The guitar might be the most fashionable string instrument to wield, but historically, it has nothing on the oud.
The 11-string instrument was depicted in artwork that can be dated back as far as 3,000 B.C. Although it has Arabic origins, Western musicians have become familiar with its exotic, unamplified sounds in both traditional music and contemporary hybrids. In the 1960s, Ahmed Abdul-Malik, a bassist with Thelonious Monk, played oud on his own Jazz Sahara album, and sat in with John Coltrane on his Village Vanguard recordings. This weekend, three different oud players spotlight their own unique approaches to the instrument.
New York-based musician Tomchess plays a blend of jazz and Arabic music. He studied the Near Eastern and North African styles of oud-playing, but improvisation factors heavily into his style. Accompanied by bass and drums, his folk-like melodies become a springboard for rich solos. His rhythm section sounds like it’s simply holding down the fort, but upon closer examination, its foundation is built upon rhythms that keep shifting time signatures. Aside from his work as a leader, Tomchess has played with heavy jazz musicians like saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson.
The undercard features Pittsburgh’s King Fez, who has been playing around the city for four years, often accompanying belly-dance performances. The group’s oudist, David Hart, plays an electric oud, which sometimes gives it a twang similar to a classic surf-rock guitar, without sacrificing any of its traditional “wooden” qualities. Also on the bill is Tom Moran, who first made a name for himself with his slashing guitar-work in The Five, in the early 1980s. He later played dark country music in The Deliberate Strangers, utilizing both electric and acoustic strings. He has built several of his ouds, and draws on Middle Eastern, Indian and West African music in his approach to songwriting.