Phrygian Istikhbar is the stunning debut from the very talented Tunisian pianist Wajdi Cherif. It’s a blend of jazz and Tunisian classical music, though it leans a little heavier on the jazz side; the majority of the songs start out with strongly Tunisian-influenced heads, but the solos sound more like straight-ahead jazz.
Though relatively short at just over 30 minutes total time, this is a recording that makes a powerful statement with some extremely engaging yet challenging material. So challenging, in fact, that even given the fact that Cherif is a pianist of obviously virtuosic abilities, you can clearly hear him struggling with some of the pieces, occasionally stumbling slightly as he navigates the complex twists and turns of some of the more difficult melodies. But that does not detract from the enjoyment of the music and you have to respect a musician that is courageous enough to delve into such treacherous territory on his first release.
Born in 1975 in Tunis, Tunisia, Cherif taught himself to play piano at the age of five by playing the Arabic melodies that he heard on the radio. After graduating from college with a BA in English he began doing a lot of work in the theater as a pianist and stage director and as a sideman with some of the most famous Tunisian singers. As he began to delve more deeply into jazz he found it fertile ground for expanding his artistic expression and eventually studied jazz piano in France with Bernard Maury.
Joining Cherif on this album are Diego Imbert on acoustic bass, Jeff Boudreau on drums and Habib Samandi on Tunisian percussion. Each is a marvelous musician in his own right, and together they’ve created a synergistic relationship that allows each of them to shine both as individuals and as a group.
In addition to being a marvelous keyboard technician, Cherif also proves that he is a very gifted composer. Each of the six songs on this album was penned by him and each has its own seductive charm - exotic, tender and daring, all at once. If you appreciate the complex emotion of Arabic rhythms and melodies along with the unpredictable nature of improvisational jazz you will fall in love with this fantastic album.