Music | موسيقى

Full Gas On Neutral

“Faraj Suleiman – Once Upon a City” Album Review

First, let me thank Faraj. It’s thanks to the concert “Login” that he did back in 2013 that I decided to publicly publish my musical critique (or opinion). The reason was simple. I thought the concert was pointless. Yet I saw and heard people praising the “wonderful innovative musical work” displayed in the concert. I was furious! Is it possible that people really can’t see beyond technique? Am I too critical? Am I missing something?

Don’t be too judgmental – I thought to myself. You might like the new album. After all, four years passed since that concert.

1200x630bbI want this review to be closure. So I will begin with the things I found positive. Faraj Suleiman is a good pianist. There is no doubt about that. He has good technique, a wide spectrum of playing dynamics, relatively good emotion and a good sense of musical production. The album shows a pianist who is in full control over the keys of the keyboard, relentless of how hard and complicated the musical sentence. The band is also highly professional – Habib Shehadeh Hanna (Oud), Rami Nakhleh (Drums), and Shady Awidat (Bass Guitar) all gave an overall tight feeling to the album.

After listening to the album for the first time, I wasn’t so enthusiastic about writing this review anymore. I found the album a continuum to that 2013 concert – a display of repetitive riffs that players, each in turn, would solo over – a “jam session” of some sort. I listened to the whole album in a row and wrote my thoughts down. I thought to share my unedited notes as part of this review, but I believe it is best that I do not.

I decided to listen to the album again and see if my opinion changes – whether I develop a certain connection to the melodies, to the ideas displayed. I must say that the theory that says that the more you listen to a musical track the more you relate to it is true (The same old song: The power of familiarity in music choice, Morgan K. Ward & Joseph K. Goodman & Julie R. Irwin, Published online: 29 May 2013).  I found the album much more appealing the second time, as I had less expectations than I had in the first listen, hence having a clearer state of mind while listening.

That said, I still believe the album lacks a few qualities. If I were to describe the album in one simple sentence, I would say  it’s a linear modulation over a repetitive mantra. Most of the tracks could be compressed into a 1 minute track and it wouldn’t have made much of a difference (the last song, Once Upon a City, is the strongest example for that – it simply ends with a fade out. No bottom line, no points made).

The album consists of 8 tracks which, between most, I couldn’t really tell much of a difference. There are little stories being told – no phrases or sentences, just a constant repetition of riffs over a generally constant rhythm and bass line. Solos come in, solos end, etc. . The peak of this kind of structure was a drum solo in the track “tango”, where it felt like a live performance in which the band was just giving the drummer a background for a generic solo. Sometimes the melodies felt like an etude, a repetition of a short line with minor variations, creating very little interest in what’s coming next.

Trying to further understand what the reason for this disconnection I felt was, I tried comparing this album to music I find close in style. Two examples are Seven Days of Falling by Esbjörn Svensson Trio (E.S.T.) and Seven Seas by Avishai Cohen (joke about “seven” appearing in both tracks goes here). Both compared tracks have one thing in common that is different than Suleiman’s – their musical sentences give you an opportunity to absorb them, connect to them, contemplate over them, and have ideas. Faraj’s “riffs”, and I am intentionally calling them riffs instead of motifs or phrases, are on a hurry. They end before you realize, as a listener, they began, not giving you a chance to relate to them. Furthermore, Suleiman’s tracks lack diversity. It seems like the tracks are all structured over the same pattern – a riff plays, changes in dynamic / pitch / instrument, or becomes a background for a solo (much like rock songs). There are no conclusions, no development of the story being told. The riffs do develop sometimes (like in the case of the final fast part in the first track, Eleven and Twelve) just not enough to make a true musical impact further than that of the rhythmic and dynamic change.

Two outstanding tracks in the album are “Benenath the Walnut tree” and “Thress Steps”. That said, although “Beneath the Walnut Tree” has a catchy, pleasant melody, it still fails to develop beyond itself. It feels like a loop (I’m starting to feel this review is a loop too). Three steps is simply energetic and lively, with a wonderful mix of jazz, rock and Arab music motifs. A new sound is found in this track, and I praise Faraj and the band for it.

In a home piano masterclass, back in 2001, the renowned musician Saleem Abboud Ashqar told a story:

A music theory teacher opens the first lesson for the semester. He puts down his bag, takes out a pencil and a pencil sharpener. The class is silent, waiting. He sharpens his pencil, examines it, sharpens it again, makes sure it’s perfectly sharpened, blows at it to clean it, checks it again, sharpens it better, looks at it with appreciation. With one big blast, the teacher then smashes the pencil against the table. The students are in shock! “This is the first and most important lesson you will ever learn in music” he then says to them. “It’s all about one thing. Building up expectations, and then breaking them”.

This is precisely my problem with this album. It simply is too predictable.

Click here in order to listen to the full album via Soundcloud

4 thoughts on “Full Gas On Neutral”

  1. Blessed be the criticisms, it’s obviously better than ignoring and moving on like nothing happened.
    I liked your review, it described pretty well what i felt when i listened to ‘Three Steps’, it’s not a trip, it’s not even like taking a walk, It felt like jumping in place, no interesting harmony, no music twists.
    I don’t think it can be compared to works from the jazz genre, I don’t think ‘Three Steps’ is a jazz piece, it’s barely a Pop-Rock piano piece.

