Fusing jazz and Middle Eastern music isn't a new idea. In 1936, Duke Ellington's "Caravan" demonstrated that the two could be quite compatible -- and in the '50s and '60s, Yusef Lateef, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis got into the type of modal/scalar playing that has been used in the Middle East, North Africa, Greece, and India for centuries. Nonetheless, Ori Kaplan's Le Magus shows that the jazz/Middle Eastern concept still has possibilities in the 21st century. Although this 2002 date falls short of innovative, Kaplan's music does have a certain freshness. Le Magus finds the Israeli-born saxophonist (who is heard on both alto and baritone) leading a cohesive band called Shaat'nez, whose other members include Tamir Muskat (drums, percussion), Geoff Mann (drums, percussion, mandolin, cornet), Andrew Bemkey (piano, keyboards, accordion, bass clarinet), and Adam Roberts (bass). Together, these musicians combine mildly avant-garde jazz with Arabic and Jewish elements -- mildly being the operative word. Le Magus is far from an album of atonal free jazz screaming; the material is left of center, but it is also melodic and relatively accessible (certainly by avant-garde standards). An inside/outside approach prevails, and truth be told, Kaplan's saxophone playing is generally more inside than outside. In fact, those who appreciate the modal experiments of Coltrane, Lateef, Pharoah Sanders, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk but don't necessarily care for outright free jazz won't be intimidated by Kaplan pieces like "Mishba" and "Sand Storm." Nor will they have a problem with the saxman's interpretations of two traditional Jewish songs: "Yidishe Mame" and "Oi Fun Veig." Neither chaotic nor overly self-indulgent, Le Magus paints a consistently attractive picture of Kaplan's Shaat'nez band.
AllMusic Review by Alex Henderson