Mounzer Sarraf, the Belgian/Lebanese composer, founded The Great Game band, based on his own philosophy which shines through on this self-titled album. Sarraf says the band’s music is “hard to pinpoint”. This is certainly true, as it mixes so many styles and genres, sometimes within a single song. He explains his creative process as preferring to work collaboratively with the favourite musicians he’s met on his travels and get their input rather than just presenting them with something written in stone.
Because band members on this release (January 15th, 2015 – available as a free download from the band’s website) come from different parts of Europe and from North America, South America and the Middle East, many influences bear fruit. Thus, we get blues, jazz, funk, rock, reggae and traditional musical styles from various countries. This blend has been dubbed “new world music”. This is an intriguing idea, but does it work? This is subjective, of course, and depends on what you want music to do for you.
To represent Eastern European culture, Middle Eastern street corners and bazaars, and the dark interior of blues and jazz clubs etc., many instruments serve the cause. An accordion is used in traditional fashion and as a rock/jazz instrument. Funky horns add pizzazz on many tracks, with great sax solos, jazz trumpet and jazz guitar too.
This democratic collaborative method that Sarraf employs can come across as music by committee, resulting in a sound collage of different textures and styles. For example, the opening track, “Science” explores a superb Middle Eastern feel plus metal, rock and jazz. This is also one of the “message” songs – “is this the age of science? Is this the way that we’ll be remembered?”. “Television” is another message song. A female vocalist describes how television impacts our lives – “turn off all the noise that interferes with my well-being” – and how it dominates our thinking – “show me what is real”.
Even a reggae beat pops up, as on the fabulous horns throughout “Religionism”. Sway to the gentle, sensual rhythm of “El Hechizo De Hoy” (“The Spell of Today”), one of the more ordered tracks. Also more ordered, my favourite song is “Hungarian Dream”, a lovely but passionate ballad with that conduit of romance, the accordion. In contrast, the most chaotic track is “And The Blind Man Lead The Way”. Of course, you need excellent musicians to walk on the wild side, like someone clowning around on a tightrope – they need to know the rules before they can break them.
Strange subject matter makes a refreshing change from the usual formula offered by more conventional artists; “Pax Romana” seeks to persuade us of the benefits of being conquered by another nation, from the point of view of those pesky Romans – what did they ever do for us?
Most of the tracks could be said to meander, but one person’s perception of lack of focus is another’s perception of innovation. On several tracks, it feels as if one or two plays only scratch the surface. Expression is sometimes more dominant than attention to melody. And there’s the rub. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. ”The Great Game” is an ambling walk – not in a straight line – an interpretation passed through many hands – and many lands. You will race to keep up, and it may just leave you dizzy.