After the release of the celebrated The Storyteller, saxophonist and bandleader Uri Gurvich's widely acclaimed debut on Tzadik, he became quite busy as a sideman, with Chris Potter, John Zorn, Joe Lovano, Dave Liebman, and others, as well as becoming a member of his drummer Francisco Mela's Cuban Safari. For BabEl, Gurvich brings back the same international ensemble: the Cuban-born Mela, Argentinian keyboardist Leo Genovese, and Bulgarian bassist, Peter Slavov. The guest spot this time out is filled by Moroccan oud master Brahim Fribgane. Gurvich's compositions rely heavily on motifs from Israeli and Arabic music, but also on the musical traditions of the Sephardic Jews. The band's multi-national makeup also reflects influences ranging from Latin jazz and tango to modal jazz and rock. It's in this collectivity and what results that BabEl succeeds in spades. Carefully sequenced and wonderfully arranged, the growth of the band is evident on "Pyramids," opened by Fribgane's solo oud playing a lonesome desert melody. When the rest of the band joins in a minute later, they take the Eastern motif and begin to extrapolate its parts, syncopating its rhythm and expanding its harmonic reach, all while looking west toward modern jazz. The transition is gradual, lovely, and hip. "Nedudim" features Genovese's electric keyboards which introduce, then twin, then comp, Gurvich's alto lines, first suggesting an influence by early Weather Report, then moving from klezmer to hard-driving post-bop, with Mela's funky breaks underscored by Slavov's rhythmic runs and shifts. "Camelao" is a stunner, combining hard Afro-Cuban grooves with Sephardic and Eastern modal and melodic signifiers; wrapping them inside an explosive and expansive post-bop. Speaking of grooves, "Alfombra Mágica," with its Spanish tinge, is articulated through the lens of the minor mode blues. Genovese's piano effortlessly bridges both musics with help from Slavov, while Gurvich's alto weaves a particularly mournful, Sephardic-influenced melody throughout, colored by Mela's tom-toms and cymbals. "Scalerica de Oro" is the only tune here not written by Gurvich; it's a traditional Sephardic-Ladino wedding song which begins as a slow processional and eventually integrates the blues, post-bop (in the saxophonist's solo), and even rock via Fribgane's guitar-like oud playing and Genovese's near-psychedelic electric keyboards. When the band sings its chorus at the tune's end, it morphs seamlessly into a beautiful, dignified, yet celebratory song. As a progression, BabEl is aptly titled, it moves on from the root narrative encounters on The Storyteller, and offers an even more striking portrait of Gurvich's and the band's construction of a new jazz language from the interwoven histories and lineages of others.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek