As they stood in the wings at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in early February, about to perform The Baghdad/Seattle Suite publicly for the first time, Iraqi oud player Rahim AlHaj and Americans guitarist Bill Frisell and violist Eyvind Kang heard their cue to go onstage.
“You go first. You’re the boss,” AlHaj whispered to Frisell.
“No, I’m not the boss. Nobody’s boss,” Frisell responded. “You go first.”
The egalitarian camaraderie that momentarily delayed the suite’s premiere informed the entire collaboration, as all three acknowledged in separate interviews. What drew them together and focused their creative efforts was the shared belief in music as a common language, one with the power to bring people together. As Frisell says: “If everybody played music, I can’t imagine how there’d be all these problems.”
Presented in partnership with The New Mexico Jazz Festival and UNM’s John Donald Robb Composers’ Symposium, The Baghdad/Seattle Suite is a National Performance Network (NPN) Creation Fund project commissioned by the Outpost Performance Space in partnership with the Walker Art Center and NPN. It will have its New Mexico premiere this weekend in Santa Fe and Albuquerque.
The project had its start in the summer of 2004, when AlHaj, one of the world’s most gifted oud players, attended the Santa Fe Jazz and International Music Festival. He went to hear Frisell, whose omnivorous musical appetite, profound expertise in American forms and uniquely identifiable sound—spacious, liquid, ringing—have built an esteemed body of work.
AlHaj and Frisell met, hit it off and ultimately decided they wanted to work together.
“We tried a few different ways to make it happen,” says Outpost Executive Director Tom Guralnick. Finally, five years later, the NPN’s support for a residency project opened the door to new music from AlHaj, Frisell and Kang, a longtime Frisell collaborator.
Kang, another musician who pairs virtuosity with an insatiable musical appetite, had recorded a piece in Seattle with the other two a couple of years ago for an ongoing AlHaj project, and the chemistry worked. With an understanding of Persian music, Kang helped bridge the American and Iraqi musical traditions of his collaborators, both of whom appreciate his ability as a “translator.”
Meeting in Minneapolis in February for their residency, the trio “had the luxury of having three full days of rehearsal,” says Kang. “We had the opportunity of learning about each other.”
“We were getting together every day,” AlHaj says. “Take our instruments and go to the hall and eat and just play.”
All three brought compositions to work on, but not much else. “I didn’t really have any expectations,” says Frisell. “We just started playing, and one thing led to another. It happened in a really natural way.”
Working in this way with musicians, says AlHaj, gives one “a chance to see where the sweetness is, where the real person is.”
The sweetness spun out into a suite of seven compositions, including the AlHaj tune they’d recorded previously. Called “Morning in Hyattsville,” that song got its start early one morning in a Maryland friend’s backyard as a call and response between AlHaj on his oud and a mockingbird hidden in the trees.
With no expectations, the three found surprising rewards. “There was a point in Minneapolis when we were playing something, and I thought, Wow, this music is really spiritual,” says Kang. “I didn’t expect that.”
With all due respect to Eyvind Kang, given the body of work each of these musicians has produced, one could expect nothing less.