SARACEN by JEF STOTT is the first full-length solo recording from Jef Stott, and it’s about time. Stott has been on the global music scene for over a decade, helping to found the bands Stellamara and Lumin and producing records by the Tunisian-born MC RAI and the Persian fusion group Somma, among others. He released last year’s SoukSonik, an EP, on Six Degrees’ digital-only Emerging Artists series, but with his convincing blend of Middle Eastern and North African instruments and rhythms with modern dance music, Stott “emerged” fairly quickly. The EP charted heavily on CMJ and Jazziz, and a busy live touring schedule in Japan, Canada, Los Angeles, and Miami helped set the stage, finally, for his solo debut.
Stott began as an experimental guitarist in Los Angeles, but his work with Stellamara, a group that blended Balkan and Middle Eastern music with Dead Can Dance-style rock, inspired him to take up a serious study of the Arab lute, or oud. Moving to San Francisco in the mid-90s, Stott sold his guitar and spent several years studying with internationally known masters like the late Hamza El Din, and the Turkish virtuoso Omar Faruk Tekbilek among others. “Eventually,” he recalls, “the electronics started creeping back in, and I became a bit more of who I was before. But I was still listening to a lot of Arab and Middle Eastern music all the time.” The result was Stott’s now-signature mix of electronica and Middle Eastern music; he became a sought after producer and remixer, and eventually founded his own label, Embarka Records.
All of which had him more than ready to do something solo. “I’d been producing bands for over 10 years,” Stott explains, “and I just really wanted to do something on my own. I’m really enjoying the freedom and the mobility of a solo project.” Of course, “solo” doesn’t mean “unaided” – one of the most striking features of Saracen is the appearance of some swirling vocals, in Arabic and Persian, by MC RAI, Reda Darwish, and Hooman Fazly. But Stott himself plays most of the instruments: the oud, of course, but also the Turkish lutes known as saz and cumbus, the Persian santur (a hammered dulcimer), the electric bass, and lots of hand percussion.
Stott’s approach to world music actually comes from an academic background. Stott received a degree in Anthropology, and wrote ethnographies about the cultures of Turkey and Morocco. “It really affected the way I think about music,” he says. “Not just the usual questions of the West ‘borrowing’ from the East, but influences going the other way too. I got to thinking about what a truly global music would sound like.” That would explain the sound of the track “Sono,” where Stott immediately announces his musical intentions: the funky groove is comprised of a whomping synth bass, near Eastern dumbek (a clay drum), and drum programming. But there are some telling moments of Latin timbale effects, and the melody spins out on both the oud and Turkish clarinet. Samples of the piercing, nasal reed instruments of North Africa and the Near East add a distinctive touch, both here and elsewhere on the record.
Four of the songs on Saracen originally appeared on Stott’s Emerging Artist digital-only EP. But Jef re- recorded and reworked them, adding new performances and programming to each. On the title track, the Persian vocals and the ney flute soar over dubbed out electronic programming. The percussion programming is heavy on the dumbek at first, giving it a timeless quality despite the obvious Western production; then it becomes increasingly electronic until the oud enters, playing the melody, and once again throwing into question what tradition this music comes from.
Indian percussion, especially the hand drums known as tabla, has become a familiar sound in modern dance music; but Stott suggests that other parts of the world have as much to offer. “I definitely think Middle Eastern percussion is right up there with the Indian, West African and Brazilian traditions,” he says. “It can be really virtuosic and fantastically musical.” “Faqir,” for example, is based on an ancient Egyptian rhythm called zaar, which is meant to ward off evil. “The zaar is there at the very end,”Stott reveals; “it’s a trancy Sufi rhythm that’s the basis of the whole song, but after I built the piece on top of it, I removed most of the original rhythm.” What’s left is a wash of electronic sounds and a mix of implacable drums and skirling reeds that brings to mind Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” or one of Peter Gabriel’s albums from the 1980s.