Ahmed Nazmi is a Cairo-based bassist, composer and producer with roots deep in the traditional and classic music of Egypt. As a small child in the tiny Egyptian delta town of Mit Ghamr, he got an early start on music, picking up the oud at age 6, before moving to classical guitar and drums. It wasn't until the age of 15 that he settled on the bass, the instrument that would define his musical path.
Nazmi has had an impressive career. He has toured extensively with regional giants such as Mohammed Mounir, Fathy Salama, and Lebanese master composer Ziad Rahbani, as well as his own groups, The Hot Potato Project and recently with the Ahmed Nazmi Quartet, which features renowned jazz pianist Rami Attallah, saxophonist Lety Elnaggar of Out of Nations, and monster drummer, Muhammad Ra'fat.
Nazmi's first album, Ethbat Hala (2012), claims to be the first solo album produced by a bassist in Egypt, and stars a host of local and regional musicians. On his recently released sophomore album, Shams, it isn't only Nazmi's virtuoso musicianship that defines him, as it isn't any normal electric bass he plays. In 2013, he designed a custom made six-string bass with frets in specific places so as to allow microtones, allowing him to represent the nuances of the Middle Eastern musical modes, or maqamat, in their full beauty, but with a sound unique from the fretless bass. This unique instrument, mixed with his style and tact, has given him an edge on the Oriental jazz scene.
Shams, funded by the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC), is a dynamic and tasteful blend of Egyptian composition with jazz. Though the album is defined by Nazmi's emotive and vibrant bass, the music is flushed out with a talented and eclectic array of international instrumentalists: piano, guitar, nay, qanun, oud, accordion, mizmar, violin, percussion and drums swell into each other in percussive, subtle, and beautiful Oriental jazz. It consists of nine tracks, linked together by the unifying concept of the album, born of a challenge that Nazmi faced. As a composer, he struggled with wanting to create and play melody, but as a bassist, he needed to support. "How can I reinvent the use of my instrument in this kind of music, and at the same time sustain a seamless movement in the melodies?" he asks in the album's press release.
The breakthrough for him was when he wrote 'Shams', the title track of the album, in 2015. It was a creative revolution for him, as he shifted the bass from the background to the focal point of the track, where it duets with the piano. "There is a very distinctive difference in this album which is the sophistication of the harmony and the role of the piano, whereas on my first album I didn't include piano at all," he says. Indeed, the piano adds a distinct stylistic flavor to the album. 'Shams' would define the trajectory of the other songs on the album, and solidify the concept upon which they are based: the shapeshifting bass, which maneuvers smoothly between leading the melody and maintaining the groove. "I feel a sense of maturity in my playing and a desire to be unique in what I do as a bass player and a composer."
The first track, 'High Spirits', is a perfect example of that, and one of the highlight tracks on the album. It launches straight into a loping, infectious bass line in 11 count - in fact, much of the album is in odd meter. Qanun and frame drum drop in, filling in the overall rhythmic base, before violin sweeps in with an emotional flurry. Among other highlights is 'Magic Obsession', an energetic and uplifting track, propelled by driving piano and drums, bass weaving in and out of their groove, and elated violins carrying the melody. The music minimizes, allowing the bass to shine in beautiful improvisation. The album closes with 'Mada', a celebratory finale, and the only track with vocals. It begins with a mawwal (vocal improvisation) over a drone and subtle bass line, before launching into a ney and oud driven tune. It is a strong finish to a cohesive, playful and beautiful album.
On Shams, Nazmi set out to "make simple but touching and catchy melodies that would easily stick with people…I wanted the new album to be accessible to almost everybody anywhere and at the same time maintain the complexity of the compositions and be unique creating my own musical direction." Nazmi succeeds in his mission, having created an album that is solid, consistent, catchy and sophisticated. While much Oriental jazz fusion tends to lean towards the complex and cerebral, Shams succeeds in being appealing to both musicians and casual listeners alike. At moments reminiscent of Joe Zawinul, Pat Metheney and Henri Texier, the music isn't unrivaled in individuality; what is unique however, is observing Nazmi's bass cruise seamlessly between melody and supporting roles - there are many instances where it isn't clear where he is, but it doesn't matter, because in Shams, Nazmi has tastefully reimagined the bass's musicality.
Shams includes Belgian pianist Jonas Cambien, drummer Muhammad Ra’fat, percussionist Abdel Azim Barhouma “Azima”, accordionist Wael El Naggar, Mohamed Atef on nay, Islam El Asabgy on oud, Mahmoud Amer on qanoun, and Lebanese mizmar player Ali Mazbouh.