Mohsen Namjoo at the Orpheum Fuses East, West
L.A's Orpheum theater was buzzing with anticipation on the evening of May 20th, 2012, as the inimitable Iranian composer-musician Mohsen Namjoo came to town to present his latest (and as yet unreleased) pieces under the collective title thirteen/eight. From the moment the curtain went up it was clear something marvelous was afoot: the instruments accompanying Mr. Namjoo's setar included an upright bass, a full drum kit, and a pair of synthesizers; and the band took no time to get jamming on these. Two hours later, the buzz had turned from anticipation to awe, amazement, and satisfaction at having witnessed another extraordinary performance.
"Fusion" is by no means a novel or revolutionary idea: just drop into any LA restaurant, slide in any Bollywood DVD, or turn on Persian pop radio and you will likely find east and west jostling for space, often wrestling uncomfortably for the upper hand. It takes someone as talented, thoughtful, and inventive as Mr. Namjoo to pull it off in a manner that is not only groundbreaking but meaningful and enthralling—as he has done from the very beginning of his career. When his first album Toranj was released in 2007, the unheard-of blending of classical Iranian music and poetry with western rock and blues sent the more tradition-minded running for earplugs; but those who took their time with the work came away with a challenging and deeply rewarding musical experience. Over the years since Toranj, Mr. Namjoo has established himself as a relentless experimenter; and his new work proves his determination to continue forging ahead on that path.
Musically, Mr. Namjoo has now turned his focus onto Jazz, and the marriage of this supremely American form with some of the most venerated and sacrosanct aspects of Iranian music. He has succeeded in reinvigorating a sometimes soporific musical form by injecting into it the superlative energy of Jazz. With its relentlessly gripping vibe and dearth of tedious passages, the Orpheum performance was a testament to this success.
Mr. Namjoo has also found kinship between Jazz's love for open structures and improvisation, and an area of Persian music referred to as "limping rhythms"—where the time signatures do not follow the expected symmetry of beats. The title "thirteen/eight" actually describes one such time-signature, and the eponymous track—a foray into jazz improv by way of Stravinsky—proved to be one of the concert's highlights
Lyrically, Mr. Namjoo continues to mine the work of Rumi and Hafez—but in a way that is again radically different from what has been done by others before him. His penchant for breaking apart this sacred poetry and reassembling it with unexpected cadences and ironic phrasings produces astonishingly powerful and subversive results which even a purist like myself cannot begrudge.
In the pieces where the lyrics are entirely his own, Mr. Namjoo finds even more room for irony; this was particularly evident in the song "Khat Bekesh," (based in part on Dean Martin's "Sway") in which he encourages expats like himself to stop waiting for Iran to become the country they imagine in their fantasies. But Namjoo's bluntness—and his tendency to push the envelope to the verge of comedy—are always mitigated by the sense of sincerity and frankness that emanates from his words and shines through his voice despite the signature vocal acrobatics.
In the concert's second half Namjoo was joined by an entirely different band, this time including two guitarists (Mohammad Talani and Siamack Sanaie) as well as the legendary Greg Ellis on percussion. Mr. Ellis, it must be said, is a composer and bandleader in his own right, and an invaluable asset to any ensemble (he has played with groups from Beck to Billy Idol and partnered with Azzam Ali on Vas for eight years). Surrounded by an eclectic set of eastern drums, he performed as though in a trance, keeping the complex backbeats with astounding precision, always coaxing the perfect tone from each of the skins. Special mention should also go to keyboardist Robert Shelton, whose goosebump-inducing work on the Fender Rhodes & Horner Clavinet stood out among the night's many pleasures.
The concert ended with both bands swinging away on a jazzed-up version of the song "Ro Sar Beneh," familiar from the Toranj album yet transformed into something entirely different. It was yet another reminder that bringing together all these musicians and so many disparate elements to produce work that is continually fresh and fascinating requires not only immense musical aptitude but a supreme drive for innovation and expansion—a combination that in Mr. Namjoo's case can only be described as genius.