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  2. First I think the article is brave. most of the “critical articles” in our small community are mostly “praising articles”. I agree with most of what’s written in the article and I would add that in my opinion the mixing of the album could have been done in a better way to more emphasise the drums and the bass as well as that i would record the oud in a different way (note the entrance of the oud in “Beneath the Walnut tree” for example in 0:16 – I think it is very aggressive and distorted).
    However, I think three points are to be said in the favor of Faraj :
    1. His style of soloing is interesting, and i disagree with you about the motif issue: he uses intervals that are unique and uncommon in “european music”. he plays those intervals very fast which gives it oriental feeling (عربه) – it reminds me of the oriental/east european accordion technique.
    2. He planned and played the album in a perfect way: i am sure he wrote notation and defined each role perfectly which is something we lack in our local bands (even in some of the big oriental classical orchestras).
    3. Faraj controls musical theory (rhythm and harmony) very well. and I really enjoyed analysing the cd. and enjoyed knowing we have Palestinian musicians with such knowlege.
    p.s: i suggest you add a link so people will have the opportunity to hear his album and comment:
    https://soundcloud.com/…/sets/faraj-suleiman-once-upon-a

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  3. First of all I will start by saying that I am not a critic nor a professional musician, I’m just a Jazz addict and I say only my opinion and what I like and dislike.

    I’ve listened to the hall album many times and I firstly agree with you Bshara that you have to listen to it more than once in order to appreciate it more. However, what I said is true for all music albums, specially Jazz albums when every time you listen to it you find a beautifully hidden motif that you missed before.

    Looking at the cover of the album you already get the feeling that Faraj came to make a statement and he definitely did with this album. I will sum it up on the beginning and I say it is a beautifully made album with highly talented musicians playing together what I call an Arabic folk jazz which hides in it a little bit of progressive rock and the combination is just wonderful. It is made by Faraj and I think he manages to deliver to listeners exactly what he planned.

    The down part:
    Every album has its down side which some people might not notice or ignore but hey – that is what you are here for :). I do agree with you that most tracks sound the same but it doesn’t mean that the album is not full of surprises.

    It also does not highlight the bass enough in the album which I am sure it’s Faraj’s own decision but I just love the bass beat and I did miss it in some parts specially after you here what bass guitar can do for example on “Beneath the Walnut Tree” which is bolder and sounds better than its original track on the LOGIN album. It felt like that the bass player wants to get free but just can’t.

    I liked the combination of the Oud in most tracks but in some it didn’t give an added value in my opinion – “In the center” is an example.

    In some tracks I would add more volume to the end and give up on some “breaks” during the track.

    The ups part:
    I actually like the sequence of the tracks in the album. I like the opening with “11 & 12” – it is powerful & gives you an idea of how the album is going to be which I think is a good thing.

    I can’t highlight enough how talented the musicians are, just a world class that can appear in front of any audience in any jazz concert around the world.

    Some more tracks worth mentioning:
    “Three steps” – I love this track, it has everything in it. It is one of the most beautiful on the album.

    “Tango” – again, a bolder, beautifully upgraded track from LOGIN album with a drum solo that reminds all of us how talented Rami is.

    “Once upon a city” – a beautiful, powerful ending to the album. It was a good decision to put it as the last track because it does two main things – it gives you a feeling of a journey coming to the end & it definitely makes you want to repeat the album all over again.

    Faraj Suleiman is not trying to be super sophisticated in this album. He just wants to play his music which I respect a lot. He is a highly talented musician that brings a great folk Jazz to life influenced by Arabic music and a touch of progressive rock.

    I do not agree that he resembles Esbjörn Svensson which in my opinion the greatest jazz pianist ever lived. In some tracks however, especially in “Three steps” Faraj reminded me of a super talented Armenian Jazz player called Tigran Hamasyan – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e0GObQv3pE0.

    It is a great honor to have such talented musicians in our community. I definitely will promote this album and hope to see them playing in concert soon.

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  4. I like the fact that although I couldn’t easily point out reasons for liking this album, I still liked it (after the second time) and listened to it many times.
    I also like the fact that my father who is a regular listener and far from being a big fan of Jazz or any kind of music other than classical Arabic liked the album a lot after listening to it two times by coincidence without knowing what he was listening to.
    This says a lot.
    I agree with what is stated in the original post:
    “Suleiman’s tracks lack diversity. It seems like the tracks are all structured over the same pattern – a riff plays, changes in dynamic / pitch / instrument, or becomes a background for a solo (much like rock songs). There are no conclusions, no development of the story being told”
    However, is it obligatory for a piece to be composed of brilliant phrases and long sentences, and develop a story in order to be considered good? If the claim is that it lacks depth, then I might agree, but I don’t think it lacks quality! The music in the album is still enjoyable! The rhythms and structures, which are indeed monotonic as was mentioned in the original post, are minor ideas in the album, and this only serves the major ideas which consists, among others, of the solos and variations over small riffs, which apparently represents the strong side of Suleiman as a musician.
    Few more points:
    – I have to admit that one of the reasons for liking this album was the fact that we are thirsty for such kind of music in the Palestinian scene (now I hope that I’m wrong and discover other stuff that I wasn’t aware of). The timing and lack of competition might have served this album.
    – Regarding the style, the album has a strong and nice Jazz spirit in my opinion.
    – I attended Suleiman’s concert in which 2-3 pieces from this album were performed. The performance was outstanding and the concert was great.
    p.s. Regarding the blog, the reviews are thought-provoking and enjoyable. Please keep on.

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