Desert blues albums are best enjoyed as a whole. Sure, you can break the individual tracks up and scatter them amongst different playlists, but a good desert blues album sets a mood. The Toure-Raichel Collective’s new album The Tel Aviv Session is a different kind of desert blues album, a collaboration between pyrotechnic Malian guitarist Vieux Farka Toure and Israeli keyboardist/bandleader Idan Raichel. Raichel is an insatiably omnivorous player who seemingly never met a style he didn’t want to master; Toure admits to thinking at first that Raichel was a “crazy hippie,” but on this generally low-key, daylong collaboration in an Israeli recording studio, the two make a good team. Although he plays acoustic guitar here, Toure still has the restless, uneasy edge that makes him such a compelling electric player. Raichel shows off a potent understanding of chromatically-fueled, Arabic-tinged motifs, often playing with a rippling staccato feel that, especially when he mutes the strings inside the piano, evokes the sound of a balafon or a qanun. In one passage, he brushes the strings for shimmery, harplike glissandos. Behind them, bassist Yossi Fine – who has toured with Toure, mentored Raichel in his early years and may ultimately have been responsible for jumpstarting this session – plays endlessly hypnotic loops in tandem with percussionist Souleymane Kane. French jazz harmonica player Frederic Yonnet guests on a rustic 1920s flavored blues jam that evokes Hazmat Modine in a particularly boisterous mood; Yankale Segal, from Raichel’s touring band, adds a third layer of richly glistening textures on Iranian tar lute on another. And the final cut, where the band finally cuts loose with an all-too-brief, soaring crescendo, features haunting, intense kamancheh (Iranian spiked fiddle) by Mark Eliyahu.
The rest of the album alternates between slinky two-chord desert blues vamps, and Middle Eastern piano music, sometimes in the same jam. Toure reveals a fondness for open chords and a biting facility for raga-like passages; Raichel often mimics Toure’s quicksilver hammer-on attack. Most of the songs here are long, slowly and casually coalescing out of themes typically introduced by the guitar. When Raichel supplies the central riff, Toure responds with fluttering, muted chromatics of his own, or simply steers the jam south toward Mali. The album liner notes mention “frequent breaks for coffee;” one suspects that there were other aromas wafting through the studio that day. The most hypnotic track, a lush, warmly major-key cut that brings to mind the Stones’ Moonlight Mile is followed by a brief, rather impatient, upbeat cut driven by Toure. Then they follow that with the single most hypnotic cut, featuring Raichel on Fender Rhodes, adding a vibraphone-like rhythmic bounce against Kane’s boomy calabash. It’s out now on Cumbancha; fans of desert blues, Middle Eastern music and intelligent jam bands ought to check it out. And it goes without saying: this collaboration between a Muslim African and an Israeli Jew underscores the argument that if we took the rabbis and mullahs (and American agitators) out of the picture and left everything to the musicians, there would be no war in the Middle East.