Limited edition gatefold vinyl
There’s something extraordinary happening when musical cultures and genres merge to create new atmospheres, described as “thesis + antithesis = synthesis” by the fascinating AngloEgyptian partnership of vocalist Natacha Atlas and violinist, composer/arranger and producer Samy Bishai.
Atlas’s discography speaks of a solo artist who continually explores and develops her route through music, also collaborating with names including Jean-Michel Jarre and Peter Gabriel; and her arrival at large-scale project and album Strange Days marks a significant, visionary shift.
“Some years ago”, recalls Atlas, “Samy’s considerable skills were brought to my attention, leading us to work closely together. As my musical director and compositional partner, his strong jazz and classically-trained background have transformed my electro-acoustic Arabic sound in a way I couldn’t imagine.” The connection is natural – each born to an Egyptian father and a British mother – though their respective upbringing gave them different experiences of Eastern and Western cultures. But both felt drawn to the idea of combining Arabic scales and textures with the changes and harmonic language of jazz. “Arabic music has parallels with Indian and Persian classical music, for example” explains Bishai. “But, different as it all is, there are astonishingly similar axiomatic points, notably improvisation; and though characteristics such as quarter tones aren’t part of Western harmony, the flexibility of jazz enables amazing integration.”
A broad personnel is wholly attuned to their concept – at its core, pianist Alcyona Mick, bassist Andy Hamill, drummers Laurie Lowe and Asaf Sirkis, trumpeter Hayden Powell and trombonist Robinson Khoury. Alongside the strings and Oli Savill's percussion that are central to this unique, balanced fusion of jazz and Arabic music come guest appearances from reedsman Idris Rahman, guitarist Paulo Vinícius and vocalists Joss Stone, Tanya Wells and Sofiane Saidi.
Metaphorical, dystopian themes abound as the swirling jazz mystery of ‘Out of Time’ unveils Atlas’s vocal fluency and inflection, while spirited ‘Maktoub’ (‘that which is written’) bounces with infectious hip-hop and Tsifteteli rhythms, portamento strings and choral unison. Lush, romantic ‘Min Baad’ (‘from this moment on’) has aching sorrow at its heart, while the undulating bass and horn riffs of ‘All the Madness’ lay a foundation for glittering piano improv and Atlas’s floating lines.
In ‘Sunshine Day’, dreamy Brazilian rhythm guitar and strings conjur pastel-tinted ‘60s movie soundtrack, Gismonti, Jobim… all reflecting Atlas’s notion “the sun washes the sins of humanity away”. Darkly enigmatic ‘Lost Revolutions’ nods to seminal Arabic composer Zad Moltaka before serenely-ornamented ‘Inherent Rhythm’ leads to soulful, post-hip-hop sashay ‘Words of a King’ (referencing Martin Luther King and Jacques Fresco), featuring a gliding vocal duo with Joss Stone. James Brown classic ‘It’s a Man’s World’ is unexpectedly interpreted in smoky, sensual film noir (hear those strings); and impressionistic reverie ‘Moonchild’ pays homage to incisive poet Kate Tempest.
“Strange Days is a culmination of what I want to express through music – my hybridity and duality between the Middle East and Europe, in all its facets”, affirms Atlas. “We are blessed with these musicians, combining everything we love about jazz and Arabic music.”