Think about Northern African influences on jazz, and eventually you’ll start thinking about “Caravan.” It’s one of those jazz standards that have received a lot of play in the last few years, possibly due to its role in the film Whiplash. But I’ll tell you a little secret: I’ve loved “Caravan” ever since I first listened to it, probably Ben Webster’s version, because of the mood it imparts. It’s exotic and melodically and rhythmically gorgeous, sort of symbolic of the global reach of jazz. Perhaps that’s why this new album from guitarist Ahmed Warshanna, Ishta, is so stunning.
No, Ahmed Warshanna (website) doesn’t cover “Caravan” here. But he does know how to play straightforward jazz and infuse just enough of those Middle Eastern influences to deliver those same goose bumps, that same sense of the universal appeal of jazz. Warshanna is still a young man, raised in Baltimore in an Egyptian-American household, and music has always been an important part of his upbringing. Surprisingly he didn’t discover jazz until 2012, when he was in high school. (I told you he was young.)
When his mother battled breast cancer, Ahmed Warshanna dove into the music of her childhood and found so much to fuel his imagination that he composed Ishta in her honor. These original compositions show that love and sensitivity, but in expanded form–these five songs average about nine minutes long each. What’s surprising is that each epic is based upon very familiar jazz sounds, or as the liner notes describe, “a fusion between the hardbop/postbop style of the ’60s and popular Egyptian music.” That’s enough to pique my interest there. Anyone else mesmerized by Ethiopiques?
Ahmed Warshanna has assembled one heck of a septet to deliver Ishta: trumpeter Hart Guonjian-Pettit, tenor sax player Dominic Ellis, trombonist Daniel Sperlein, pianist Josh Miller, bassist Thomas Owens and drummer Charlie Seda. Each one takes a turn in the spotlight to make a spectacular impression and to preserve that slow burn that’s stoked by the creative young man on the guitar. Like many young leaders, Warshanna is focused on the whole, basking in the creative process and producing gems such as this. Highly recommended.