Oud Swings

How a 5,000-year-old, 11-string, fretless Middle Eastern ancestor of the lute found its way into the jazz tradition

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Ouds for sale in Istanbul market
By Jeff Tamarkin
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John Abercrombie, Jack DeJohnette, Joseph Tawadros, John Patitucci and James Tawadros in 2010
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Anouar Brahem
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Rabih Abou-Khalil (with pianist Joachim Kuhn)
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Omer Avital
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Ahmed Abdul-Malik's 'East Meets West' album from 1960

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In the Arabic world, it’s been the most ubiquitous musical instrument for millennia, depicted in ancient artworks and folktales and widespread today throughout the Middle East, North Africa and the Mediterranean. In the West it’s still an outlier, an exotic curiosity, a rare sight and sound that occasionally turns up on world music or ethnic folk recordings. The oud (which rhymes with either “food” or “wood,” depending on the speaker’s accent), a pear-shaped, 11-string, short-necked, fretless beauty, will probably never join the saxophone, trumpet or piano as a major jazz instrument. And in year-end jazz polls, where the “Miscellaneous Instrument” category serves as a repository for players brandishing banjo, cello, accordion and harmonica, it’s perennially shut out.

In recent decades, however, the oud has slowly but steadily nudged its way into jazz as more cultural cross-fertilization has taken place. “When I was 13 I had a really good guitar teacher who played me a Simon Shaheen record,” says Gordon Grdina, an oud and guitar player from Vancouver, B.C., referring to the Israel-born oudist considered one of the contemporary masters of the instrument. “My teacher wanted me to hear the slide guitar player, but what grabbed me right away was [Shaheen’s] oud. The tone and sound of it blew my mind.”

That tone is melodious, robust and resonant, but at the same time more delicate than that of an acoustic guitar. Because of its intrinsic lack of volume, the oud has traditionally been relegated to quieter settings, used most often to accompany a vocalist, or in a small orchestra the way a piano might be used in the West. Throughout most of its history, the idea of the oud serving as a lead instrument was unimaginable. “As a solo instrument it was very strange,” says the Tunisian oudist Anouar Brahem, “so the audience was very small in the beginning; it was underground music. But now it’s become something very usual and there are a lot of famous oud players who have big audiences.”

One reason for that expansion is technology. Over the past half-century, advances in amplification have made it possible for the instrument to be more audible in a jazz setting. And just as Indian instrumentation and textures have made an impact on jazz, the influence of the Arabic oud on this most American of musics may just be on the cusp of a heyday.

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No one knows precisely when the first oud was created, but artworks from as far back as 3000 B.C. depict musicians holding stringed instruments that resemble the oud. The name may derive from either of two words: the Arabic al-’ūd , which translates to “the wood” (the word also later morphed into “lute”), or the Persian rud, for “string.”

Regardless of the origin, as the Arabic people traded more frequently with the West, the oud spread, eventually losing its frets and taking on a straight pegbox atop its compact, tapered neck, replacing the bent pegbox of the ancient instrument. “What we know is that some time around the 12th century, there was a famous court musician from Baghdad called Ziryab who brought the oud to Spain,” says Brian Prunka, a New York-based guitarist and oud player familiar with the instrument’s history. “Until about the 1400s it seems that ouds mostly did have frets, although there might have been more than 12 notes to the octave. At some point the oud and the lute diverged. Arabic music became a very sophisticated exploration of subtle microtonal variations of notes, tiny differences in pitch having different emotional and musical effects. Western music, meanwhile, became interested in chords and harmony and counterpoint.”

