Sometimes a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down; sometimes the sugar can taste like medicine. When Palestinian violin and oud master Simon Shaheen attempts to make Arabic classical music more accessible--for instance, by arranging the Police's awful "Tea in the Sahara" for oud, nay, frame drums, upright bass, darbuka, and guitar on last year's Blue Flame (Ark 21)--it's hard not to scrunch up your face like a five-year-old suffering through a swig of cough syrup. Mercifully, most of the album is far more ambitious and considerably less patronizing, although on every composition Shaheen is working some kind of cross-pollination or another. "Fantasie for Oud & String Quartet" contains six measures from the final piece written by the great Egyptian composer Mohamed Abdel Wahab and six of Shaheen's own, running them through variations on the oud with the support of a Western string quartet. "Dance Mediterranea" combines traditional Arabic improvisation with buoyant jazzy dance rhythms, while "Al-Qantara" mixes flamenco and Moorish styles. Shaheen was rigorously trained in Arabic classical music before he came to New York from Israel in 1980; there he continued his education at the Manhattan School of Music and Columbia University. In the early 90s he released a series of excellent albums that confirmed his grasp of numerous Arabic traditions, including Taqasim (Lyrichord), a collection of duet improvisations with Ali Jihad Racy, who plays buzuq, a long-necked lute popular with Middle Eastern Rom musicians; The Music of Mohamed Abdel Wahab (produced by Bill Laswell for Axiom), a gorgeous orchestral survey of the composer's work; and Turath (recently reissued by Times Square), a small-ensemble collection of traditional Ottoman and Egyptian works. Since then he's gone on to collaborate with the Indian classical guitarist Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, jazz composer Henry Threadgill, and the Latin pop singer Soraya, and in February he made a cameo in Chicago with rai star Khaled, but Blue Flame stands as his most sustained style-blending effort yet. Saturday, April 27, 7 and 10 PM, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln; 773-728-6000.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Jackson.