Beauty and The B​​​easts

Mohannad Nasser at Espai Multicultural Sankofa, Valencia

VALENCIA, Spain. While back home, a savage war seems to go on without an end in sight, Syrian oudist and composer Mohannad Nasser offered Sunday a deeply soulful musical response. There were no political statements. None were intended and none were needed. The beauty and humanity of the performance said it all.

Playing before a full room at Espai Intercultural Sankofa, a multicultural neighborhood space in Valencia, Spain; Nasser chose to perform without amplification and it paid off handsomely. Unmediated by electronics, the warm, soft sound of the oud — an ancient, 12 strings, pear-shaped lute that is a mainstay in many Middle Eastern and North African music genres — spoke in a human scale — gently, imperfectly, and rich in nuance.

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Gnawa Music: Talking to the Spirits

Innov Gnawa in performance. Master Hassan Ben Jafaar, sintir, on the left; Samir LanGus, second from the left.

Deceptively simple, at once direct and mysterious, earthy and spiritual, Gnawa music is the expression of the black community of Morocco which, initially, according to scholars, was comprised of black slaves who, over time, became free as historical circumstances changed.

Associating and translating cultural experiences are exercises fraught with peril. But if this all sounds oddly familiar, it might explain why Gnawa music has often been called “the blues of Morocco.”

“Gnawa is the mother of jazz and blues,” says Samir LanGus, the founding member of Innov Gnawa, a Brooklyn-based group appearing at the North Beach Bandshell Saturday. “Gnawa [music] stayed in Africa, and jazz and blues came to the West. What we sing about, the troubles and joys of everyday life, it’s the blues.”

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John Beasley: reimagining Monk

John Beasley pic

John Beasley

The music of Thelonious Monk has been a source of endless fascination and with good reason. Monk’s universe has its own laws. Beautifully constructed and quirky, soulful but also paced by brushstrokes of humor, his music seems open to an endless variety of readings.

In his MONK’estra project, pianist, conductor and arranger John Beasley, whose long list of credits includes performing and recording with Miles Davis, Steely Dan, Chaka Khan and James Brown, set out to re-imagine Monk’s music in a big band setting, not as a repertory exercise but as fresh interpretations done in Monk’s spirit.

His arrangements of even some of Monk’s iconic pieces, captured in two Grammy-nominated volumes, take the music to unexpected places. “Epistrophy” hints at a rumba; the nocturnal mysteries of  “‘Round Midnight” get reframed by a modern soul groove; “Little Rootie Tootie” opens with, of all choices, a cha cha cha, and Monk’s lesser known “Brake’s Sake” (which opens MONK’estra Vol. 2) is reborn with a muscular backbeat and a rap intervention.

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