The performance of the ensemble Darvish on its self-titled CD is food for musical gastronomists. The blend of jazzy cadences and elements of Middle Eastern melody is so subtle that it is easy to mistake this production for easy listening. Clearly there is much more to it. Besides, the credentials of the three musicians who make up Darvish are so impressive that this dilettante reviewer is almost too intimidated to write down any comments on these creations, let alone pass judgment.
Most of the compositions are from the hand (and mind) of Victor Spiegel. This prodigious musical omnivore has written countless scores for films, documentaries, museum audio tours and interactive media. But he is saving the best for collections like Darvish and -- I suppose -- for his solo albums. Apart from being a piano virtuoso, Spiegel's exposure to music from the Balkans, Far East, the Indian subcontinent and Turkey is applied in a very creative manner to what, at initial encounter, strikes the listener as urban jazz with a touch of "Je ne sais quoi." But after becoming more closely acquainted the "strange modes, odd rhythms, fiery melodies unite into a world fusion of chamber music," as the CD cover very aptly describes it.
Apart from Spiegel, cellist Moses Sedler has written two tracks. "Dawn before Time" and "Point Landing" give him ample opportunity to show off his technical prowess as a performer and composer of highly original pieces. Sedler's musical versatility is further underscored by his earlier cooperation with a variety of world music giants. He has worked with the Nubian Hamza El Din, probably the greatest Oud (Arabian lute) player alive, jazz saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders, whose music also betrays spiritual influences from African, Sufi and Brahmanic traditions, and Cuba's musical peripathetic Omar Sosa. Sedler has established his own ethnic music credentials by five years of intensive study with two Bengali musicians, sarod master Ali Akbar Khan and tabla player Swapan Chaudury.
The composer duo is accompanied by percussionist Peter Maund, who also studied with Swapan Chaudury at California's Ali Akbar College for Music. Maund embodies the intellectual musician, or musical intellectual. Apart from being a superbly trained instrumentalist, this ethnomusicologist is working towards a doctorate in North Indian Music at Berkeley.
This brings me to the trio's common denominator, already betrayed by the group's name and CD title. Darvish is a Turkish word used to designate practitioners of Islamic spiritualism, alternatively also know as "sufis." In a more restricted sense it refers to adherents of one of the many established mystical orders that can be found throughout the Islamic world, but which have a specifically strong presence in Turkey and the Indian subcontinent. In fact, in both regions Muslim spirituality happens to have a strong musical tradition as well, exemplified by the so-called "whirling darvishes" of Konya in the days of the Ottoman Empire, and the rich Ghazal and Qawwali heritage of India and Pakistan, which is still very much alive today. Spiegel takes the lead in bringing this to life in the music of Darvish, for example on the track titled "Hayy Gilani," dedicated to the founding father of one of Islam's most prominent sufi orders.
Just as scholars of Islam have always struggled to get a handle on sufism, failing to find a satisfactory definition, any attempt to squeeze the music of Darvish into existing categories will be futile. For as Spiegel explains, the whole purpose of Muslim mysticism is to escape from the ego-matrix (the so-called "nafs" or "lower soul") through unique individual experience. The three darvishes on this CD are to be commended for presenting music's universality in a way that is firmly rooted in the great established musical traditions of East and West. At the same time, they give it a highly original interpretation, but avoid the trap of using "the exotic" for cheap effects. When can we expect their next sˇance?