Azam Ali,
Portals of Grace
(Narada, 2002)

The solo project of Azam Ali, released as Portals of Grace, is an eclectic collection of medieval music. Most of the 11 compositions on this CD are either of Eastern origin or have been selected for their "oriental ring."

Before moving to Los Angeles, Iranian-born Azam Ali was raised in India and it is obvious that her musical taste was shaped by her Persian heritage and exposure to the musical legacy of the Indian Subcontinent. Both a vocalist and trained instrumentalist (Azam has studied the santour with Manoocher Sadeghi), her performance focuses on melody rather than lyrics, using her own voice as an instrument. She first experimented with this in a formation called Vas, in which she worked with the versatile percussionist Greg Ellis.

Portals of Grace combines songs dating back to 12th-14th century France and southern Europe, with instrumental interpretations of Breton and Swedish music. The result is a musical composite of surprising coherence. Who could have guessed that elements from the Celtic and Nordic tradition can be successfully integrated with Latin chants and vocal performances based on lyrics taken from the Iberian region of Galicia, France and the Sephardic Jews from Moorish Spain? Only the origin of "Inna-l-Malak" puzzled me. I am not sure what to make of its description as being at the same time Byzantine and Arab. However, in spite of that confusion the number became one of my favorites, together with the recording of "La Serena." Both interpretations betray Azam's firm rooting in a musical tradition that can be traced back to the Islamic world of the Middle Ages, where traditions from East and West found a fertile soil. It was the genius of that civilization, which made a fusion of cultural expressions that were Islamic, Christian, Jewish -- even pagan -- in origin possible.

With this project Azam has taken up that challenge once more. The CD's title creates the impression that the repertoire is of a truly spiritual nature. Without a doubt that was the intention and purpose of the original compositions that lie at the basis of Portals of Grace. This production, however, is clearly trying to achieve a certain effect: to evoke a mood rather than appeal to spiritual sensibility in a narrow sense. That is not to say that Azam Ali has fallen short in her endeavor. On the contrary, Portals of Grace is soothing for the soul.

[ by Carool Kersten ]
Rambles: 28 September 2002

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