A feeling of reverence tempered by resignation suffuses this work, which oud master Dhafer Youssef envisions as the score for an imaginary film about a spiritual quest. In this journey, enlightenment is apprehended only by embracing the inevitability of loss—or, as he explains in the press notes, “the idea of the disappearance of the body and the wandering of the soul.”
The eponymous four-movement Birds Requiem Suite provides the framework for the larger “suite of interconnected compositions” that comprise the overall thematic arc. Both mood and musical context are maintained by the interplay among Youssef’s oud, Hüsnü Şenlendirici’s clarinet, Nils Petter Molvær’s trumpet, Aytac Dogan’s kanun (a stringed instrument similar to a zither), Kristjan Randalu’s piano, Eivind Aarset’s guitar and electronics, Phil Donkin’s bass and Chander Sardjoe’s percussion.
Befitting both the Middle Eastern tradition in which the Tunisian-born Youssef grew up and the Western classical, jazz and experimental forms he has embraced, these pieces meld composed and improvised sections so seamlessly that they can be difficult to distinguish (except on “Khira,” an exhilarating three-way improvisation between Youssef, Randalu and Molvær). For all his prowess on the oud, though, Youssef’s vocals, in unison with and counterpoint to Şenlendirici’s clarinet, exemplify the dominant motif. His falsetto, rich-timbred and full even in its highest range, is unerringly controlled and capable of deft microntonal subtleties. Meanwhile, the “earth/air/water” interplay among bass, oud and piano further evoke the pilgrim’s balancing of groundedness and flight. Throughout this set—even on “39th Gülay (To Istanbul),” with its rock-like bombast and percussive thrust—virtuosity is a means, not an end. Rather than distract us from the piece’s thematic focus, it welcomes us more deeply into it.