Tunisian oudist/singer/composer Dhafer Youssef conceived his latest album Birds Requiem as a soundtrack for an imaginary film, a narrative about the transmigration of souls. And it could be – his long, pensively shapeshifting themes have a brooding, cinematic quality. They’re sort of a return to his roots: trained as a muezzin while still a child, he asserts himself vocally with a sometimes ecstatic, sometimes angst-ridden intensity over intricate arrangements that blend Middle Eastern and Western classical and jazz sounds, much in the same vein as the brilliant Lebanese-born composer Marcel Khalife.
The album – streaming at Spotify – begins with the somber, steady opening segment of a central suite with moody clarinet from Turkish great Husnu Senlendirici and resonant trumpet from Nils Petter Molvaer. The theme returns later as an ominous grey-sky tableau in the same vein as the Trio Joubran‘s more low-key work, slowly brightening with Kristjan Randalu’s rippling piano and Aytaç Dogan’s kanun. The next time it comes around, it’s a dance fueled by intertwining oud and piano harmonies. The dynamically-charged conclusion winds up the album on angst-ridden note with shivery clarinet and an imploring piano interlude.
Youssef’s achingly melismatic vocals establish that dynamic on the album’s second track, Sweet Blasphemy, over spacious oud and piano. Blending Souls & Shades rises from echoey atmospherics to a spine-tingling, full-gale vocal interlude and then a dancing horn passage before receding back to moodiness. Ascetic Mood is aptly austere and contemplative, a sad conversation between Phil Donkin’s bass, the clarinet and the oud.
Youssef’s elegy for his mother has a similar spaciousness and then grows more vigorous, Senlendirici’s haunting, resonant clarinet anchoring the piano’s rippling lines. 39th Gulay (In Istanbul) picks up the pace, a metal-flavored Middle Eastern art-rock song capped off by a rapidfire piano solo over the blast of the rest of the band as it winds out. Sevdah brings back the cinematics, rising out of a flamenco-inflected melody to a long, uneasily sustained crescendo and then back down again. Ascetic Journey follows a similar tangent, through a delicious series of variations from minimalist and elegaic to kinetically bouncing, the kanun rippling in tandem with Eivind Aarset’s guitar. There’s so much else going on here that it would take a small book to chronicle every highlight in this collection of magnificently haunting songs.