The Dubai-based jazz quartet's first album is truly a UAE landmark.
Elie Afif Quartet
Elie Afif Quartet
Giant Steps to Heaven
The jazz world is no stranger to the tribute, quote, riff or, in modern parlance, the sample. Throwing in a famous tune, or an in-the-know segment from a rival or mentor's music, is standard improvisation practice. Here Elie Afif, the Dubai-based Lebanese double bassist who has been flying the flag for jazz in the UAE for a good few years now, has taken the idea to an extreme. The title song from Giant Steps to Heaven also happens to be a piece he played with Kamal Musallam on the jazz oud player's 2008 album Out of My City; the song's title is a play on two seminal bebop albums, John Coltrane's Giant Steps and Miles Davis's Seven Steps to Heaven; and the music itself is a neat little mash-up of the two title songs of those albums. Wheels within wheels, and that's just how jazz aficionados like it - with an insider's nod and a wink.
Still, standing your music up next to that of Coltrane and Davis is brave, even for a quartet that can probably claim to be the best in Dubai.
Luckily, as lively as the bebop on this album is, there are no horns in the ensemble to lead the listener into drawing what would ultimately be a disappointing comparison. Indeed, the strongest flavour here is that of the vibraphone, played with agility, finesse and imagination by the Armenian Tigran Peshtmajyn.
Perhaps it's a flavour that's too strong: his vibes can be mellifluous, punchy and resonant, but the sound itself sometimes takes the album a little too far into the smooth-jazz category for music that is inspired, according to Afif, by the likes of Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker. In any case, with the evident talent of the ensemble's other members, you are left wanting a touch more from them - particularly the pianist Oliver Van Ossen. It's inevitable that we would hear little of Afif himself on bass - though the production could be improved slightly for his solos, which sometimes sound more like a series of bass boings than the accomplished improvisation that is clearly going on.
But when the piano comes through, particularly on the lovely slow number If, Van Ossen's touch ranges from delicately wistful to frantically virtuosic, as on the jivey One for Mr Dwight. A little more time for him would do no harm. Perhaps, indeed, it is that the songs themselves are on the short side at around five or six minutes: a few more moments might have allowed a fuller expansion of those improvisations.
One for Mr Dwight is also where the drummer, Elie's brother Rony Afif, stands out, showing off his trademark blend of jazz and oriental styles - helping to make this such a quintessentially Dubai production. And it truly is a UAE landmark as the first album released by the music management company and live music venue The Fridge. The Al Quoz team has been doing sterling work over the past few years in encouraging audiences and musicians to peek beyond the mainstream, and the inauguration of Fridge Records with Afif's album certainly indicates a promising future for music in a city often derided for its live scene.