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Ibrahim Maalouf at the Savoy

Matthew Kassel
Staff Writer
matthew.kassel [at] mail.mcgill.ca

Trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf, wearing a black Wu-Tang sweatshirt and black sweatpants, strutted coolly to the stage of the Savoy du Métropolis in Montreal on the night of May 7. He sat down on a stool and waited calmly for the members of his band to situate themselves.

He picked up the microphone and said: “Ce soir, le thème, c’est la tendresse.” (“Tonight, the theme is tenderness.”) You might not expect that from Mr. Maalouf. His last two studio albums, Diasporas and Diachronism, feature pulsing electronics and heavy drum and bass.

What’s really tender about Mr. Maalouf’s playing is his trumpet tone—understated, dry, diaphanous, almost a whisper—and that tone is what you notice in his music.

At the Savoy, Mr. Maalouf, who was born in Beirut but now lives in Paris, was playing his own compositions that he wrote for a remake of the 1927 René Clair silent French film, La Proie du Vent (“The Pray of the Wind”). Three days earlier, in New York, he had recorded those compositions with Frank Woeste, the pianist he regularly performs with; saxophonist Mark Turner; bassist Larry Grenadier; and drummer Clarence Penn.

Mr. Maalouf performed in Montreal for the Montreal International Jazz Festival's "Jazz All Year Round" series with a different quintet, including Mr. Woeste on piano and three formidable Montreal jazz musicians: saxophonist Joel Miller, bassist Rick Rosato, and drummer Kevin Warren.

Mr. Maalouf incorporates the tunes and scales of his Lebanese heritage into his music. In order to play those scales, which include quarter tones, he plays a four-valve trumpet, which his father, Nassim Maalouf, a Lebanese classical trumpeter, developed in the 1960s.

With that fourth valve, Mr. Maalouf offers some light and brambly playing. And even though the other members of his band did not really play those quarter tones, the scales he uses do not sound unusual.

Short, funky piano or bass vamps—often in 3/4 time—informed the rhythmic thrust of many of the songs. Mr. Rosato’s bass tone was deep and round, and he and Mr. Woeste built a strong rhythmic partnership throughout the set.

Mr. Miller did not take as many solos as Mr. Maalouf, but that didn’t seem to matter. His role as a saxophonist was more textural. And if Mr. Maalouf’s sound is tender—meaning self-restrained—then it, too, operates in the service of a larger texture. But that larger texture still draws attention to his sound.

He’s taking a stylistic stand with this approach. His tone is quaint, but it’s forceful in its quaintness. There’s no dissonance, though—you don’t get the sense that he’s trying to confuse you, with his Wu-Tang apparel and casual slouch on the stool.

At one point, near the end of the second set, Mr. Maalouf put his trumpet aside, got off his stool, slowly leaned toward the microphone, and closed his eyes. Then he began to sing, wordlessly, in a disturbingly high falsetto, imitating the tone and style of his trumpet playing. It was unexpected and modestly bold and even kind of creepy. But that was no problem, because he had already gained the audience’s trust.

Matthew Kassel is a fourth-year at McGill University studying political science and Arabic. When he can, he writes--often about jazz. Find some of his work at coldjazz.blogspot.com/.