Sultans of String,
Yalla Yalla!
(independent, 2009)

The nice thing about music criticism is that every once in a while, an album comes along that is a pure joy to hear. That's the case with Yalla Yalla! It's a rare album, a well-recorded, crisply produced collection of memorable tunes, played by excellent musicians who amplify each other's strengths and create something that 99 percent of the time is greater than the sum of its parts.

Violinist Chris McKhool's Sultans of String, aided and abetted by guitarists Kevin Laliberte and Eddie Paton, bassist Drew Birston and drummer Chendy Leon (plus a veritable host of guest musicians), blends Middle Eastern and Latin influences, occupying much the same territory that has been carved out by artists like Jesse Cook and Strunz and Farah -- though the Sultans are more inclusive in their repertoire. Their songs are primarily flamenco oriented, but also incorporate jazz (especially the "gypsy jazz" style), rock, folk and classical. As the album progresses it shows them ably sprinting through each of these styles -- and while the sound is familiar, the music is adventurous and the players are unafraid to stretch out and push at boundaries.

Even better, they're unafraid to have fun and be playful. "Yalla Yalla!" (loosely translated, "Come on, let's go!") is a surging get-up-and-dance number that makes a perfect kick-off to the album. "Highlander 10 Speed" is a sweet, brisk excursion into jazz complete with stride piano, which swings effortlessly. Similarly, "Sable Island" is an exquisite piece that evokes the crashing waves and wild horses that live on the eponymous isle. In the mournful "Tikal," McKhool's violin plays effortlessly off of Laliberte's guitar and George Gao's erhu, and the result is stirring and dreamlike.

The best example of this willingness to stretch out is also one of the most outstanding tracks on the CD, "Gardens of Lebanon." Here, the Sultans go Strunz and Farah one better and pursue McKhool's Mideast influences all the way back to his ancestral country. All the elements on display in the other tracks come together, along with Maryem Tollar's stunning lead vocal, and cohere into something intense and stirring, which will make you homesick for places you've never been. It's easily the highlight of an album with no shortage of highlights.

On the other end of the scale, "Pinball Wizard" is the one track I didn't enjoy. In the Sultans' hands Pete Townshend's classic rocker becomes a facile, everything-but-the-sink mix of things that are better displayed elsewhere on the album, and comes across as a calculated nod to Rodrigo Y Gabriela's penchant for reworking classic rock and heavy metal songs. I suspect this might be a track that sounds much better live in concert, where the musicians can improvise and play off of the audience. On the CD however, it just seems rote.

A more satisfactory reinterpretation (at least to my tastes) is "Gymnorumba," which takes a lovely, familiar passage from Satie's "Gymnopedies" and makes it shake its booty and sing for its supper. It was one of the more delightful moments of the album to hear the opening notes, realize what I was listening to, and then to hear what McKhool and Laliberte did with Satie's melody. That kind of "ah-HA!" moment is all too rare in world music these days, and I appreciated it all the more for that reason.

I could go on -- the album is just that good. But I'll save your time and my editor's headaches and sum up by saying that Yalla Yalla! is that rare treat: an exuberant collection of music by virtuoso players clearly having the time of their lives working together. You can't beat that, and you should definitely give it a listen.

[ visit the artist's website ]

music review by
Jay Whelan

19 February 2011

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