It was the weekend of the Dubai Jazz Festival – but the jazziest thing that happened in Dubai was far away from that Media City event, on a subterranean stage where the Rony Afif 4tet debuted a live performance of the album Zourouf in front of a modest but devoted crowd.
Recorded in New York, the album was released almost two years ago – but Saturday’s gig marked the first time the Lebanese drummer and his group has performed the LP in full – or a note of its music in the UAE.
The long-overdue premiere was thanks to Jazz Club, a new weekly showcase hosted at JLT’s Jazz@PizzaExpress.
Announced by a lilting sax melody, unravelling over twinkly electric keys, opener Dichotomy of One began to cook as the rhythm section kicked into a sharp, schisming bop.
Next comes The Drifting, deep, slow blues driven by a brooding bass riff that offers a wide-open harmonic platform for searching sax and keys solos, building into a steaming drum breakdown.
Sitting to the right, Afif is a tornado of sound, his motionless, totemic torso commanding four flaying limbs with flamboyant precision.
Opposite, stage left, reeds-man Joaquin Sosa rocks back and forth on tiptoes, gripping his saxophone and clarinet like a playful pet he’s trying to teach a new trick.
Tarek Yamani – who arranged the NYC sessions – peers calmly over his keyboards like a professor figuring some twisted abacus calculation, his studied flair combined with an ability to fuse Arabic flavours into dazzling improvisations (best heard on his own excellent album Lisãn Al Tarab: Jazz Conceptions in Classical Arabic).
In the centre stands bassist Elie Afif, a rock tracking the heavy harmonic building blocks that characterise his brother’s compositions (Elie is also a veteran of the scene with his own album, the assured Giant Steps to Heaven).
Rony’s melodies are short, jagged, exotic earworms that recall his cosmopolitan life. Wa Ennama is driven by spiralling, restless, off-kilter funk, flitting between vertiginous chord vamps.
Traditional Japanese folk song Sakura, dedicated to his wife, is recast as a dreamy ethereal haze, bookending the second set sublimely.
Improvised instrumental music of this standard is too rarely heard in the UAE.
So why did it take two years to perform Zourouf live? As the mix of musical genres at the Dubai Jazz Festival proves, jazz is an endangered species. The idea of “jazz” sounds mighty sophisticated on paper but perplexing to the untrained ear.
It’s a problem anywhere in the world – jazz is only kept alive by the musicians who fight to play and the audiences who turn out to hear them.
The same is true in Dubai – these are the guys making it happen, and Pizza Express’s new Jazz Club concept represents a significant opportunity for players and listeners alike. Go and feel the love.
• Jazz Club at Jazz@PizzaExpress, JLT, Saturdays from 8pm. Check www.facebook.com/Jazzclubpizzaexpress1 for upcoming gigs. Listen to Zourouf at www.ronyafif.com.