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French Version

'Is it So!' - there's no shame in experimenting

In-Version's Joelle Khoury talks about screaming out, and her group's new CD

Joelle Khoury says she hates sceptics and intellectuals. "Is it So!," her third CD and the second with her jazz quintet In-Version, at once confirms and contradicts her claims.

Her music betrays an acquaintance with the architecture of post-bop jazz convention and an impish impulse to leave some graffiti on it. The composer could be an intelligent juvenile delinquent.

"Question," the opening track, commences with high-hat and bass-line. Khoury enters, rapping out a staccato piano challenge to the saxophones of Hratch Kassis and Tom Hornig, who reply with a rolling duet. A horn solo runs a gauntlet of ornamented scales, punctuated by Khoury's occasional incisions.

Khoury's solo work on this album exhibits multiple personalities, varying from atonal artifice to straight-ahead jazz.

She says she's no technician and her improvisations here are marked by more energy and imagination than precision. Having commenced a chord progression, she apparently changes her mind to chase another line of thought, then returns to the original half-finished theme. It's the aural equivalent of someone acting up at a photo shoot because she feels uncomfortable having her picture taken.

Khoury's composition is quite unlike that of her contemporaries from the region. For some years now Ziad Rahbani's work has mixed oriental and western instrumentation into a sort of local jazz dialect and many variations on a theme of "oriental jazz" have emerged since. "Is it So!" does mix elements but there's no trace of "oriental" in it.

"I might feel an affinity to someone remote from me in geography or time," she says. "Virginia Woolfe talks to me. Khalil Gibran talks to me much less, not because I refuse to be oriental. It's a personal thing.

"I very much respect some oriental music but this isn't what I feel that I want to say. I don't feel any affinity to oriental music, at least not yet.

"You write something soft, they say 'It's because you're a woman'. You write something dissonant and muscular, they say 'You're trying to prove something.' You write something Arabic, they say 'It's because you want to please the public.'" She laughs. "You write something that's not Arabic, they say 'It's because you have some kind of inferiority complex.'"

"Question's" feverish, irreverent jazz moves into a more highbrow space with the album's title track. "Is it So!" begins with a smart bit of drum work and it features an angular sax duet, so it does have the flavor of jazz. The center of the piece is a driving line of percussion, driven by Khoury, drummer Emile Boustany and bassist Maurice Khoury. The piano solo that issues from it is a mock waltz that leads into a dissonant broken-music-box atonality before finding a jazz theme embedded within.

It's easy to imagine you're chewing on a piece of contemporary classical music here. For all of her dislike of sceptics, irony rings out from many of these compositions. The theme that brackets the tune of "Circles" could be evoking a barely remembered jazz standard - or the soundtrack of some jazz-inflected detective series from 1970s American television.

Her first solo is straight out of the recital hall, a bit of 12-tone dissonance until the horns intercede. By the time Khoury returns with her second solo, she's no longer in a discordant mood and goes straight ahead, like a thoughtful Gonzalo Rubalcaba. It's as if she'd climbed a classical staircase in her first solo, just so she could slide down the jazz banister with her second.

Most of the solos here were improvised but the piano work in the title track and the first solo in "Circles" were composed. On Khoury's previous jazz outing "Tumbling Up," all the solo work was composed. Her desire to dictate the solo work, eccentric in jazz, arises from a hatred of cliche.

"When you solo sometimes your fingers take the lead," she says. "They play what they're used to playing. This is what got me interested in the structuring and composing. Talking about Arnold Schoenberg, Thomas Mann says sometimes when you want to be constructive you have to go through a phase of negativity ... Now I've decided I should never compose solos again. I had to do it because they taught me what I didn't want. What is composed [in "Is it So!"] though - and what is usually not composed - are the bass lines."

The choice of composition over improvisation is also a function of the local music landscape. "I used to think that we were s*** because [musicians here] don't rehearse. I don't believe this anymore. Now I think we can do something.

"Sometimes this limitation is interesting. Sometimes it's easier to create within limitations because you know you can't do this or that ... In these circumstances I've had to compose some of the things because, [though my band members] have good taste, it doesn't go in the same direction as mine."

The least unconventional pieces on the album are the two ballads - "Biba" and "Little Lou." From the romantic-sounding piano flourish that opens "Biba," Khoury's keyboard displays none of the dissonance of her up-tempo numbers. Neither does it have any of the post-bop structural signposts you might expect. It sounds like a sonic sketch of casual stroll.

After a horn interlude, the solo duties are taken up by the silky guitar of Maurice Khoury, an unexpected injection of John McLaughlin-channelled Django Reinhardt that echoes the meandering keyboard solo. It suggests a conversation between pianist and guitarist, with the piano speaking the guitar's language.

Khoury left the trade a few years back, frustrated with the music she had to play at gigs. She says she decided to quit music so she could keep loving it. Instead she wrote a graduate thesis in philosophy. This may explain why a conversation with this anti-intellectual composer is festooned with references to Thomas Mann, Leibniz and Gilles Deleuze as well as her two greatest influences - JS Bach and Theolonius Monk.

In the end, she says, she returned to composition because she couldn't survive without it.

Like another jazz pianist, Bill Evans, Khoury takes inspiration from the classical composer Bela Bartok. Evans was interested in Bartok's use of modalities - using modal scales as the building blocks of composition rather than chords - and used Bartok to introduce Miles Davis to his ideas on modal jazz during the revolutionary "Kind of Blue" sessions. Khoury laughs at being mentioned alonside Evans, and says she takes something altogether different from Bartok.

"Everybody sees something different in Bartok. The modal thing was important but ... what I like most in him is that there isn't any shame in experimenting.

"I think I'm not into modalities because of how I react to oriental music. Deleuze says that whereas Oriental music ... explores space geographically, through this mode or that mode, the Europeans want to go vertically. I've usually been against this modal thing. Maybe it's a reaction [to the implication that] you're supposed to stay where you are. You're not supposed to change. You don't move. You can't scream out."

Beirut,08 01 2005
Jim Quilty
The Daily Star
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