In his book “Along the Trenches” German writer Navid Kermani set out on a journey to and beyond the outer borders of the European Union. His observations, encounters, and experiences comprised a multi-faceted picture that reflected our personal, social, and political reality as Europeans, and in relation to our neighbours, in a sensitive way.
Inspired by this idea, the TransEuropeExpress, the French-German jazz ensemble, is going on a musical journey beyond borders with a new long-term project “On the Edges”. The musicians deliberately step out of their comfort zone of familiar musical styles to open themselves and the ensemble in new directions. The encounters have the goal of merging the wide scope of different projects into a unified musical “Gesamtkunstwerk” – a total work of art.
With “On the Edges 1” the cycle of projects starts out beyond the European cultural sphere, on the opposite side of the Mediterranean Sea, in a cooperation with Moroccan musician, composer, and singer Majid Bekkas. He contributes compositions, ideas and improvisations of his own. With his instruments, the oud and the guembri (bass lute) and elements from the North African Gnawa tradition, the challenge and charm of the project are to make creative use of the tension and differences between different musical cultures. Together with their guest, the ensemble has found different approaches to establishing connections, as well as highlighting the differences and using them to create musical energy and tension.
One principal difference is the predominantly oral tradition of African music, as opposed to the written material that the music of the ensemble is usually based on, in spite of all the improvisational space and freedom. This is an aspect that questions many of the usual mechanisms, because a notated work is much more easily and quickly realized by professional musicians than learning a whole piece of music by ear. In the case of “Lamjarred”, the ensemble took the time to go through this process, learning the music by ear, instructed and led by Majid. The arrangement that evolved is the result of this collective process. “Lamjarred” is a rhythm that is used by the brotherhood of Hmadcha in the region of Meknes. It practises a ritual that is based on a 5/4 rhythm. The lyrics are mystic and come from the Sufi tradition.
Majid Bekkas is not only rooted in the oral tradition of Gnawa music, but is also an educated musician with a wide horizon and vast experience, who also writes and reads musical scores. This makes him an ideal partner for this project and allows us to use different approaches. Two other pieces on this album are based on compositions of his that I extended and arranged for the ensemble.
My goal was to find a balance that embeds and brings out the sound of his lutes and voice and opens spaces to bring out the sounds, soloistic qualities, and individuality of the ensemble musicians. In the “Sahara Variations” I derived patterns from the melody that are played by the ensemble as a minimalistic texture, until the phrases of the theme emerge from them.
“Yaya” has a traditional piece as its base. The lyrics of “Yaya” are religious, expressing love for the prophet Mohamed and for the other life in paradise. These Sufi chants are integrated into music in the Gnawa tradition.
In the centre of the project is the title piece, the composition “On the Edges 1” in five parts. The first part states a short theme, a sort of matrix, a basic structure that serves as a foundation and starting point for this first project as well for the further projects to follow. The theme organically evolves into the second part of the piece, which is centred around the oud and built on a 12/8 rhythm with an African feel. Part 3, played by the ensemble without the guest soloist, is a contrast within the piece. I felt the need to place it in the middle as a counterpart to the other pieces, to achieve a balance between the rhythmically emphasized North African influences and the more “European” side of the ensemble.
Part 4 picks up the 12/8 rhythm that was introduced briefly in part 2. In part 5, Majid Bekkas changes instrument and plays the Guembri, the bass lute. The characteristic changes and increases of tempo and energy of Gnawa music are written into the piece. The director, giving the beat and the impulses, is still Majid Bekkas, conducting and stimulating the ensemble with his breaks on the Guembri. The riffs of the horns are reminiscent of part 2 of the piece, and serve as the transition leading to an extended version of the theme that was introduced in part 1. A short rhythmic coda ends the piece with a question mark. It could become a pickup for another later project of “On the Edges” to follow.
The piece “Zwickmühlen” (Seesaw) is a new piece in the ensemble’s repertoire, presenting just the ensemble without our guest. It is conceived to give each musician small motifs, that take on melodic shape only in combination. They twist and turn, changing their rhythmic and melodic shapes and colours. This principle is picked up in the collective improvisation and extended, to finally dissolve back into its initial parts. The piece could be considered as an “instruction for collective improvisation”.
“Ashura” was composed by Alexandra Grimal during our recording session in Budapest. She explored the arsenal of percussion instruments that she found in our recording space, the concert hall of Budapest Music Center, and she created a subtle and meditative musical picture using their different colours. The title refers to the Japanese Ashura, the guardians of law and the Buddha. In this piece, the space between the notes is at least as important as the notes themselves.
The pre-history of this project started in 2013, a month after the T.E.E. Ensemble was founded and had its debut in Paris. At that time I had a performance with the Trio Ivoire at the Jazzfest Berlin. Pianist Joachim Kühn and his trio at the time, with drummer Ramon Lopez and Majid Bekkas, were staying at the same hotel. Joachim, whom I had known since 1980, introduced me to Majid and shortly afterwards we were on stage together for the first time: in the concert of “Joachim Kühn & friends” I took over the piano part when Joachim changed to saxophone.
This first contact was followed by others, and finally the idea took shape of realizing this project together, which was supported by the ensemble. The development of the ideas and pieces was a longer process and exchange, and eventually the realization became possible in July 2019 as a rehearsal and recording session in Budapest Music Center, thanks to the support of BMC Records and the Kunststiftung NRW. Majid Bekkas was immediately fully integrated into the ensemble and proved to be an inexhaustible source of positive energy, creativity, and inspiration for them. He contributed immensely to the relaxed but concentrated atmosphere of this collaboration, which included rehearsals and recordings at Budapest Music Center as well as concert premieres at BMC Budapest and the LOFT Köln.
Hoffnungsthal, 28 August 2021 / Rome, 18 October 2021