Review: Joseph Tawadros Quartet at the Sydney Festival

Review By Priscilla Issa


Joseph Tawadros is one of the most prolific Australian artists to enrich the world with a skilful blend of musical styles. Never one to want to be pigeonholed as an artist, Tawadros successfully melds together Baroque music, 20th Century jazz, blues, and Spanish and Latin American inflexions with exotic tunes of Oriental provenance.

The result is always a combination of spectacularly executed rhythms, languid melodies, complex harmonies, and complete and utter control.

His performance at the Sydney Festival was, yet again, a masterful take on Arabic-Western musical fusion. The calibre of the quartet accompanying him was impressive. He was supported by James Tawadros on req and bendir, Matt McMahon on keys, and Karl Dunnicliff on double bass. It was no surprise that the audience reacted with rapture at the group’s panache on stage - a testament to innate talent coupled with hours of meticulous practise. The night began with a piece, titled The Light of Your Being, from Tawadros’s latest Aria-winning album, Hope in an empty city.

This was followed by Dreaming Hermit, from his well-loved album ‘Permission to evaporate’. The ebbs and flows in phrasing produced a kind of pulsating energy. Every so often these rollicking lines were interrupted by tenutos, providing a sense of anticipation for the next ‘variation on the theme’. The clever mixture of the traditional blues scale, C mixolydian and variety of maqam scales certainly foreshadowed the harmonic sophistication of pieces to come. Permission to Evaporate and Sleight of Hand from the same album were crowd favourites. The recurring melodic motif in the former could have come across as laboured; however, the quartet’s ability to, in exact symbiosis, vary dynamics and give space for oud embellishments is indicative of their skill for ensemble synchronicity and their desire to keep the music engaging. Adding to the enthrallment was McMahon’s delicate impression of a wistful, melancholic far-off land. It was transportive.

The vibrant Sleight of Hand was one heck of a ride. In the words of the lead musician, it was the most “difficult” in their setlist for the night. Regardless, the musicians handled the tricky ‘7/4’ and ‘11/8’, polyrhythms, percussive textures, rapid bass lines, and jazz runs with poise, making this performance a required stop for world music lovers. Chameleon, off the Chameleons of the White Shadow album, was originally recorded in 2013 alongside the great Bela Fleck on banjo and Richard Bona on bass. McMahon and Dunnicliffwere equally impressive, successfully executing the rapid repetition and sequences common in Arabic music. James’s clear down-beats on the req gave the music a sense of propulsion. His precision in the complex rhythmic groupings and constating changing metres was mind-blowing, to say the least. Tawadros plays his oud with notable sensitivity and an ethereal touch in the piece A dream, off the Epiphany album. Here, he is not only an oud player of remarkable fluency but an also excellent storyteller. By spacing out the phrases and lingering on notes, he created a haunting and evocative experience. The audience was transported into a world of mysticism. Joseph mentioned that the Eye of the Beholder was a composition inspired by the great composers of the Baroque era. The piece begins in the style of a Baroque prelude – subtle and subdued. The sudden transition into fugue-like virtuosity was exciting. Some composers/arrangers manage to fuse together Baroque with Oriental music. Few, however, manage to fuse Baroque with Latin American clave beats, hints of flamenco, Egyptian sombati, maqsum and baladi rhythms, and jazz extensions (9ths, 11ths and 13ths). This work is an absolute piece of art!

Point of Departure, a ‘farewell waltz’, was composed in 2014 in memory of the Tawadros brothers’ parents. This is a personal favourite. What is hypnotic about this piece is that Joseph marries together undulating tuplets with the steady triple-time of a dance. It’s unwavering in its steadiness and yet, somehow, there’s an ethereal feel about it. The changes to duple/quadruple time were effortlessly performed; at no point was the rise and fall of the waltz lost. It was a graceful tribute to loved ones no longer with us; in fact, so much so that the audience was left in reverent silence. Bluegrass Nikriz, combining the blues and nikriz scales, as well as Western-style sequences and Arabic taqsim, was a joy to listen to live! Tawadros made the conscious decision to bring two different musical genres together in a manner that the “voice” (scale and melodic undulations) of each genre would be recognised whilst simultaneously achieving a new totality. Interestingly, though, this piece is a clear example of the decision to create a style that, although different from Arabic music, gives weight to the impressive features of Arabic music. In summary, what this group has in spades is technique. Joseph conveys two skills revered in performance: composure and fluidity in virtuosic segments. McMahon’s skills on the keys are remarkable; he seamlessly executes outrageous right-hand runs over vamping left-hand chords. Dunnicliff’s pizz on the bass was crisp, clean and pronounced throughout; most impressive was his ability to keep the bass steady and keep the intricacies of the other instrumental parts in check. James’s knowledge of rhythmic variations is astonishing and his ability to sit comfortably within the complicated musical texture is impressive. Congratulations on a marvellous performance!


Image Credit: Prudence Upton