Shadow Boxing – Encountering Chameleons of the White Shadow
Chameleons of the White Shadow – Joseph Tawadros (ABC Music)
A take on the CD by Arjun von Caemmerer
If an index of the ‘success’ of any art is its capacity to make an audience question what they have previously taken for granted, their own habitual modes, then on this measure Chameleons of the White Shadow, the 10th album from Joseph Tawadros in as many years, succeeds admirably, though perhaps not quite in the way the producers of this disc either anticipated or intended. To date my own habit has been to look first and listen second and enclosed as it is within a case or slip, often with a supplementary booklet, the compact disc naturally invites—quite unlike a download—such sequential actions. But after encountering this album and the unexpected admixture of emotional responses that it provoked in me, reactions that surfaced precisely because first I had looked—and was somewhat disturbed at what I saw—and then later listened—and was then reassuringly confounded by what I’d heard, my previous custom is now tempered with a new degree of caution.
The front cover of Chameleons of the White Shadow depicts the oud virtuoso as a latter day troubadour: he appears, in romantic-contemplative mode, sitting in shadow and dappled light, beneath a gigantic tree, cradling his most beautiful instrument. The Moreton Bay Fig against which he reposes is festooned with a most unlikely fruit: suspended from its unruly branches the variegated and ovaloid bodies of several more ouds dangle, as though waiting to be plucked or to fall, ripe and ready, to the ground. The tree is clearly laden, not just with these strange fruit, but also with the inherited weight of religious symbolism, and becomes a central image that recurs in different contexts throughout the CD booklet. The tree is sometimes alone, bathed resplendent in an unearthly white light that glances off its manifold ramifications; it also appears in other incarnations in association with the oud player. In one of these latter images the composer is pictured sitting beneath the tree, this time sans oud, evoking the parallel image of the Buddha and his enlightenment beneath the Bodhi tree. Religious references are also overt in the titles of several of the discs released by Joseph Tawadros, including Epiphany, Visions, Angel and The Prophet: Music Inspired by the Poetry of Khalil Gibran and this last title may help decode another of the booklet’s images, which seems to construct Joseph Tawadros himself as the living embodiment, perhaps even as the prophet, of his own instrument. The path on which he stands itself reflects the shape of the oud, its neck and body, and his own body is centered within the body of this oud. Reinforcing this, behind his head, descending into his body from above is the neck of another oud, so he is as though transformed to Oud through both axes, horizontally and vertically. He looks upward, eyes opened Heavenward, and to the Right, receptive, his folded arms suggestive of an air of calm expectancy coupled with the immovability of resolve, whilst at his feet the fruit has fallen from the tree: radiating from his centre, their faces and strings turned submissively to the ground, as though dutifully awaiting his awakening touch, are the family of sleeping ouds, the servant instruments of this Master Instrument.
Reversed, the flip side of the enigmatically titled front cover renders, in literally purple prose, a prominent quotation, appropriated from John F Kennedy: Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth, sentiments that simultaneously hold a promise, a challenge and a statement of ideals. The invocation of growth bolsters the florid imagery of the tree, and indeed, Joseph sees this coterie of musicians in essence as a grand tree, their thoughts rooted deep in the ground, stable and strong while their many branches submit to growth, oblivious to direction, but reaching for the stars.
For the ardent practitioner of any art, path and goal converge and here, from the vantage of this music’s potential audience, the many branches are themselves identified as conspicuous stars: Béla Fleck, widely regarded as the world’s most innovative and technically proficient banjo player; Richard Bona, one of the funkiest electric bass players alive; Joey DeFrancesco, The Greatest Jazz Organist in DownBeat Magazine’s Critics and Readers Poll every year since 2003; vibraphonist Roy Ayers, an American Soul/Funk Legend and one of the most sampled musicians in Hip-Hop; Howard Johnson, considered by many to be the father of Solo Jazz Tuba; Jean-Louis Matinier, a leading contemporary accordion virtuoso and composer. And then there are the brothers Tawadros: James, whose percussion, req and bendir, is apparent not only all over this album but also throughout the ‘The Hour of Separation’ (the Tawadros’ brothers understated and excellent 2010 collaboration with drummer Jack DeJohnette, bassist John Patitucci and guitarist John Abercrombie). Not least, there is the oud master himself, Joseph Tawadros, whose performance and compositional skills have been acclaimed nationally and internationally, garnering him no fewer than nine Aria nominations and five Limelight awards.
