Aleif Hamdan is a guitarist/composer from Indonesia and Malaysia. Growing up in South East Asia, Hamdan was exposed to a wide variety of music, contributing to a diverse and eclectic palette of taste. He moved to Kuala Lumpur in 2010 to pursue studies at the International College of Music, and eventually earned a reputation in the national music scene after winning several competitions and awards. In 2012, he moved to the States after receiving the Berklee Achievement Scholarship to further explore new voices in music. After graduating from Berklee with Summa Cum Laude, Hamdan worked his way to becoming an in-demand session player; performing and arranging on a wide variety of projects with globally renowned artists from the United States, India, Japan, and several other countries. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his background, “Emblem” is a jazz-blues-rock fusion album that incorporates the guitarist’s love for worldwide music in general. What is more surprising, is the sheer class that shines through on this recording. Not just his undoubted skill as a soloist, but perhaps more notably, his compositional talent combined with a genuine, raw and unadulterated desire to bring joy with the music he makes. Rarely have I heard a debut that is just so…skilful.
The album’s opening track “Rooftop Porter” immediately brings to mind Pat Metheny’s Unity Band. I make this comparison for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the passion and power of Hamdan’s guitar and saxophonist Billy Yeung’s playing mirrors that of Pat Metheny and Chris Potter. Really? I hear you say! Well yes. The fiery solos mixed with intricate and intense musicianship stand up and stand out as something quite incredible. The second reason is the composition itself. There are three or four tunes on this session, this being one of them, that take the listener on a journey, in a similar way to how Metheny achieves this through a wonderful mix of clever writing, interesting twists and turns, an intelligent use of sound, and last but not least, some awesome improvisation and soloing. Put all that together and you have one hell of a piece of music. Seriously, you can listen to this tune many, many times (as I have) and still feel a sense of excitement at what you’re hearing.
Although I prefer the more carefully crafted tunes presented here, the riff based pieces are also very enjoyable. “Scotch Hopping” is built around the guitarist’s riff and gradually builds in intensity. One very important point I’d like to make is that Hamdan is very much his own man. I might make comparisons with other guitarists; Pat Metheny, Adam Rogers, even a touch of Frank Zappa, but essentially he sounds, to me, a true original.
“Mistraction” is another well thought out composition that delivers on many levels. Hamdan benefits from a great group of musicians around him on this album, including Jongkum Kim on drums, Alex Gorchesky on bass, the aforementioned Billy Yeung on alto sax, and JennHwan Wong on piano and Rhodes. They all seem to share a musical awareness that benefits the overall sound; one of sensitivity mixed with sheer pleasure for the music they’re performing.
The infectious “Peak” is an adventure from start to finish. Once more the soloing is varied and energetic, with Hamdan appearing to relish the many changes of pace and feel as he uses different guitar sounds and techniques as the tune develops. His fluency is a key feature and every solo has purpose and meaning.
There’s a change of pace, and feel, on “Improper Intent”. The guitarist takes on a more supportive role, allowing the beautiful melody to be played in style by trumpeter Caleb Hensinger. This is a haunting piece of music that shows just how articulate the composer can be in his writing. There’s a sincerity to this that just has to be admired, with an effortless feel that suggests a strength and confidence that is a joy to behold.
The album closes with “Figurehead”, a piece of music that sparkles with invention and vivacity. As a unit, the band are on fire and together they play their way through various grooves, riffs and solos, resulting in a feast for the ears.
“Emblem” is available as a download only album, so I can only assume that at the time of it’s release earlier this year, Aleif Hamdan didn’t have many record labels banging on his door. I would like to shout this loud and clear; he should have! To my mind this guy has a huge future ahead of him, and on the evidence of this album alone, deserves to be considered as potentially one of the leading lights in the world of jazz for many years to come. His music is spellbinding, courageous, and above all, joyful. With the right label and support he could in time be releasing music that not only gets listened to by thousands the world over, but also receives huge critical acclaim to go with it.