The Tel Aviv Session May Be One of the Greatest Albums Ever!

by Jacob on March 28, 2012

The Tel Aviv Session Out NowMy record label, Cumbancha, formally released the album The Tel Aviv Session by The Touré-Raichel Collective on Tuesday. The Touré-Raichel Collective is the musical collaboration between Idan Raichel, a massive Israeli star, and Vieux Farka Touré, son of the legendary Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré and a star himself. While I am proud of every (ok, not every!) release Cumbancha puts out, I believe that this album captures a very unique musical magic. Hopefully, enough people will agree with me and the album will become the global smash it deserves to be.

It is not an elaborately produced album – in fact the core tracks were recorded in about three hours and entirely improvised.

Its not a flashy record – indeed it is so subtle and understated that many people may not have the patience to allow it to seep into their soul as it has for me.

It is totally different from anything Vieux or Idan have recorded before and it may even alienate or disappoint some of their fans. But it will also demonstrate their true musical genius in a way nothing they have done previously has, and I think it will make fans out of people who were not enchanted by their earlier work.

I remember when Idan sent me the raw recordings of the afternoon recording session in Tel Aviv in November 2010. He was very matter of fact about it, “Hey check out these recordings I made with Vieux,” he told me very casually, “Do you think we can do something with them?”

I don’t think Idan was expecting me to react the way I did. He wasn’t expecting me to call him a few days later to tell him that not only did he have the makings of an album there, he may have unconsciously created a masterpiece. He knew that what they played that day was special, but it was only when he started playing the rough, unmixed, unedited recordings to me and others and heard their enthusiastic reactions that he seriously considered putting them out to the public.

I first listened to the recordings in the Cumbancha office, as background music while my team puttered around with their daily work. Every once in a while, someone would look up and say “What is this? Its really good.” We slowly let the songs seep into our brains, which it turns out may be the best way to listen to this album…giving it the time to sink in.

I hadn’t felt the same way about a recording since I was in high school and fell in love with Keith Jarret’s The Köln Concert. As with that album, I could barely believe that every note I was hearing was made up on the spot…no charts, no arrangements, no standard chord progressions, no rehearsals. Just pure, unfettered, improvisation that offered a powerful window into the human soul.

Unlike The Köln Sessions, however, there were four musicians in the room not just a soloist, so the stakes were much higher and the room for error much less. I will never fully understand how they did it. How, without speaking, did they manage to communicate so effortlessly?

I have worked closely with Idan for many years now, and I really do consider him to be one of the great musical geniuses of our time. He will be the first to tell you that I am essentially allergic to the synthesizer, and I tried (ultimately successfully) to convince him to use a real horn section rather then playing synthy riffs on his keyboards. As much as I love The Idan Raichel Project, you never really get to hear Idan show off his talents as a pianist.

It wasn’t until I first him play on a grand piano at an acoustic show in New York that I realized he isn’t just an amazing songwriter, producer and bandleader with a great head of hair…he is, in fact, a virtuoso. Not in a technical sense…you won’t hear him pounding out “Flight of the Bumblebee” at high speed. Idan’s gift is with the way in which he approaches melodies, massages the keys with the tenderness of a lover, uses the instrument in complete and creative ways as a harp or a drum, uses the piano as an extension of his soul.

I all honesty, I wasn’t totally aware of Vieux’s depth of talent either. When I first started Cumbancha I was even offered to release his first album and decided not to because I just didn’t love it (and because I was already committed to releasing the album of Habib Koité, another Malian guitarist, that year). Live and on album, Vieux plays with an electric intensity and rocking distortion that masked his subtlety and technique. His regal bearing, he is after all the son of musical royalty, has made him seem aloof at times.

Listening the Tel Aviv recordings was a revelation. Idan’s playing was so enchanting, restrained when it needed to be and intense when the song needed to build. He strummed the strings inside the piano like a kora – in fact, many people think someone is playing the kora on the album’s opening track “Azawade” when in fact it is Idan on piano. On another song he beats on the underside of the piano, playing it like a Middle Eastern drum while simultaneously keeping a melody going with his other hand.

And Vieux’s guitar playing was magnificent. One would expect that growing up around a genius like Ali Farka Touré you would pick up a few tricks, but Vieux had clearly inherited his father’s spirit as well. Hearing Vieux so relaxed and unadorned exposed his true gifts in a way his own albums never truly have.

