Wednesday, April 20, 2011
George Mgrdichian - The Now Sounds of the Middle East (Monitor, 1969)
Often mentioned in the same breath as fellow Armenian-American oud master (Udi) John Berberian, George Mgrdichian (1935-2006) was slightly older than his counterpart and, according to cognoscenti, his musical equal at the very least. Debates concerning the perceived instrumental superiority of one over the other quickly prove to be pointless exercises much in the same way that arguments about particular jazz virtuosi can be considered fruitless exercises. Who was the better saxophonist - John Coltrane or Sonny Rollins? Well, it all depends on one's musical tastes. The same thing can be said about these two oudists extraordinaires.
Like Berberian, Mgrdichian (mug-er-DICH-ee-an) owes much of his esteemed reputation to the innovations he brought to oud playing. As his New York Times obituary notes, he helped bring greater exposure to the instrument by performing alongside jazz, classical, and other Middle Eastern musicians as well as adopting cutting-edge techniques such as playing single notes, utilizing chords, and fingering his instrument's fretboard with four digits as opposed to the typical two-digit method. Although Mgrdichian originally hailed from Philadelphia (where he recorded his first long player, The Oud), he relocated to New York City during the early 1960s to study at the Julliard School of Music, at which he earned his bachelor's and master's degrees. Throughout that decade and up until his death, he performed at concerts all around the world and participated in numerous recording sessions both as a leader and an accompanist. Efforts such as On the Oud, One Man's Passion, Instrumental Armenian Folk Songs and Dances, and Romanzas Sefarditas will doubtlessly appeal to those with a fondness for Middle Eastern recordings that incorporate both traditional and progressive musical elements.
The Now Sounds of the Middle East dates from 1969 and, as its title implies, seeks to present the listener with what was then considered a more modern approach to playing music of this variety. Assisted by Monitor label-mates and Feenjon Group members Menachem Dworman on guitar, Lou Mavrogian on bass, and Moulay Ali Hafid on dumbeg, Mgrdichian creates an eclectic album that includes impeccable renditions of age-old Turkish, Greek, Armenian, and Israeli standards in addition to interpretations of "now" pop and jazz material. The end results are quite impressive as long as one is not expecting the heavy sounds featured on Berberian's Middle Eastern Rock or the Devil's Anvil Hard Rock from the Middle East, to name two examples. Among the album's 12 instrumentals, the Turkish ("Nehavend Longa," "Sultan Yoga," "Laz Bar," "Chat Araban," "Caderemen Ustune [Rampi]," and "Shenez Longa"), Greek ("Marinella"), and Armenian (the melancholy "Sev Khavar") numbers rank as my personal favorites. Mgrdichian was also well-known for his predilection for traditional Jewish music, an interest most effectively displayed on "Aley Giva" and the medley of "Erev Shel Shoshanim" and "Cholot Mid Bar." The most experimental moments on The Now Sounds of the Middle East belong to a pleasant if not earth-shattering cover of the Beatles' "Yesterday" and the more interesting adaptation of the Dave Brubeck Quartet's "Take 5," which would have benefited from just a bit more exploration on the part of the participating musicians.
1. Nehavend Longa
2. Sultan Yoga
4. Laz Bar
5. Chat Araban
6. Aley Giva
7. Caderemen Ustune (Rampi)
8. Israeli Medley: A). Erev Shel Shoshanim B). Cholot Mid Bar
10. Take 5
11. Shenez Longa
12. Sev Khavar