There is no voice in the world quite like that of Tunisian Dhafer Youssef and the crowd were eager with anticipation as the band ascended to the soft-lit blue and green stage. It’s not just his incredible range and falsetto, but also his control to blend between notes and cut through any sound. Combined with his unique blend of sufi tradition and western jazz influences, something truly special is born with each performance.
Dhafer’s compositions alternated between contemplative, sonorous melodies and driving grooves in quirky time signatures. Justin Faulkner and Ben Williams injected their own influence with occasional hip-hop beats, which were strangely well-suited to the the more energetic pieces. Faulkner performed monstrously good drum solos throughout, packed with vigour and relentless energy. Especially impressive was the intricate doubling of complex melodies between Dhafer on the oud and Aaron Parks on the piano.
Trumpeter and guest star Ambrose Akinmusire started the evening with his own group. The audience were warned by the compère that his music could sometimes be challenging, and moments certainly were. His playing seemed full of melancholy and pain, but in a raw and unfiltered way. His avant garde style expresses vulnerability, bare and open for all to hear, inviting a close intimacy with the audience. It’s certainly emotive, but at points felt slightly uncomfortable.
When Ambrose joined Dhafer on stage later on, however, it proved to be a wonderful match. With similar ranges and expressive control, the trumpet solos became an interesting emulation of Dhafer’s voice and complimented the songs well.
The EFG London Jazz Festival concert marked Dhafer turning 48 years old and the crowd were only too happy to sing him a rousing chorus of Happy Birthday. The performance mainly included pieces from the new album Diwan of Beauty and Odd and the crowd certainly approved, finishing the evening on their feet in applause.