Album Review: MEKTOUB — ‘Elizabeth’

'Elizabeth' Album Release Party

The James, Iowa City, Thursday, June 16, 7 p.m., $10-15

In 2019, frequenters of Goosetown Café mingled with friends of John Rapson to delight in the new band he had assembled: MEKTOUB. It was a trio, initially — Rapson on the keys, Ryan Smith on woodwinds and Nielo Gaglione on vocals and mandole. Together, the three produced a distinct style of improvisational music they describe as Mediterranean folk-jazz.

The brick background and the smell of Goosetown’s food combined with Gaglione’s tendency to sing in both French and English, as well as the incredible talents of Smith and Rapson, to offer an otherworldly vibe to their sets. Instead of a pastiche, they generated the electricity of something truly alive.

Two years later, the trio had grown. The last performance added fiddler Tara McGovern and Justin LeDuc on the drums. This was the core of the MEKTOUB Arkestra, which stunned a sold-out Englert crowd with Esteban and the Children of the Sun, a work Rapson envisioned as a collaborative effort, which he completed in the weeks leading up to his widely mourned departure into Shakespeare’s “undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveler returns.”

Something of a return lives on in the release of Elizabeth, named for Rapson’s wife and recorded at their daughter’s house during the Esteban sessions.

Led by Gaglione (credited for music, lyrics and production), Elizabeth encapsulates everything enlivening about those early performances. It seems impossible that the band ever sounded complete without McGovern’s fiddle, which moves in and out of the foreground here, often serving as a sonic balance for Smith’s woodwinds. The tones of each fly around the other like birds in an infinite dance. Because the musicians adeptly keep time without percussion, LeDuc is freed to experiment.

The first track, “Artisan,” highlights Smith’s skill and grace. Gaglione’s voice and playing convey a sense of urgency, despite the soaring tones of flute and fiddle. Rapson fans will appreciate the long piano solo in “Mystic Journey,” which strongly recalls the sonic template of Esteban. Track three, “Dance the World,” which often concluded their live set, encapsulates the joyful soul that the band voices so remarkably.

“The Beneficent” appears next, passing the melody back and forth as though it was water tossed by waves: LeDuc’s percussion is more prominent here, but still capably understated. Listening for it shows the skill consistent throughout. McGovern’s fiddle is also highlighted on this song, even as a pause allows Rapson’s keys to shine again.

“Lifeboat (Le son de la mar)” invites listeners into a song that even at almost 11 minutes still feels too short to resolve what it introduces: Like the rest of the album, one simply wishes there was more. “Vagabondo” returns Gaglione’s urgent mandole to the foreground. This expression of something so vital, more nourishing on repeated listens, is less a surprise than confirmation of hope’s delight.

MEKTOUB’s music translates nimbly to a studio recording, inviting you to listen repeatedly to the joy that converged in its creation. It offers every reason to hope that Rapson’s legacy will continue to delight and awe audiences — and move beyond. It’s explicitly and uniquely itself, with an audacious beauty. Listen to the album, see the band play live and know it for yourself.

This article was originally published in Little Village’s June 2022 issue.