Much of the first wave in the late ‘60s of what has come to be known as prog was a fusion of classical and jazz music. Something that sounds like it should be an eclectic mix, perhaps, but only when thought of in Western terms. For while classical music from the West has always relied heavily on composition, many forms of classical music from the East place as much importance (and sometimes more) on improvisation as composition. Coming from one of the earliest cultures of the world, Persian classical music must surely be one of the earliest forms, and indeed relies on both improvisation and composition. It’s therefore a quite natural match for Australian based Eishan Ensemble to blend band leader, Hamed Sadeghi’s background in Persian classical music with his interest in the improvisational expression of jazz. The result is charming and captivating, and sure to intrigue listeners from beyond just the two aforementioned genres.
The integration of the two similar yet different genres is made more overt by the use of familiar jazz instruments saxophone, guitar and double bass played pizzicato, alongside traditional Persian classical instruments such as the tar and oud, and some breathtakingly propulsive percussion. The collective sound is one of complement rather than contrast, and will perhaps be surprising for some to hear some of the instruments played in this context. Eishan Ensemble, like fellow label mates, Hashshashin, integrate traditional and contemporary, East and West, to provide soundscapes that are truly universal in scope. The level of attention to moods, rhythms and structure creates a natural fascination that shows music can transcend its influences or origin.
Those soundscapes are also wonderfully immersive. It is easy to lose yourself in the melodies, and this second album from Eishan Ensemble surpasses their debut in this regard. (Which is quite a statement, as the debut is also quite beautiful.) Much of the beauty comes from the main instrument of the Eishan Ensemble, the tar – an Iranian lute which will be a quite unfamiliar to many lis-teners. It has a resonant and almost metallic sound that, in terms of Western instruments, might sound closest to the banjo (although far more pleasant sounding – though I recognise that will be subjective). Sadeghi has quite masterfully found similarities between Persian classical and jazz, and interwoven Western instruments and instrumentation, while leaving ample space for the tar to be heard.
The opening number, Black and White, is very nice, but perhaps not as exciting or as indicative of the fusion and variety as that which is to come. Second track Street, though, is perhaps one of the most delightful examples of the classical jazz fusion of Eishan Ensemble, and also one of the most evocative. When I first listened to the album, as always, I paid no attention to the names of the tracks. I like to listen to an album for the first time with as few preconceptions as possible, and I have to admit that without knowing the title, I assumed this was the title track. I find it impossible to listen to Street, and not imagine taking afternoon tea. There is something very refined and relaxed about this track.
On the other hand, the following Future #2 (the title obviously harking back to Future from the debut album) could almost be described as acoustic math rock, and is a far more effervescent affair than its namesake, despite sharing much of the same composition. What both versions of Future do well is present a good demonstration of the alternation within a piece of slower, more contemplative passages and fast-paced and destroying displays of musicianship, that is characteristic of Persian classical music. The percussion in this track is riveting, and halfway through takes centre-stage. Definitely one of my favourite numbers on the album, and the reinvention of the track from its appearance on the debut very clearly shows the development of the band since then.
Signs, the first single from Afternoon Tea at Six, follows and showcases guest vocalist Sonya Holowell, whose wordless vocalisations add even more colour to an already vivid and vibrant palette. Once again, as the track progresses, it moves and switches in style. I often realise I’m grinning inanely, but there’s something about the sonic variety of the core instruments that makes it hard not to smile, when they make a change. This was definitely a good choice for a single, and is well placed on the album as a centrepiece.
The upbeat Wind is energetic and jaunty, and as evocative as Street. It conjures up all sorts of imagery of energy and movement, and even though I had no idea it was called Wind, one of the images that came to mind was the way Autumn leaves swirl in circles along and above the ground as gusts of wind move them about. It was a pleasant surprise to find out the title later. I absolutely love the sax on this track, and, again, what makes it particularly special is the interplay between the Western and Eastern instruments. They weave in and out of each other so naturally, which is a far more difficult feat than it might sound. Like Future #2, this is another real favourite.
Finally we reach the title track I thought I’d already heard nearer the beginning of the album. And it actually, for me, shares a lot of the same sense and feelings, but if Street is the more Western afternoon tea, this is the more Eastern. Indeed, if Street opened this album, and the title track closed it, they would make perfect musical bookends. If Street is afternoon tea in Sydney, then the title track is afternoon tea in Mashhad. Once again, Sonya Holowell provides some beautiful vocalisations.
But there is one more track, and it’s a beauty. Sins does indeed sound a little devilish, but in a way that’s impossible not to forgive – like a cheeky child with a naughty glint in her eye. The child is up to no good, but is too cute to be angry with. Sins is that child. Once again the fusion of Persian classical and jazz is seamless. Expansive improvised solos are passed from instrument to instrument in a constantly changing delight, until the track ends (too soon!) after nine minutes.
Afternoon Tea at Six is an album that gently and subtly, almost without me even realising it, transports me away from wherever I’m listening. The music is complex, multi-faceted, and polyrhythmic, yet the delivery is so easy and relaxed, so it’s never a difficult listen. The charm of Persian classical and familiarity of jazz combine to create some truly atmospheric and layered soundscapes. Eishan Ensemble is clearly a vehicle for Sadeghi’s tar, but every other instrument maintains their personality, playing with and around the tar, and providing some of the most interesting fusion I’ve heard this year.
01. Black and White (5:08)
02. Street (7:20)
03. Future #2 (12:23)
04. Signs (8:25)
05. Wind (6:05)
06. Afternoon Tea at Six (7:03)
07. Sins (9:00)
Total Time – 55:24
Hamed Sadeghi – Tar
Pedram Layegh – Guitar
Michael Avgenicos – Alto & Tenor Saxophones
Adem Yilmaz – Percussion
Elsen Price – Double Bass
Sonya Holowell – Vocals
Adnan Barake – Oud