Of course, all of these weighty credentials point more to past achievement than to the present, and Joseph Tawadros, not one to rest lightly on such laurels, is at pains to point out that the past, which is preserved in the artefact that is the recorded music of this album, is actually only a faint record of their true endeavour, an enterprise more aligned with the spirit of seeking rather than the material by-products of their search. This spirit of seeking—what Joseph has dubbed as (the paradoxically named) “White Shadow”—does not itself have an end-point: it is a desire which gnaws at them, a thirst that cannot be quenched; it has never been about reaching home, but their quest, their hunger for another musical adventure. The nature of these musicians, these “Chameleons”, is also described by Tawadros: They are Adaptors. Dreamers. Fearless risk takers…Pushing boundaries, challenging convention, striving for the new…they are a rare breed…converging with simultaneous souls to envisage a grand new sonic world. Their creed is modelled on another full-page quotation, this one from Ralph Waldo Emerson: Do not go where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.
The cumulative effect of the album’s imagery added to the semi-proselytising nature of the quotations (that likely do no more than preach to the already converted), and the somewhat extravagant description of the performers’ credentials and their mission statement was to irritate me a little. The quotations seem unnecessarily divisive (the enemy) and also somewhat patronizing: many artists do not conform; arguably, many do grow (albeit sometimes painfully and unevenly); and artists generally do carve their own path to the waterfall, this often being the visible trail by which their indulgent audience identifies them as artists in the first place. Further, citing popular opinion of who is considered “the best” or “the funkiest” exponent—of whatever—seems to over-weight the value of mass conformity in a way that sits not altogether comfortably or consistently with the JFK quote.
But the third page-long quotation left me more puzzled than irritated. Attributed to the vibraphonist Roy Ayers, it reverses the pattern of the previous quotations: white-on-purple rather than purple-on-white, all capitals rather than lower case. Gracing the back page of the CD booklet it reads: WITHIN THE STRUCTURE OF THE MUSIC THERE IS A NEVER ENDING MAGNITUDE OF INFINITE STRENGTH, WISDOM AND WILL AND WE ALL MUST PERSEVERE. If THE MUSIC of this sentence is read as just the music on the album, this may seem somewhat odd, perhaps even self-aggrandising, but the imperative WE ALL MUST PERSEVERE hints at something else. My uncertain conclusion was that THE MUSIC here was seen both as a manifestation of God, and as a salve for dealing with adversity.
This latter sense of music as salve and balm was strongly reinforced by a fourth full-page quotation, part of a double page paean to the Tawadros brothers’ mother, Rose Mansi Tawadros, who died only in 2012, and in whose loving memory the album is dedicated. The layout and colour scheme of the memorial poem parallels that of the Ayers’ quotation, indicative perhaps of more a personal relevance than the Emerson or JFK quotes. Also, like the Ayers’ quotation, the verse hints at her own negotiation of difficulty. This triggered a memory that one of the tracks (perhaps only coincidentally the centrally sited one) on ‘The Hour of Separation’ was called ‘Rose’ and I recollected one of the two powerfully poignant quotations (both scripted in stark black letters on a rose-red background and both derived from Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet), that occur on that previous album: Love knows not its depth until the Hour of Separation. I surmised then that Rose had perhaps been ill for some time (this album was released in 2010), and reinterpreted Ayers’ words as issuing comfort: the reconciling of the pain that inevitably accompanies the suffering and death of a loved one with the belief that this must accord with a higher purpose, a purpose at times unfathomable but nonetheless discernible through music.
Unsettled thus by these accoutrements, I sat down amid the company of my own emotions, a swirl of irritation, puzzlement, curiosity and sympathy—all admixed with a sense of guilt at my own uncharitability—to listen to the music on offer…
‘White Shadow’ abruptly kicks off, the quadrupled voice of oud, banjo, accordion and bass dropping us into the thick and quick of this deft & sinuous composition, battened down at all the hatches by the galloping energy of James’ energetic accompaniment. Throughout the album, Béla’s plucky picks are an especially well-matched foil to the oud’s varied voicings, which here morphs through the stately and unhurried gravitas of traditional soundings to open-stringed acoustic strummery and beyond: accelerando at Fleck-speed. Slithering beneath, discreet, is the supple bounce of Bona’s bass; whilst illuminating the composition from above are Matinier’s bright & stabby accordionic folds.
Joey DeFrancesco’s seasoned fingers reprise the opening to ‘Gypo Blues’, the sole track on which Howard Johnson cameos in, the opened buffoonery of his tuba skidding all too briefly from margin to centre against the backdrop of the Tawadros’ joint forces, until Joey flourishes: sheer, electric & flashy.
From the title and tone of ‘Rose in the Sky’ comes another surmise: that this aching, measured and nuanced duet from Joseph and James is a memorial piece to Rose Tawadros, and, further, that perhaps this beautiful piece was played on that particular oud pictured within the booklet which accompanies the dedicatory poem to her, an oud that has ROSE engraved, beneath the keys, into its neck so that in playing it the notes themselves rise in the sky: a fitting tribute from this fraternal duo to the woman whose breath was music, whose smile was harmony and whose voice was pure melody.
‘Chameleon’ ropes in the combined talents of the core four musicians of this disc, braiding in Béla and Joseph before stitching James and Bona into its cloth. True to name Chameleon is not colour fast: Bona’s fluid piquancy washes into a Moorish hue; oud, on the fly, becomes Spanish guitar. Béla outlines the theory then lays down the proof: all arrive at the same conclusion, none unconvinced.
‘Hidden Voices’ may be the shortest track on this disc but it is not at all slight: oud and banjo hold completely together like the lingering embrace of long lost brothers finally reunited.
Strolling breezily along ‘Street in Sarajevo’, Jean-Louis Matinier perambulates in unhurried and amiable conversation with his companions, Joseph and Béla to revisit, with occasional alleyway detours, haunts, redolent with nostalgia.
James and Richard Bona set up the groove for Roy Ayers’ single musical excursus on this album, the freewheeling ‘Freo’. But he does not ring all alone at the city gates for long: as though yielding to irresistible forces, banjo and oud are recruited into the cause. Their argument, eloquent and persuasive, is convincing. Inside, Béla completely rearranges all of the furniture; refashions what once were considered mere windows; renews the outlook.
‘Shelter’ is travelogue and trialogue: Joey, Joseph and James ushering the listener through the several rooms of this ample and safe abode.
‘Variations on a Dream’ turns over Joseph, Béla and James, all aware and awake, their interactions uncannily evocative of the spirit of that other great trio: Ali Akbar Khan, Ravi Shankar and Ustad Alla Rakha.
Joseph’s solo oud meditation, ‘Last Embrace’, sounds a direct, uncluttered and reflective memorial. It reminds that the word brace encloses within itself the significantly coupled meanings, the noun a pair, and the verb to hold, tightly.
Located in Cairo, ‘Café Riche’, points to origins, the city of Joseph Tawadros’ birth, as well as to his concept of “White Shadow” as a place of great mystery and intrigue, of old legends, fairytales and myths: Café Riche has hosted assassin and revolutionary, intellectual and tourist. In the meeting place of this composition Joseph, James, Bona and Matinier converse: by turns amiable, argumentative, separate, together.
‘Tribal Bendir’ is James’ solo composition. This improvisation starts tentatively, as though from a distance, temporal as well as physical. This piece, rooted in the instrument’s past, reflects—quite literally—its present day continuation: from its tribal origins to the modern day recording studio, with Joseph at times playing with and against his more immediate past, his own percussion’s sonic reflections echoing off the studio walls.
‘Time as Place’, as the second Tawadros brothers’ duet on this album, exists as the instrumental cousin to ‘Rose in the Sky’. Perhaps the title points to memory, and to the actual inseparability within our lived experience of time and space: there is always and ever a ‘there’ that corresponds to the ‘then’; there is never a ‘then’ without a ‘there’.
‘Broken Promises’ features the same quartet that inhabit ‘Café Riche’: here the conversation, ending this disc, continues, upbeat in tone, Joseph persuasive with his voice-like oud, and Matinier French-nonchalant, almost insouciant.
Whether the Hidden Voices and Broken Promises, the multiplicitous Chameleons and White Shadows, actually live up to the hyperbolic promises of this album’s packaging ultimately lies—as with all MUSIC—more in the Ear than in the Eye of the beholder. But as a post-script, the addition of some further knowledge (plus a shadowy minus sign) can change what appears as mere “hyperbole” to a “hyper-bole” of a quite different order: what I did not know at the time of my initial encounter with this album was the further and more significant resonance of the tree-hung oud: according to legend, Lamak invented the oud after suspending the remains of his own son—untimely deceased—from a tree. It was from out of his shape, silhouetted in the sky, that arose the inspiration for this instrument’s neck and body.
Joseph Tawadros – oud
Bela Fleck – banjo
Richard Bona – electric bass
Joey DeFrancesco – hammond organ
James Tawadros – req and bendir
Roy Ayers – vibraphone (track 7)
Howard Johnson – tuba (track 2)
Jean-Louis Matinier – accordion (tracks 1, 6, 14)
Joseph Tawadros on the web
Read more pieces by Arjun von Caemmerer on AustralianJazz.net