Souren Baronian Brings His Agelessly Soulful Fun and Middle Eastern Jazz Gravitas Back to Barbes
Is Souren Baronian a NEA Jazz Master yet? If not, there are guys younger and a lot less accomplished who’ve received that honor. No time like the present, people…while there still is such thing as the NEA.
Now in his eighties, the Armenian-American multi-reedman, percussionist and bandleader is absolutely undiminished as a soloist, one of the greatest pioneers and most soulful players in the history of jazz, let alone the Middle Eastern jazz he’s made a career in. He’s bringing the latest edition of his long-running Taksim ensemble to an intimate show at Barbes on August 10 at 10 PM; you should get there early.
A listen to Baronian’s 2002 album Ocean Algae – streaming at Spotify – offers a good idea of what he does in concert, and he still plays a lot of stuff from it live: it’s one of his best. Much as Baronian is known for unselfconscious depth and gravitas, he also has an often ridiculously surreal sense of humor, something that bubbles up when least expected. This album has three-quarters of Baronian’s original 1975 version of Taksim, including the rhythm section of bassist Steve Knight and drummer Mal Stein.
A funky clickety-clack groove underscores Out of Exasperation, which Baronian opens with a moody, spacious soprano sax solo before the oud and rhythm section kick in. The late, great Haig Magnoukian’s oud solo goes ratcheting over growly bass and drums while Baornian’s son Lee provides extra boom on the low end with his dumbek.
The seven-minute title track is a taste of the some of the liveliest stuff to come out of the ocean, the bandleader alternately jubilant and uneasy as the rhythms shift on a dime. Magnoukian switches out the slashing tremolo-picked clusters of the first song for rapidfire hammer-ons and a surgically slashing attack on the strings.
Gooney Bird, a big concert favorite, could also be called It Ain’t Got a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Oud – after Baronian’s done choosing his spots, veering between the blues scale and Middle Eastern modes, Magnoukian takes the song closer to Turkey with his jaunty pastoral picking. The wry, surfy drum turnarounds are a favorite trope.
Toxic Tonic, an almost thirteen-minute epic, contains everything from echoes of medieval English folk, to jaunty Lebanese pastorale passages, surrealistically altered blues riffage on the oud, a psychedelic drum interlude that would have made the Grateful Dead jealous, along with all kinds of delicious microtonal sax flutters and dives. There’s also a subtle joke early on that will have you pulling on your earbuds.
Five For Chick – a Chick Corea homage, it would seem – is a lot jauntier, at least until the senior Baronian takes it further into the shadows, veering between modes as Magnoukian grounds it with his spiky, machinegunnig riffage. Then he takes a poignantly searching, rapidfire oud taksim into the aptly titled Conversation, the bandleader switching to kaval (wood flute), Magnoukian eventually edging everybody out.
Jubilee is the album’s catchiest and most upbeat track, a shuffling mashup of New Orleans second line and dusky levantine influences with a tastily bustling oud/percussion interlude. Baronian’s moody duduk (wooden oboe) improvisation leads into Desert Wind, another concert favorite with its catchy, circling clarinet riffs, subtle echo rhythms and one of his most poignant solos here.
11th Hour is a lot more carefree than its title implies, although Magnoukian brings in some unease, at least until a completely unexpected south-of-the-border detour. Jungle Jive is the most joyously warped number here, the band taking it methodically further east out of a dixieland-flavored jazz waltz. The band follows a similar tangent on the final cut, Time & Time Again. from Knight’s uneasily bending bass intro through Magnoukian’s tensely suspenseful solo to an intertwining oud/sax conversation. This album is as rich as it is long, and it’s very long. Onstage, Baronian hasn’t lost any stamina either.