Just as there are different guitar designs, there is no single type of oud. Turkish ouds differ somewhat from Arabic ouds (the latter is slightly larger and resonates more), and even among the Arabic instruments there are subtle differences. But overall the construction and sound of the oud have remained relatively consistent for centuries, as have the methods of building the instrument—although today’s tools are, naturally, more sophisticated than those the ancients had at their disposal. “It’s very difficult to make because of the bowl,” says Yaron Naor, a luthier from outside of Tel Aviv. “The neck and the pegbox is an ordinary process, but the bowl, the belly, is difficult because it’s combined by 23 strips and you have to bend each one on a mold and glue every one to the first one. Then you take the mold out and you have a nutshell. You put the soundboard, the neck and the pegbox together and do the finish and the bridge.” The soundboard, Naor says, must be made out of spruce or cedar, as they are lightweight and flexible woods, whereas maple, rosewood or even mahogany are best for the rest of the body. Each oud has 11 strings: five pairs doubled up, with a single bass string on the upper side. All ouds are played with a plectrum that is somewhat larger than a guitar pick.

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Because of the tranquility inherent in its sound, and because its lack of frets makes playing chords on an oud impractical, the instrument evaded jazz for the first half of the music’s existence. As more jazz musicians began looking to the music of the East for inspiration, however, and as modal jazz came into vogue, it was inevitable that the oud would find a place. By all accounts, the first musician to make a serious attempt at adapting the oud to jazz was Ahmed Abdul-Malik, a double-bassist of Sudanese extraction born in New York. Abdul-Malik played bass in Thelonious Monk’s quartet in the late ’50s, appearing on the pianist’s classic Misterioso album from 1958 and at the 1957 performance that became 2005’s Thelonious Monk Quartet With John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall. Also in ’58, Abdul-Malik released his debut as a leader, Jazz Sahara, on which the oud is not only featured prominently but is also pictured on the cover. Featuring Monk bandmate Johnny Griffin on tenor saxophone, the Riverside release [see sidebar] was one of the first notable East-meets-West fusions and is fondly considered a template by jazz oud aficionados even today.

Abdul-Malik revisited the concept on several subsequent solo recordings, utilizing oud alongside traditional jazz instruments. He has also been credited with contributing the instrument to John Coltrane’s landmark 1962 Live at the Village Vanguard, although in recent years some diligent researchers have suggested that the sound heard on that album is more likely that of a tamboura, an Indian drone instrument, than an oud. (Abdul-Malik may have played tamboura at the gig, although he wasn’t schooled in it and there appears to be no written or photographic record of him playing it.)

The oud continued to turn up sporadically into the ’60s and ’70s, usually in folk (Sandy Bull), world music (Marcel Khalife, Hamza El Din, Bassam Saba) or classical (Munir Bashir) settings, until the ’80s and ’90s, when such musicians as Brahem, Dhafer Youssef, Amos Hoffman and Rabih Abou-Khalil further integrated the instrument into jazz. The Israeli jazz musician Omer Avital, who moved to New York in 1992 and is known primarily as a bassist, has played oud both on his own recordings and with others. In his home country, the instrument’s popularity dipped significantly before it made a comeback that is still in effect.

“The Jewish immigrants from Arabic countries had orchestras and clubs. They were basically playing classic Arabic music and folk music and continuing their own traditions from Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, etc.,” he says. “There was a big scene in the ’50s and ’60s. By the second and third generation [of post-independence Israelis], it started dying out. We heard it here and there, on TV and radio, but by the late ’70s, ’80s, we heard music with guitars and keyboards and the oud itself lost its prominence. It was always there—Arabic musicians have always used it—but my dad’s generation had a lot more contact with it. When I picked it up he was very surprised. Then in the mid-’90s, it started to become very common.”

For Middle Eastern and North African musicians to whom the oud was a part of daily life, jazz was the stranger, not the instrument. Abou-Khalil, from Lebanon, remembers his introduction to the music he would come to ***wholly embrace. “I went to a shop where some records were on sale,” he says, “and I bought three LPs: one by Thelonious Monk, which I thought was incredibly funny, very humorous music—I just bought it ’cause I liked the name—and then [the Mothers of Invention’s] Freak Out! and Charlie Christian.”

