This is the best record you will hear this year
Vieux Farka Toure has, for my money, been putting out solid albums for a while now, long since moving out from the lengthy shadow of his father Ali and staking his own acoustic-electric, Afro-trad-rock territory. Last year's album The Secret was an excellent addition to his ouevre, coming on the heels of his 2010 live album and featuring surprising contributions from unlikely sources like Derek Trucks and John Scofield.
None of that history, though, could have prepared a listener for the transcendent brilliance of Toure's latest effort, an album-length collaboration with Israeli keyboardist and pop star Idan Raichel. The Toure-Raichel Collective, as the men have dubbed themselves, sat down one afternoon in Israel to spontaneously jam and swap musical ideas back and forth. The results betray a rare but profound responsiveness to one another's work, and a refreshing willingness to set aside egos in favor of musical purity. It would be an understatement to say that The Tel Aviv Session is a good record, or even a great one. This is, simply put, one of the best Afro-pop collaborations you are likely to hear, rivaling the elder Toure's 1994 effort with Ry Cooder, Talking Timbuktu.
Yes, it's that good.
Toure sets aside his electric guitar for these sessions, and the revelation--one of them--is that his sinuous melody lines are just as much at home on an unplugged instrument. Many of these songs are framed by his rapidfire fingerpicking, before settling into an easy, lilting rhythm, which invites accompaniment from Raichel's equally fluid piano playing. Album opener "Azawade" finds its rhythm right off the bat, and stays nestled in its groove for the next eight-plus minutes. Accents of piano, accordion and vocals add to the spell without diluting its simple power. To put it simply, it hits the sweet spot.
In fact it hits such a sweet spot that the listener half hopes it will never end, but at the same time can't wait to hear what else these musicians have in store.
The answer to that is: plenty. The bend reels off a string of outstanding tunes without pausing for breath: "Bamba", "Experience", "Alkataou", and "Hawa" all sound like the work of a band that's been playing together for years, the various instruments and voices mingling with apparent effortlessness. "Experience" is a knockout track, with a snaky Middle Eastern melody led by Raichel's piano and echoed by Toure's confident but never aggressive guitar. Vocals remain an element in the instrumental mix but are never the focus of a song, and this decision, like so many others, fits the mood of the album perfectly.
Later in the record, "Toure" rocks with surprising vigor, helped along by an unexpected but thoroughly welcome harmonica, while "Le Niger" strikes a dreamier note for its eight-minute running time. These tracks have ample time to breathe and stretch. Six of the album's eleven songs top six minutes, while just two clock in at under four. Despite that, the tracks never seem formless or meandering; they're as long as they need to be.
The record ends on yet another high note, with Raichel's piano intro leading into the eight-minute-plus "Alem", which evolves into one more trance-inducing experience. Toure's guitar plays off Raichel's keyboards, and vice versa, with occasional other sounds creeping into the mix as well. It all sounds earthy and unearthly at the same time--something that could be said about much of this record.
If you're going to own only one Afro-pop album in your entire collection, then I would recommend Talking Timbuktu. Second would be something by Baaba Maal (Baayo and Firin' In Fouta are both good places to start). Three and four would be Salif Keita (Papa) and Tinariwen's Amassakoul. But number five? Make it The Tel Aviv Session.
This is high praise, as I'm sure the musicians themselves would agree. Mighty high praise indeed, and entirely deserved. This record is a gift. -- PopMatters, March 27, 2012