Arabian Waltz is the pinnacle of Rabih Abou-Khalil's achievement as a composer and arranger. It is a sublime fusion of jazz, Middle Eastern traditional music, and Western classical. In addition to Abou-Khalil on oud (the Arabic lute), Michel Godard on the tuba and the serpent (the tuba's antique kinsman), and Nabil Khaiat on frame drums, the album also features the Balanescu String Quartet instead of the usual trumpet or sax. The presence of the Balanescu might seem to pose a dilemma for the composer: traditional Middle Eastern music uses no harmony but a string quartet is all about harmony. Abou-Khalil achieves a compromise by generally writing the string parts in unison (or in octaves), in effect using the quartet as a single voice, but also letting the quartet split up to play parts in unison with the other instruments or to provide ornamentation. Without surrendering jazziness at all, the presence of the strings makes possible a wondrous atmosphere, almost as if one is listening to the soundtrack of a classy movie set in Beirut or Damascus during the '40s. This feeling is greatest on "Dreams of a Dying City" with its brooding tuba and cello motifs and grave, repeated rhythms. "The Pain After" starts with an impressive tuba solo that turns into a long interlude for tuba and string quartet; sad, slow music that sounds like one of Beethoven's late quartets. Then Abou-Khalil finally enters on oud, bringing a sustained note of wistfulness. Fortunately, beside the darker numbers lie the propulsive drama of "Arabian Waltz" and the bobbing and weaving quirkiness of "Ornette Never Sleeps." Abou-Khalil is known for experimenting with the possibilities his guest musicians bring to his style. In this case, the guests have inspired the host to reach a new height and maybe even a new style. This recording suits every fan of world music, jazz, classical, or just good music.
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AllMusic Review by Kurt Keefner