Abou-Khalil was already well versed in the oud by that time, having begun playing when he was 4, and as he was exposed to more jazz in adulthood, his own compositions started to take on jazz elements. It wasn’t until he tried to get a record deal that he realized he was doing something unusual. “I never really cared much about whether it was jazz or not jazz,” he says, but record labels, he soon found out, required a defined category by which to sell product. Even Enja, the company that would ultimately release the majority of Abou-Khalil’s albums from the mid-’90s on, initially balked. “When I went to [Enja] at first, they asked me what my name was. I said, ‘Rabih Abou-Khalil,’ and they said, ‘What?!’ Then they asked, ‘What instrument do you play?’ I said, ‘The oud,’ and they laughed. No record company would take it. So I actually managed to borrow some money from a bank and did my first and second recordings on my own.”

Brahem focused on traditional music while learning the instrument, but, like Abou-Khalil, as his exposure to jazz increased, he became intrigued by the possibilities of marrying Arabic melodic tenets to jazz theory. “Jazz sounded very strange to me, but at the same time it was something very close,” says Brahem, who has recorded for the ECM label for more than two decades. “I couldn’t see a lot of connection between jazz and Arabic music, but at the same time, the importance of improvisation and the way to improvise was very close to my culture. So when I started to compose, I wanted to compose not only for oud but for different instruments, like saxophone.”

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Whatever commonalities there may be between jazz and Arabic music, they are not evident; it’s taken imagination and the efforts of curious musicians to fuse the disparate cultural characteristics into a coherent new whole. “The oud and Arabic music have a tradition of improvisation,” explains Joseph Tawadros, a young oud player who was born in Egypt but moved to Australia during his childhood. “However, [Arabic music] is based on modes called maqams that do not usually follow chord progressions like in jazz pieces. There’s a form in Arabic music called taqsim [or taksim], and that is a free-time modal improvisation. With my collaborations I usually compose sections where there will be room for this.”

“Structurally they’re not similar,” says Grdina. “There are similarities harmonically because [Arabic music] is a monophonic music. There aren’t chords, per sé, but there are a lot of harmonies going on. But it’s not like you’re playing changes. I found the abstract harmonic sense [in jazz] similar to the Arabic sense of modulation, where you set within a tonal structure and then the upper parts will hint at all these harmonic possibilities and spaces and tones and the colors fly by and come in and out of existence. They use quartertones in Arabic music, which really pushes harmonic sensibilities; as soon as you hear it, it pushes you in directions. That’s like Ornette Coleman—when he’s playing, the quartertones are pushing a certain way. It’s almost like willing the temperate scale to move more organically to different harmonic states.

“Sometimes for a joke I’ll play bebop tunes on the oud, but it doesn’t really make a lot of sense. It sounds kind of funny,” he adds. “It’s more [about] hearing different ways to make the instrumentations work together. The improvisation leads to wide-open spaces. It’s not an easy instrument; you can’t be lazy on an oud.”

Adds Prunka, “Trying to play a jazz standard on the oud doesn’t usually work that well. Part of that is because of the way jazz standards tend to move around and modulate to different keys, and part of it is because the way the picking technique works on the oud it’s difficult to swing in the same subtle way that you want to in playing straight-ahead jazz. You can do it but you’re not really using the instrument for what it’s good at. It’s kind of like using a screwdriver to hammer in a nail.”

For most of the great oudists in jazz—as is the case with any jazz artist—collaboration with simpatico players is the key to successful music-making, and some of the inspired matchups to be found on record have yielded tremendously innovative results. In addition to teaming with musicians from the Middle East and North Africa, virtually all of the best known oud players within the jazz realm have at some point sought out and worked with marquee jazz names from the United States and Europe. One of Tawadros’ recent releases, The Hour of Separation (Enja), features John Abercrombie on guitar, John Patitucci on double bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums; Simon Shaheen was featured on saxophonist/flutist Henry Threadgill’s 1993 Too Much Sugar for a Dime album and, more recently, the oudist Tarik Benbrahim was a fixture in Threadgill’s group Zooid; the crown jewel in Grdina’s catalog might just be Think Like the Waves (Songlines), cut with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Paul Motian; and Brahem’s brilliant 1998 ECM release Thimar put him in the company of double-bassist Dave Holland and soprano saxophonist/bass clarinetist John Surman.

