Recommended: Masaa – “Afkar”


masaa-afkarShowing the kind of development one hopes for in the wake of a promising debut, the quartet Masaa came out strong on their sophomore effort Afkar, and created one of the more intriguing albums, thus far, in 2014.  Forging a bond between modern European jazz and Lebanese vocals, Afkar is in the enviable position of pairing traits not so easily combined… of being both engagingly cerebral and possessing a beauty that is just plain heartbreaking.

Their 2013 debut album Freedom Dance is certainly a nice enough work.  But the joints holding it together were a bit loose, the edges murky, and the concepts a bit untamed and wild… as if the ensemble knew they had something special and knew what they wanted to accomplish, but just weren’t sure how to wield it.  The downside to this scenario is that the album feels a bit incomplete and unformed.  On the other hand, the upside is that it often leads to the kind of risk-taking creativity that provides all kinds of rewards.  It also builds suspense for the next release.

For Masaa, “next” is Afkar, and on it, Masaa sound like they’ve discovered the answers they were searching for in their debut.  Afkar is a confident recording, evidenced by the continuance of their creative trajectory and their ability to bring it all together cohesively into a singular, multifaceted expression.

Your album personnel:  Rabih Lahoud (vocals), Marcus Rust (trumpet), Clemens Pötzsch (piano), and Demian Kappenstein (drums).

This is an album of sudden and thrilling changes in pace and emotion.  The album gets right to it on “Aruz,” as Lahoud’s soulful vocals join hands with silence and the murmur of piano… and then, quite unexpectedly, the song takes flight, with Pötzsch leading the charge on piano, and Rust stepping in soon after to help with propulsion on trumpet.

Second track “Afkar” also has some delightful surprises up its sleeve.  The rapid fire spoken word of Lahoud’s delivery forms a crosshatch of lines with drums and trumpet… and then Louhoud shortens up his delivery and lets the notes hang until suddenly erupting in a shout to the skies, with the rest of the quartet following right along beside him.  It then cuts back to the rapid spoken word percussion games, before starting the pattern all over again.  The tuneful “Hiwar” adopts a similar pattern, beginning as a whisper, and ending as a roar.

Some tracks are as they seem.  The smoky ballad “Mira” is a flickering candlelight, accentuated by Rust’s use of mute.  The love song “Hlam,” wears its heart on its sleeve, unabashedly fragile.  The spoken word “Revolution” toys with some interplay between the Lebanese and German languages, laying the groundwork for a display of rhythmic eccentricities.

Those rhythmic eccentricities are put to the test on other album tracks, too.  The tide of “Layali” surges forward, battering the shore.  Lahoud’s voice twists in tight circles as the quartet develops an insistent cadence.  “Beiruti” follows a similar path, but with a tempo that’s more persistent and a little less dance-like.  For all their dynamic layers of sound, both tracks are remarkably catchy.

On “Baladi,” Lahoud gives way for Pötzsch to get in a nice piano solo, remaining in the background with some sporadic, though effective accompaniment via wordless harmonization.  And on “Hyper Edita,” Lohoud steps out entirely, with Rust filling the vacuum with an evocative solo, Kappenstein’s cymbals adding brightness to the edges of trumpet’s song.

Possessing the most song-like form of all the album tracks, “Reflexion” emanates intensity simmering just below the surface, of emotions that imply the totality of their strength rather than through a blunt display of fireworks.  Lahoud switches into the French language for this moody song, offering up yet another facet to the quartet’s atypical sound.

The album begins its wind-down with “Nissjan,” a tune that smolders with passion, as the contrast of Lahoud’s quavering voice and the calming tones radiating from the rest of the quartet pull the song in both directions.  The quartet says farewell with the jubilant “Dabke,” a song that dances and stomps and bounces around, and leaves nothing in the tank for its grand finale.

Just a thrilling album, and one of the brighter spots of 2014.

Released on Traumton Records.

Jazz from the Dresden, Germany scene.

Available at:  eMusic | Amazon CD | Amazon MP3


Other things you should probably know:

Masaa - "Freedom Dance"In the opening paragraphs, I refer to Masaa’s debut album Freedom Dance.  I remember when it came out.  It made one of my various follow-up reference lists.  It wasn’t an eMusic Jazz Pick, but only just barely.  Armed with more time, I might’ve gotten it included in my eMusic column before the filing deadline.  It’s a good album, and if you like Afkar, you should think about giving it a shot.  You can stream three album tracks on Masaa’s Soundcloud page (LINK).

Markus Stockhausen - "Eternal Voyage"Also, Lahoud was a member of the Markus Stockhausen project “Eternal Voyage,” a sextet whose members came from different backgrounds to create a contemporary world fusion that delivered some interesting results.  You can stream an album track on Youtube (LINK).