Tarek Yamani at Lincoln Center: A Haunting, Ceaselessly Shapeshifting Vision of the Future of Piano Jazz
Playing to a rapt, sold-out, mostly under-30 crowd, Beirut-born pianist Tarek Yamani opened his Lincoln Center concert last night with an a cumulo-nimbus chordal crescendo and then took the band spiraling and rippling through a long, chromatically slashing series of variations on a hundred-year-old Egyptian classical melody. Bassist Sam Miniae danced between the raindrops as drummer Jean John boomed and rattled the rims, Yamani parsing the passing tones in the minor scale for every fraction of intensity he could find. From there the music rose and fell, sometime hypnotic, sometimes with an elegant neoromantic gleam, to a long, insistent peak. It was like witnessing peak-era 70s McCoy Tyner with more Middle Eastern influences.
Yamani’s distinctive style is a confluence of Arabian Gulf khaliji music and American jazz, with a healthy dose of Afro-Cuban groove as well. It’s no surprise that Yamani gravitated toward jazz, considering that khaliji sounds have more African swing than Levantine sway. It wouldn’t be outrageous to call the self-taught pianist and composer Beirut’s (and now New York)’s answer to Vijay Iyer.
Even so, it was impossible to predict how funky the night’s second number, Hala Land – a Nordic Latin Middle Eastern swing prelude of sorts – would get, from John’s irrepressible shuffle as Yamani teased the crowd with an easy resolution he wasn’t going to give in to anytime soon before pinwheeling and then icepicking through a subtly shifting series of Arabic modes. Yamani revealed afterward that although the melody is considered iconically Lebanese, its origins are actually Turkish. “It’s like falafel – it doesn’t really matter,” he grinned.
The night’s third number was an original in 10/8: “If you’d like to count, please do, but do it silent,” Yamani deadpanned. The blend of catchy Afro-Cuban acerbity, Middle Eastern otherworldliness and emphatic, punchy, ceaselessly shifting meters made sense considering that the pianist is also the author of a popular book on polyrhythms. Miniae ran circles and pounced, John gave it bounce and strut.
Ashur – named after the “Egyptian god of sex,” Yamani smiled – was a friendly, methodically crescendoing, wickedly memorable Kind of Blue-style theme and variations that John kicked off hard. Then Yamani completely flipped the script with an expansive take of Lush Life, subtly pushing it further and further toward the Middle East but finally opting for energetic wee-hours postbop lyricism. Then he launched into a tireless, grittily insistent arrangement of paradigm-shifting Egyptian composer Said Darwish’s workingman’s anthem The Melody of the Movers, circling and rippling over the rhythm section’s propulsive swing.
The trio closed with a cantering detour toward Cuba and then a glisteningly jubilant melody that Yamani explained is claimed by pretty much every culture throughout the Levant. It was amazing how light and seemingly effortless Yamani’s touch remained after all the evening’s exertion.
Auspiciously, this concert was booked not by Lincoln Center but by their Student Advisory Council, whose agenda is to make the world of the arts in New York “a more inclusive and accessible space,” and help discover new talent who might be flying under the radar. Challenged to find an act worthy of the venue, third-year Juilliard percussion student Tyler Cunningham won the competition by suggesting Yamani after seeing the pianist listed on a bill at National Sawdust, where a friend works. A specialist in symphonic percussion, the personable, articulate Cunningham gravitates toward postminimalist composers like Marcos Balter but has the kind of eclectic taste required in a field where he’s going to be asked to play outside the box more often than not. Cunningham also has a revealing interview with Yamani up at The Score, Lincoln Center’s online magazine.
The next show at Lincoln Center’s atrium space on Broadway just south of 63rd St. is this March 29 at 7:30 PM with Portuguese fado-jazz crooner/guitarist António Zambujo. The show is free; the earlier you get to the space, the better.