Collaborations between African and Western musicians have been commonplace but there have been noticeably fewer connections made between African musicians and those from other locations. Recently, the wonderful Afrocubism project offered a timely reminder of the inviolable connections between the musical forms of Africa and Cuba. This collaboration between Malian guitarist Vieux Farka Touré and Israeli star pianist Idan Raichel might seem on the surface a little unlikely (not least because the piano so rarely features in Malian music), but the results make it seem fluid, spontaneous and entirely natural.
Raichel is already a musician immersed in hybrid forms, his own music fusing the rhythms and melodies of his native Israel with the production techniques and sounds of western pop music. It has been a hugely successful for him. Nevertheless, his own music offers little hint of the relaxed, intuitive musicality on display here. Apparently intended as an exploratory jam session, with the two core musicians joined by Malian calabash player Souleymane Kane and by the anchoring foundation of Yossi Fine on bass, much of the music on The Tel Aviv Session is improvised.
The patient, gracefully unfolding and hypnotic repeating figures are familiar from Malian music, not least the work of Vieux’s father Ali Farka Touré. Yet it is often the way in which Raichel responds to these patterns and lines that makes this album so fascinating. Vocals, a very prominent part of Raichel’s work with the Idan Raichel Project, tend to take a back seat here – but when they do appear, they are woven expertly into a wider musical fabric. Everything sounds as natural and as calmly physical as breathing.
One inevitable reference point is Talking Timbuktu, the masterful collaboration between Ali Farka Touré and Ry Cooder. Vieux’s guitar playing retains that characteristically bright and lyrical sound (unlike his recent forays into more electric fusion territory) – as if the guitar is singing rather than simply being played. Throughout the percussion is delicate and unobtrusive and the overall feeling is of a quartet of gifted musicians exploring the contours of acoustic music through communication. Raichel’s contribution takes the album far away from being an African-Western hybrid. His playing is tinged with distinctive folk melodies and there is a strong European style to his playing, no doubt influenced by the likes of Bobo Stenson or by Keith Jarrett’s elaborate flourishes in his solo piano performances.
Throughout, there is a playful, dynamic approach to rhythm. Raichel always seems to show an instinctive sense of which spaces to fill and which to leave empty. Bamba is light, nimble and fleet footed whilst Experience, which seems to be the first point at which Raichel really begins to lead proceedings, has its own quiet intensity. Just at the point at which the music threatens to veer from immersive to restrictive, the group make judicious use of some guest appearances, the most successful of which might be Cabra Casay’s vocal on the beautiful closing track Ane Nahatka. The harmonica of Frederic Yonnet adds a different perspective too – offering a blues-informed sound that contrasts effectively with the folk style of the piece.
It would be interesting to know whether or not these tracks are presented in the order in which they were recorded. It sounds as if the record follows a clear arc, gradually drawing out greater integration between the two players. At the outset, it seems as if Raichel allows Touré’s astonishing guitar playing to dominate but by Hawa, the album’s centrepiece, he is contributing strong, affecting melodic lines that give strong character to the piece. Given its very nature, this is an album that is more suggestive than it is demonstrative, with attuned, nuanced performances creating a range of colours and sensations.