In the 21st century, the melding of vanguard and post-bop jazz with global traditional musics or their harmonic frameworks is a common enough occurrence. Gordon Grdina and his ensemble Haram dig deep into the vein on Her Eyes Illuminate, what they accomplish is pretty much singular. Grdina chose works from Egyptian and IIraqicomposers from the last century, as well folk and classical compositions that are in the region's public domain. He arranged them for Haram, a tentet that includes François Houle on clarinet, saxophonist Chris Kelly, trumpeter J.P. Carter and violinist Jesse Zubot, alongside drums, bass, ney, riq, darbuka, and electronics. What's so compelling about this album is that while there is plenty of room for chance, intimate interaction, and improvisational dialogue, it's all held somewhat tightly within the structure of the tunes themselves. Grdina's arrangements never allow his chosen material to fall by the wayside to make way for avant-jazz. A stellar example of his visionary integration is on the traditional "En Shakawt al Hawa." Commencing with an intricate bassline and numerous percussionists, his oud enters just before Emad Armoush's vocal begins its insistent lead. It gets answered, call-and-response, line by line, by a chanting chorus. From here, clarinet, violin, and trumpet all enter into contrapuntal exchanges, finding seams and exploiting them, while never losing site of the melody. Zubot pushes hardest, but Kelly, Carter, and Houle all get in on the action. While "Alf Leila Wa Leila" is tighter and straighter, it's the back and forth harmonic exchange between Grdina's oud, the horns, and Armoush's vocal that takes center stage until Carter's solo, which shifts the tune in a modal post-bop direction before bringing back the labyrinthine, danceable structure of its melody even as he continues to solo outside it. These two examples are representative to be sure, but they are a mere taste of what's here. Her Eyes Illuminate is one of the most fascinating and seemingly magical attempts at bringing the music of the Middle East and vanguard modern jazz together in a manner than not only opens up the African world to Western ears, but creates a genuine hybrid (not fusion) music that exists on its own terms.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek