With descriptions from pre-release reviewers ranging from "haunting," "pensive," and "contemplative" to "effing awesome," 'moonlight over the maghrib' is guitar music in a rich mix of jazz, blues and world music influences. While the most obvious inspirations are supreme guitar masters Ralph Towner and John McLaughlin, there are strong references to Middle Eastern music, and perhaps its greatest crossover/fusion artist, Lebanese-German oud virtuoso Rabih Abou-Khalil.

That classically inspired guitarist Richard Robeson, a master at the instrument, plays with logic and decisive skill should come as little surprise. That he has constructed an album of such meaningful emotions and relaxed lucidity is something else entirely.

 

Rather than succumbing to the aridly professorial tendencies of many within his chosen genre, Robeson’s playing style is wave-like, with soft ebbs and then flowing surges. That lends the tunes here a stoic dignity, but at the same time, there’s an emotional underpinning that keeps the album from seeming standoffish. Instead, Robeson’s well-placed notes slice through with authority and grace.

 

Robeson begins Moonlight with “Sun on Sudden Snow,” dedicated to both Karen and Billy, and moves through the theme with a water-like urgency – trickling around the edges and then rushing forward, only to settle into a ruminative puddle. His performance is so personal, so close up, that you can hear Robeson exhaling as the strings grow still on his guitar.

 

“DJ’s Blues,” performed in tribute to Debby, allows Robeson an opportunity to stretch out into eddying grooves, R&B flourishes and the more romantic aspects of his style. There’s a tougher, blues-wise attitude here that’s unhinted at in the opener, as his beautiful, polished tone emerges pleasantly scuffed up.

 

If that track began to hint at Robeson’s broad command of the instrument, then “Gitana” confirms it. He moves from a Spanish-inspired, flamenco-inspired rhythmic assurance as the song begins into a brilliantly rambunctious duet with classical guitarist Billy Stewart. Robeson’s guest solos first, unfurling a series of imaginative thoughts that fit together like a flock of birds whipping around the treetops. Stewart’s dizzying virtuosity is then answered in kind by Robeson, who joins in for a sequence of tandem playing that boasts a contagious energy – and a knowing affection. There may not be a moment of more unadorned joy on the Moonlight project.

 

“Still Life with Stemware,” for Carol, finds the North Carolina-based guitarist working in a darker, more guttural tone. Introspective, and yet lightly propulsive, Robeson combines classical ambitions with American vernacular music in a way that makes them both sound brand new. He manages to puncture through the mannerism of the first, even while adding these harmonically interesting updates to the latter.

 

“Othello” begins with a hushed resignation, but Robeson quickly leads us out of that bleak landscape, switching to a caroming gait. If there was some sense of emotional ambiguity before, it’s completely gone by the song’s midpoint. Robeson continues along with this insistent rhythmic signature, even as he cajoles, rejoices and reflects through a series of brilliant responding outbursts.

 

Similarly, the title track, dedicated this time to Nancy, begins with an angular lament before Robeson stirs in more rambunctious Spanish spices. Robeson’s tough-minded introspection is deeply involving, with each declamation more mature, more reflective – and ultimately, more brave – than the next.

 

Where the previous two tunes, in particular, had their moments of sun-soaked boastful dynamism, “Barcelona Azul” (for Jane) is shy, almost diffident. Yet Robeson’s exuberant nonconformity keeps the tune from disconnecting with the listener. His originality couples with a deeply personal romanticism to create another clever, guileless moment of beauty.

 

“Radhika’s Theme” is another moment of musical alchemy, as Robeson’s spectacular dexterity is again on display. He adds a few crepuscular grooves to create a rumbling call-and-response to his own impossibly high-flying arpeggios. Stewart returns for “Kohl,” and the two guitarists’ intimate solidarity is instantly reborn. They perform together like two halves of the same whole, following step for step, diverging and then returning to play again in tandem with a wordless synchronicity. Robeson closes out Moonlight over Maghrib with the complex, yet melodic “South Gibraltar Tango.” It’s another terrific amalgam of tones, traditions and emotions.

 

There, as he has been throughout this shape-shifting yet deeply melodic triumph, Robeson is warmly radiant, then briskly electrifying – sometimes in the space of one splash of chords.

 

Review by Nick DeRiso

Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)