styles in various bands, ranging from experimental jazz to blues-soul to m-base to punk-jazz. And then it gets really interesting: Higham immersed himself in Arabic music, learning first-hand from Hamid Al Basri, one of the foremost Arabic music teachers in Europe. He has also played in a Jewish klezmer rock group, rounding out his extensive Middle Eastern music credentials. Somewhere along the way, Higham gained some know-how on performing Balkan folk music and the folk music of other parts of Europe as well. He’s acquired so much expertise from his endeavors, he now teaches jazz at the prestigious Jazz Studio in Flanders, one of Europe’s oldest private jazz schools.

With that kind of multi-cultural background it’s a given that when Higham was ready to form his own group, named Al Orkesta, it was destined to sound like so many different things. And yet on the whole, not quite like anything else.

Higham cobbled together his five piece band with Jean-Paul Estievenart on trumpet, Jacques Pirotton on guitar, Olivier Stalon handling the bass and Stephan Pougin manning the drums. Highan plays tenor sax and clarinets to fit the occasion. Their music is a real musical potpourri that not only combines Arabic, Turkis and Slavic music forms into the jazz of Ellington, Monk, Coleman and Davis, but also makes room for the prog rock of Higham’s youth, like Soft Machine, King Crimson, Gentle Giant, Gong and even Pink Floyd. Strains of British jazz-rock of Nucleaus and Elton Dean’s Ninesense can be found in Al Orkesta and thus, there is some of the “traditionally-defined” rock-jazz fusion to be found in this Higham’s all-inclusive music, too.

Every one of the ten songs tendered on Where Are We Now? is a deft blend of these contrasting styles into a cocktail that somehow coheres, and coheres naturally. The coalescing is furthered enhanced by the compositional approach taken by Higham: for several tracks he transcribed traditional Turkish, Syrian and Jewish songs he had taped over his years of travels and combined them with original ideas to create songs that are hybrid in fact, not just in appearance.

The first two songs start off with that formula. “House Of The Marriage” has a mystically floating intro that segues into Higham and Estievenart’s cagey unison lines over chord changes Higham extracted from the implied Turkish melody. Pirotton, with his aggressive Mike Stern guitar attack, provides a vital dual function of supplying the full chords that give the sound some depth and brings the rock element into Al Orkesta’s powerful mix. Stalon’s role is important, too, often holding down the harmony that the others improvise over, such as the Damascus-derived number “Sal Fi-na Al-lahda.” Although not all tracks use this hybrid approach, there’s plenty of interesting twists and turns in each tune; Higham’s “Maflous,” for instance, is perhaps a little more Westernized, but retains a flair for never staying in one musical spot for too long and strike a nice balance between spontaneity and structure. Pirotton’s “Valse Immode” has a dark but sensitive melody, and Estievenart’s muted horn fits right into it.

Higham shows off his klezmer clarinet acumen on the ten-minute-plus song inspired by traditional Jewish music, “Shpil-zhe mir a lidele.” He and Estievenart exchange some musical expressions, and this mostly gentle tune builds up to a climatic raucous before settling down again. The killer track of this bunch is “Simple Dan(ce)”, a whirlwind tour through full-throttle rock, Brit prog, Coltranian jazz Slavic folk and Middle-Eastern modes. It whisks the listener across a multitude of moods, retaining it’s anything-goes attitude throughout. Higham, Estievenart, Jacques Pirotton all get showcased and take turns dictating the character for the song.

Where Are We Now? is an appropriate question to ask when listening to this record…you never know if the music is coming from Istanbul, Damascus, Athens, Tel Aviv, Canterbury or New York. The answer is usually that it’s coming from all those places at once, and more. Joe Higham and his worldly Al Orkesta band has travelled the world of music and brings it to your doorstep as a neatly packaged, smile-inducing sonic adventure. Some of the freshest and most forward-thinking fusion jazz come from the other side of the pond. Here’s a prime example.

Released last March, Where Are We Now? comes courtesy of the small Belgian label Mogno Music. Visit Joe’s website here.


S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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