Timeless Middle Eastern Jazz Icon Souren Baronian at the Top of His Game in Montreal
One of the most rapturously gorgeous, unselfconsciously soulful albums released over the past year is Live at the Montreal Jazz Festival, by ageless multi-reed sage Souren Baronian’s Taksim. It’s a high-quality archival release that goes back a few years. Now in his eighties but absolutely undiminished – his performance at Golden Fest this past winter was mind-blowing – he’s the reigning patriarch of Middle Eastern jazz. Here he plays soprano sax, clarinet, kaval flute and also percussion.
Baronian opens the set with a brooding but kinetic soprano sax melody, adds a few swirls as his son Lee Baronian’s dumbek flickers, then the late, great Haig Magnoukian’s oud goes sprinting over Paul Brown’s terse bass and Mal Stein’s similarly emphatic drums. The song is Gooney Bird – Baronian’s titles tend to be on the colorful side.
The bandleader’s rapidfire chromatic runs alternate with incisive blues riffage and flashes of bop as Magnoukian digs in with a bassline of his own; then the senior Baronian goes in a jauntier direction echoed by the band as the oud drives them to a lickety-split crescendo out.
These songs are long; there’s a lot going on here. The second track is Ocean Algae – look out, this stuff is ALIIIIVE, and possibly psychotropic! Strolling, then marching, then scampering, the sax’s airy precision sometimes brings to mind an Armenian Paul Desmond until Baronian brings his achingly intense microtones into the picture as Magnoukian and the rhythm section scramble for shore.
Magnoukian opens the next number, Floating Goat, with a solo taksim, switching out the fast and furious tremolo-picking for an expansive, spacious but no less edgy attack. Then the band launches into a phantasmagorical, Monkish strut until Baronian’s sax pulls them into slightly sunnier, more straightforward territtory over a pouncing 7/8 groove. Magnoukian’s spiky, pointillistic waves fuel an upward drive until the drums and percussion provide a hilariously rude interruption.
Baronian’s pensive clarinet gives a moody, subtle latin tinge to the slinky, midtempo Rayhana, a feast of low-midrange melismatics. His poignant, windswept solo is arguably the album’s high point, echoed with similar expansiveness and gravitas by Magnoukian.
Switching from clarinet to kaval, Baronian and Magnoukian take 8th Sky further south toward Egyptian snakecharming terrain as the rhythm section percolates, peaking out with a fervent Rahsaan Roland Kirk-ish solo. The album winds up with the bustlingly chromatic Time and Time Again, Magnoukian’s bristling solo handing off to Baronian’s sax, which dips and dances to a joyous conclusion. Is Souren Baronian a NEA Jazz Master yet? If not, we should start a petition – while the NEA still exists.
If you’re looking for the album online, good luck – however, it is available at s shows, and when he’s not on the road, Baronian typically makes Barbes his home base. And there’s a more recent, similarly magical Manhattan show from last year up at youtube as well.