In fact, choosing collaborators takes precedence over all else for most of these musicians; the composers craft their works around the participants, rather than attempting to match a player to existing parts that might not suit that musician. “That’s how I’ve always worked,” says Abou-Khalil, whose collaborators have included harmonica ace Howard Levy, bassist Steve Swallow and saxophonist Sonny Fortune. “I hear a musician and I invite him because I feel he’s open, and then he brings in his own style and the music changes and adapts to it. When somebody tells me the oud works fine with jazz, or the oud is great with piano—no, it’s not; it’s good in this context with these guys. That’s how music always works, how it steps forward. It was never the instrument and never the style; it was the individuals. Choosing musicians for my band was like choosing people you’d want to invite for dinner.”

“I never choose the musicians before we start,” says Brahem, who counts among his chief influences fellow ECM artists Keith Jarrett and Jan Garbarek. “I always need to write the music and then I start to think about the instruments. It takes me a long time to make the final decision. Manfred [Eicher, ECM founder and producer] helps me a lot—he’s a fantastic adviser and has a lot of experience with the musicians. But I always have to find the best connection. I need to work with musicians who have a special sensitivity and special sound.”

“It really comes down to who you play with,” agrees Tawadros. “I’m very selective when doing collaborations and have to be 110 percent sure that the musicians will complement the music and understand what it is about. When you have this, the rest is easy. My musical collaborations usually stem from epiphanies: seeing or hearing a musician and having an ‘I have to have that’ moment.”

“It’s a taste thing too,” adds Avital. “You don’t want to make it sound like it’s thrown together. You have to pick the right keys and the right modes. You can’t modulate so much. It has to be from the modern world of that music: Arabic, African, Turkish and Persian.”

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To be sure, jazz featuring the oud is still a niche music. But like any development in jazz’s century-long history, it’s another color on the mural. “This is new and unexplored territory,” says Prunka. “But there’s a younger generation of people like me, Amir ElSaffar and Tareq Abboushi, who are jazz musicians involved in the Arabic tradition. For us it’s more about reconciling different facets of our experience into one kind of music, rather than a self-conscious or overt attempt to bring two things together.”

“I want to respect the vast tradition of Arabic music, but I can’t be an Arabic musician,” says Grdina. “All I can do is study it as intensely as I can. I also can’t neglect the fact that I started off playing rock and blues music and jazz and improvisation. I’m just trying to play what I hear so all of those influences come together.”

“I don’t see the oud belonging to any ethnicity,” says Tawadros. “It’s about breaking down genres and seeing the oud as a general instrument, not one that is just a symbol of the Middle East. It’s beyond that, and that’s what I’m interested in exploring.”

Adds Threadgill, “With all instruments, you take [a composition] and you try to figure out what’s in it. When I’m orchestrating music, I hear a particular sound or color and I might not be certain at first what’s in that mix. All instruments have their peculiarities, and you have to be cognizant of that when you mix instruments, especially instruments that aren’t used that frequently and instruments that are unamplified. [The oud] has a very unique sound, and you can either improvise on it or you can’t improvise on it. That’s going to be true whether it’s the piccolo, the zither or anything else.”

As it’s always been throughout jazz history, it’s the experimentation, the forging of hybrids, that moves the music forward. “Somebody wrote once that my music doesn’t swing, it sways,” says Abou-Khalil, “and I kind of like that. Any music can be taken to places other than it’s been taken to.”

Tomorrow: Five essential oud albums

Originally published in July/August 2012

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