Sir Richard Bishop is the Pico Iyer of the guitar. On his previous five solo recordings he's visited not only various nations and continents, as the writer has done in his books, but time periods on his instrument as well -- something that Iyer, limited by physics, has been unable to do. Arabic music has long held a place in Bishop's heart as a guitarist, as a member of the Sun City Girls and as a solo artist, but he's never indulged it so completely as he does on The Freak of Araby. There are two distinct inspirations for this album; the primary one is the Egyptian guitarist Omar Khorshid (1945-1991), known as "the King of Arab Guitar." His influence, in the way Bishop phrases and uses everything from reverb to his picking style, reveals the inspiration of Khorshid, who, at the beginning of his career, was a member of Abdel Halim Hafez's Oriental Orchestra, and went on to become an actor and one of the great composers in Arabic cinema; he scored more than 40 films during his brief lifetime. The other influence, which is a bit more subtle but unmistakable, is the great Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum -- Khorshid was a member of her backing band for a time.
Bishop plays only the electric guitar here, and utilizes a small band on this set -- a quartet with a bassist, a drummer, and a percussionist. There are five originals and six "covers" of standards from the Arab world -- including "Enta Omri," by the great composer Mohamed Abdel Wahab. It should be noted that the way in which Bishop approaches the traditional and cover material is with a sense of reverence but not slavishness. He takes liberties and his sense of humor is on full display here. Check his reading of the traditional "Kaddak el Mayass," which blends the very traditional melody with surf guitar technique and sound. There's just enough of the latter to make it a modern reading, but the sense of mode, tonality, and phrasing of the vocal song is everywhere on display as well. The opening cut, "Taqasim for Omar," is a gorgeous solo guitar piece that uses modes and Eastern tonalities and cadences as well as Bishop's full-blown knowledge of the electric guitar as a "folk" instrument of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. One of the more startling things about this recording -- which may irk some fans -- is the lack of guitar solos here, and this is where the influence of the great Egyptian vocalist comes in: Bishop treats the majority of this material in a truly songlike manner, forgoing his own genuinely engaging and startling ability for pyrotechnics on the instrument in favor of re-creating the lyricism of the songs themselves. The sense of sung melodies is everywhere apparent -- check the readings of the aforementioned "Enta Omri," Elias Rahbani's "Ka'an Azzaman," or the traditional "Sidi Mansour" (though there is a boatload of reverb utilized in the middle section of the latter that departs significantly). The lack of fiery guitar wizard machinations -- at least the overt ones -- might bother excitement junkies, but a second listen will yield plenty of them in Bishop's playing as well as his approach to the material and the open acknowledgement of his muses for this project. In sum, The Freak of Araby is simply wonderful.