Arranging existing musical material is a great way of adding a personal touch to a certain piece. Since the goal of this research is to incorporate aspects of traditional Arabic music into my jazz performance practice, I want to look at combining the two together in this chapter. I want to look at it from two directions: Arranging a jazz song and add Arabic elements to it, and vice versa. This will give me an insight to the possibilities of combining the two traditions.


Jazz Tunes in Arabic Style

Nardis (Jurjina)

I wanted to do a jazz standard, and write it in such a way that it contains something that I borrowed from the Arabic musical tradition. The first thing I thought about was to find a standard that uses the notes of maqam hijaz. The 1½ note interval is so characteristic for ‘the Middle Eastern sound’ but can also appear within equally tempered music, and therefore in the jazz standard repertoire. In the end I settled on the tune Nardis, written by Miles Davis. This tune was written during the time that Davis was writing other pieces with a “Spanish” sound, such as “Sketches of Spain”.[1] This Spanish sound is a direct heritage from maqam hijaz.

          To add another layer of Arabic elements, I set my sight on rhythm. I had been working a lot on jurjina and tried to combine the standard with this rhythm. To my surprise, it worked, although it did not come naturally to me at first. The phrasing, and the target notes of the melody shift somewhat, which can make the result disorienting. After playing it some more it started to feel more comfortable. The ultimate result was that I gained a better understanding of the jurjina rhythm. This is an important realisation for me, because I see arranging as a fruitful way of letting musical material that you want to study sink into your ears, your muscle memory, and your creativity.

          When writing this I was using a couple of methods to make the melody work with the rhythm. The first one is the upbeat, with which the song begins. To me it is very logical to put the upbeat on the last 3 of the jurjina rhythm, jumping to the first beat of the next bar. When writing the second line (bar 6 and 7 in the sheet below), I was looking to where the melody should land. I wanted to have the last note of the phrase fall on the downbeat of bar 7. Another important note of the phrase is the D#. I put this on the last 3 of the rhythm, because that is one of the emphasized beats. The rest of the rhythmic placement was determined by calculating backwards: where should I begin to land on the place where I want to land. That’s how this line came to be like this.

          In bars 9-11 I used a different technique of altering the rhythm to jurjina. In this case I let the melody follow the subdivision of jurjina, 3-2-2-3, with a slight jump at the beginning. A challenging thing when playing this phrase is that the melody actually does not land on a downbeat, but on the subdivided part before the downbeat. The same thing occurs later in bars 18-20, which is now the same rhythm, with the same displacement of the downbeat.

          For the beginning of the B-part I felt the urge to break out of the subdivision of 3-2-2-3 for a while. I decided to go with 2-3-2-3, not straying too far from the 10/8 time signature, but even so creating the feeling of a cross rhythm. The rhythmic phrase in bars 18-20 is used as a jumping board back to the original subdivision, resetting the rhythm for the last A-part. Here is a recording of me playing the arrangement with a metronome.


For soloing on this tune I found two options that work well. An approach that is more in style with the jazz repertoire is to have solos on the changes, as written above the melody. This combined with the jurjina rhythm is quite the challenge, but certainly doable.

          Another way of approaching this is to look at it like a maqam. The soloist could be accompanied by a drone-like rhythm following the jurjina pattern. From there the improviser can take a journey through various maqamat. Maqamat that would work well here are hijaz and kurd on E. But also modulations to nikriz on D can work well. For more inspiration on where maqam hijaz can develop to, see “Maqam hijaz exploration path”.


I did not find a lot of examples of jazz standards being played in Arabic style. One example that should be noted is Duke Ellington’s Caravan, played by Rabih Abou-Khalil.[2] This track is on the album Roots and Sprouts, which is quite traditionally Arabic in terms of repertoire and instrumentation (oud, ney, violin, percussion and bass). The piece Caravan uses again the 1½ note interval that we know from maqam hijaz. In contrast to Nardis, which is a modal piece, Caravan has a B-part in which a chain of dominants in it. This is a common characteristic in jazz music. I was curious to see how the ensemble of Abou-Khalil would arrange this with their instrumentation. The way they chose to deal with this was unfortunately not to play the B-part at all, and just keep to the A-parts. Although it felt a bit disappointing, I think this shows that this kind of harmony does not fit the instrumentation of a traditional ensemble, and that we maybe have to accept that.


Arabic Songs in a Jazz Style


Arranging Arabic songs in a jazz style is actually more common than the other way around. I think this comes from musicians with a background from an Arabic culture, who start playing jazz, and start playing with other jazz musicians. By taking musical material from their heritage and arranging that for their jazz ensemble, they automatically create a natural fusion between the two styles. This is a similar way that I arranged Ya Fajar for my band NAJWA, which I analysed already in the chapter on Harmony: it is a traditional song, arranged to be played with a band with players from both Arabic and jazz backgrounds. Similarly we already looked at Futina Al-Lathi by Rima Khcheich, which is much closer to a traditional approach, but still very much influenced by jazz music.

          So the most natural way of adding jazz to Arabic songs is to play them with jazz players. Many examples of this phenomenon exist, but I would like to recommend some records for inspiration. Not all records contain traditional pieces, but the blend between the two styles is definitely present.

  • Blue Maqams – Anouar Brahem (2017, ECM Records). This is a record by Tunisian oud player Anouar Brahem. The other players are Dave Holland (b), Jack DeJohnette (dr) and Django Bates (p). The record contains originals exclusively, but the combination of oud with a jazz trio makes for a nice mix of styles.
  • Diwan of Beauty and Odd – Dhafer Youssef (2016, Sony Music Entertainment). This is an album by oud player and singer Dhafer Youssef, also from Tunesia. He teams up with Ben Williams (b), Mark Giuliana (dr), Aaron Parks (p) and Ambrose Akinmusire (tp). This record also contains original songs. I specifically like the piano taqsim at the start of track 3, Delightfully Odd.
  • Kalthoum – Ibrahim Maalouf (2016, Mi’ster Productions). This record is a tribute to legendary Egyptian singer Umm Kulthoum (1898-1975), and her suite Alf Leila wa Leila. French-Lebanese trumpet player plays the suite with Larry Grenadier (b), Clarence Penn (dr), Frank Woeste (p) and Mark Turner (sx). This record is a great example of how a traditional Arabic piece can be performed by a jazz band. In my opinion, Maalouf pushes the boundary most in Movement IV at the 8:15 timestamp, where the band is actually playing 4/4 swing.
  • Lisan Al-Tarab: Jazz Conceptions in Classical Arabic – Tarek Yamani (2014, Tarek Yamani). For this record, New York based Lebanese pianist Tarek Yamani arranged a number of traditional Arabic compositions for piano trio. The concept of this album is to create a short list of standards, like in the jazz repertoire, but with Arabic songs. The songs are arranged into a modern jazz style, with challenging rhythms. The record features Petros Klampanis on bass and John Davis on drums.

[1] “Stories of Standards: “Nardis” by Miles Davis,” Linda Hillshafer, accessed on March 7, 2021,

[2] Rabih Abou-Khalil, “Caravan,” by Duke Ellington, recorded 1990, track 8 on Roots and Sprouts, MMP, compact disc.