Lebanese oud whiz-kid/composer Rabih Abou-Khalil has been working his fusion of Middle Eastern folk & classical music and post-bop jazz since the early 80s, but The Cactus of Knowledge is his most fully realized album yet. Where earlier albums featured ensembles of Abou-Khalil and 3 to 5 players, Cactus has 12-piece group that’s top-heavy with American jazz aces, a group which allows for a more pronounced, intricate and equal fusion of Arabic elements and jazz. The opening tune, "Lewinsky March" has much of the topical gospel fervor and irreverently passionate charm of primo Charles Mingus and blistering solos from Tom Varner (French horn) and Eddie Allen or Dave Ballou (trumpet - sorry, don’t know who is who). Despite its sparseness, the mysterious "Fraises Et Crème Fraiche" manages to sound opulently lush as it explores the common ground between Klezmer, Gypsy/Rom folk music, Arabic music and early 20th century Euro-classical music. The recording quality is such that you could virtually see and feel the vibrations on the strings of Abou-Khalil’s oud. The punchy "Got To Go Home" sounds like Frank Zappa’s jazz-oriented writing for large groups, but.... imagine if Zappa had composed The Grand Wazoo or Waka/Jawaka after vacationing in Marrakech with Gil Evans. (It has a killer wild blues-edged alto solo from Antonio Hart, to boot.) Other highlights include Vincent Courtois woody, expansive cello, Dave Bargeron’s voice-like euphonium and Gabriele Mirabassi scintillating clarinet. This is no fluffy "world beat" disc nor is it some dry, ponderous, overly-somber Work of Art that you have to be a music student/snob to appreciate - The Cactus Of Knowledge is a riveting listen, stimulating to both mind and heart.