Golfam Khayam & Mona Matbou Riahi Narrante

[ECM; 2016]

Styles: improvisation, jazz, Persian music
Others: NAQSH

“It’s a conversation,” said drummer Steve Noble about making music. Rarely has that sentence seemed more appropriate than when listening to Narrante, the debut album by a duo of Iranian musicians who have been working together for over two years and, by the sounds contained on the CD, have seemingly spent that time in near-constant dialogue through their instruments.

Opener “Testamento” emerges quietly, with sinuous, mournful notes from clarinettist Mona Matbou Riahi, coaxing guitarist Golfam Khayam into joining her like beckoning calls. Khayam adds her voice just as gently, with slow but graceful finger-picking that slowly increases or decreases in tempo as the piece develops. Her melodies dance around Riahi’s warm interjections, the pair easing toward each other only to withdraw just as languidly, a fascinating duet that is elegant rather than confrontational, even when sudden spikes of dramatic force see them explode into flurried chords and whistling high notes. Riahi and Khayam walk an exciting line between improvisation and composition, and the deft interplay on “Testamento” serves as a blueprint for the rest of Narrante’s nine tracks, as the duo subtly toys with volume, structure and melody.

Track titles in Spanish, Italian, and Latin hint at how well-travelled Riahi and Khayam are, with both having learned music in their native Iran before moving abroad to widen their perspectives in other countries. Yet Iran, with its famously varied musical heritage, remains a foundation for these tracks, its traditions interwoven into Riahi’s drone-based, unfussy approach to the clarinet and in some of the tones produced by Khayam. Tunes like “Sospiro” and “Arioso” have a windswept quality that is common across musics of the Middle East and Eastern Europe, while the warbling cadence of Riahi’s notes when she takes flight on some of the more complex pieces also echoes through the musical timeline of her homeland. Equally, however, Khayam’s guitar stylings display an influence from both flamenco and Derek Bailey’s inventiveness, while Riahi takes many a cue from jazz and improv. If Iranian folk is Narrante’s starting point, the extended periods of quietness and even silence, along with the bursts of noisy improvisation indicate extensive immersion in modern global avant-garde music, free improv, and even lowercase.

Khayam and Riahi achieve the greatest osmosis and musical depth on the album’s longer tracks, such as the eight-minute “Lacrimae.” Its title suggests a melancholic piece on which Khayam’s insistent picked arpeggios are juxtaposed with more subdued, extended drones and swirls from Riahi’s clarinet. Despite the sparse means of only two instruments, they achieve a wealth of detail and texture, with the even longer follow-up “Battaglia” (Italian for “battle”) receding at times into near silence. This track features a dexterous musical dance that opens with brittle attacks on guitar, evolving through periods of minimalist interchanges during which Riahi can clearly be heard breathing heavily, before the two musicians attack simultaneously with searing clarinet squalls reminiscent of Jimmy Giuffre and stark, buzzing clashes on the strings of the guitar.

Narrante is a fascinating bridging of the old and the new, the freeform and the composed, with Mona Matbou Riahi and Golfam Khayam weaving it all together into a rich and varied tapestry of sound. Crucially, with its roots anchored in Iran, there is also an aching emotional resonance that makes the album all the more powerful to listen to, despite its outwardly (and deceptively) gentle facade. As with the best musical conversations, it’s an album of constant evolution that reveals more details with every listen.

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