MAURICE EL MEDIONI and IRVING FIELDS with special guests ROBERTO RODRIGUEZ and FRANK LONDON performing as part of the ASHKENAZ FESTIVAL at Harbourfront Centre (235 Queens Quay West), Sunday (September 3), 5 pm. $25. 416-973-4000, www.ashkenazfestival.com. Rating: NNNNN
At first glance, the ashkenaz fes tival's double bill of New York's "bagels 'n' bongos" piano pounder Irving Fields with Algerian raé ace Maurice El Médioni might seem like an odd pairing, if not a massive musical mismatch.
Admittedly, the two elder statesmen of the keyboards the wiry Fields is 91 while El Médioni is a chipper 78 are very different artists with unique talents. But they actually have more in common than their Jewish ancestry and concerns about their aging bodies.
Somewhat coincidentally, Fields and El Médioni have just released their most adventurous albums ever, both produced for different labels by Cuban emigré composer/percussionist Roberto Rodriguez, who's much better known for his collabos with NYC downtown scene hipsters John Zorn, Marc Ribot, Anthony Coleman and Susie Ibarra.
Strange, yes, but the bigger surprise is how well the cultural collisions between the unlikely pairings actually work on El Médioni's Descarga Oriental (Piranha) and Fields's Oy Vey! Ole! (Tzadik), which owes as much to the broad scope and resourcefulness of the pianists as to the ingenuity of the arrangements provided by Rodriguez.
"I've loved the sound of Latin music for many years, and it has always been my dream to record an album mixing the Cuban rhythms with the sound of the Maghreb," explains El Médioni from his home in Marseilles. "But I don't have any Cuban friends here in France, and the Jewish and Arab musicians that I regularly play with don't know the Cuban rhythms very well.
"So Roberto Rodriguez became my guide and helped me realize my dream. The first time I met him in New York, he already knew my Andalusian music and quickly understood what I was trying to do with this recording, so it was all very easy. He's a wonderful boy, Roberto."
As for Rodriguez, he's equally pleased with the results of his recent cultural exchange programs, which proved to be more educational and rewarding than he'd anticipated.
"I've never confined myself to any one style of music, so I've played with everyone from Julio Iglesias and Joe Jackson to John Zorn and Celia Cruz. And I really don't think I would've been able to make this album with Maurice had I not done all of that. These new recordings required that I not just think through the music; I had to feel it, too.
"Whether it's the Andalusian thing or the Sephardic aspect I'm not sure, but the music Maurice plays has a very strong emotional impact it's sad, beautiful and pretty all at the same time. He has the hands of a butcher, but those big, gnarly fingers play the most moving music you've ever heard.
"It was an amazing experience working with both Maurice and Irving. Maurice is like the Jewish father I never had, and Irving is like my grandfather.... I mean, Irving's 91 now, but he's definitely a go-getter. He plays, like, six nights a week and he's still kicking. We recorded the whole session in three days, and he played his ass off.
"John Zorn had some doubts when I initially pitched the recording idea, but when he heard what we came up with he was like, "Oh my god, check those melodies! Irving's the real deal!' If people didn't appreciate Irving's music before, they're going to now. He's still got it."
The upcoming Toronto date at Ashkenaz will be the first time they'll all be together on the same stage. Fields and El Médioni each will play a set, and then they'll return for a jam session. For some artists, performing live with musicians they've never met is a daunting proposition, but El Médioni doesn't sound a bit worried.
"It's not difficult for me," he chuckles. "I've got 10 fingers, so I'm sure that whatever music we'll be performing, I'll be able to find something I can play that will fit in. I think we'll do some very nice things in Toronto."