Add to that the uncanny bass playing of Yossi Fine (no wonder many people consider him to be one of the world’s best bass players), the masterful calabash playing of Souleymane Kane and a bit of pixie dust (actually, now that I think about it, I never asked Idan what they were eating, drinking or smoking that day) and the result is truly a one-of-a-kind album.

During the next year, Idan directed the process of recording some additional tracks with a few musicians that he wished could have been with them on the day of the session, and he asked Vieux and Ethiopian-Israeli singer Cabra Casay, a member of the Idan Raichel Project, to record some vocal tracks. Finally, Idan came to the Cumbancha estate in Vermont and settled in at Lane Gibson Recording & Mastering to edit and mix the tracks. We trimmed some of the fat, tightened up the form of some songs and enhanced the quality of the sound with some of Lane’s excellent gear. Then, after a few back and forths, listens, relistens and more relistens, tweaks and knob turns, the album was finally ready to be sent to mastering at Metropolis Studios in London. They added the varnish to the oils, giving the final product a nice shine and depth.

Meanwhile, we turned our attention to the artwork. Israeli photographer Nitzan Treystman had been at the studio that day and took some lovely photos, but nothing jumped out as an obvious choice for an album cover. Nitzan had developed a concept that took a profile of Idan from a different session and a profile of Vieux, but it didn’t seem strong enough to work as the cover. It was a little bit creepy, and reminded me of those 80s high school school pictures where your profile was superimposed behind your head.

My usual designer, Tim O’Malley, was very busy on other projects and I didn’t really want to distract him from those by throwing a whole new project at his feet, so I began looking for a different designer to take it on. After a few bids and proposals, I settled on London-based designer Matt Thame of Studio Auto who tranformed Nitzan’s idea into a brilliant, colorful burst that perfectly symbolized the creative process of the album. The blue and red melded it together in the middle as if to show how Vieux and Idan’s minds had fused, allowing their creative energies to come together in the chaotic yet expressive process that we call art.

The Tel Aviv Session Album Cover

I also had to jump through a few legal loops, such as getting special permission from Vieux’s regular label, Six Degrees, to allow a different label to release an album featuring one of their artists…big thanks to Bob Duskis and Pat Berry over there for being so great about it. Long contract negotiations with Idan’s people (Israelis definitely deserve their reputation as tough negotiators!) as well as formal permissions from all of the guest artists involved, the photographer, etc.

I remember thinking at the beginning of this process that it would be an easy and cheap album to make…I mean after all, it had already been recorded in one afternoon! Its funny (in a painful way) how something that seems so simple at first can get complicated and expensive fast.

Yet, it was all worth it. I genuinely feel The Tel Aviv Session is a masterpiece. Its not a masterpiece like the Sistine Chapel…a display of years of preparation, attention to detail and extravagant excess. Its more like the Mona Lisa…intimate, personal, seemingly simple, yet unimaginably complex in the way in which it captures the human spirit.

I hope you agree. Please buy the album and let it grow on you. Its not something you can listen to once, skimming through the tracks. You have to sit with it for a while. Put it on as you putter around the house, while you are falling asleep, doing yoga, meditating, working. Eventually, its charms will reveal themselves, and maybe, as happened with me, it will reach the place of emotion deep inside of you. Its the same place that is reached by a great poem or painting. Its beyond words, but it says so much more than words ever can.

You can listen to The Tel Aviv Session here and purchase it at store.cumbancha.com.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

TT world music blog April 25, 2012 at 3:27 AM

greetings, I run a world music blog for the love of
world music, I think you may like where I am coming from.

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Abu Gary May 11, 2012 at 12:05 AM

salaam shalom
Just bought Tel Aviv Sessions, I got to see Vieux Farke Toure perform acoustically in a record store in California, transcendant!

Reply

Jacob May 16, 2012 at 4:07 PM

Hey Abu, glad you liked it! Spread the word.

Reply

Abu Gary May 16, 2012 at 4:11 PM

Jacob, we’re on it! I listen to Tel Aviv Sessions every day…
Our kamale ngoni player used to play with Vieux Farke Toure,
Oumou Sangare, Toumani Diabate, Ramatu Diakite, and many
more…
Salud,
Abu Gary
510 207-9035

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Alida Latham August 23, 2012 at 1:48 AM

OK, just found this. What fantastic posts about the West African trip! I am looking forward to re-living the trip as I read them and listen to all the clips. And more to come!
Cheers! Alida

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