Hafez Modirzadeh Makes Jazz History
Hafez Modirzadeh’s latest album Post-Chromodal Out!, out now from Pi Records, is every bit as radical as it’s been billed, a paradigm-shifting work. It is important to the point of simply saying, go out and get it and let it take you away to a magical place where nobody’s ever really gone before.
In many ways, this is a continuation of the path Modirzadeh began on his equally groundbreaking 2010 Radif Suite. For the piano here, the Persian-American saxophonist has devised a scale of his very own, interpolating microtones within standard tuning to free the musicians from the limitations of western intonation. Vijay Iyer plays it – it might be the best thing Iyer’s ever done, which says a lot. It’s certainly the most difficult thing he’s ever done. Modirzadeh plays tenor and soprano sax alongside fellow paradigm-shifter Amir ElSaffar on trumpet, with Ken Filiano on bass and Royal Hartigan on drums, plus contributions from Danongan Kalanduyan on kulintang, Faraz Minooei on santoor and Timothy Volpicella on guitar. The album itself comprises two heavily improvised suites, Modirzadeh’s seventeen-part Weft Facets and Jim Norton’s eleven-part Wolf and Warp.
This is hardly the first time a musician has devised his own harmonic language. While Modirzadeh’s work has obviously been inspired by both Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman, it doesn’t sound much like either of them: his voice as both a composer and a sax player is unique and distinctive. Given the piano’s use of three-quarter tones – which in the western scale sound either a little flat or a little on the sharp side, depending on the interval – fans of Iranian music might think at first that Iyer is playing a santoor. By the same token, the piano doesn’t sound the least bit out of tune since a truly out-of-tune piano is randomly pitched and, unless it’s a total mess, is usually just far enough off key to sound jarring. Ironically, Iyer’s signature chromatics when applied to this scale have the opposite effect of the horror-movie cadences they create in western tuning: here, the effect reaches toward a resolution that’s actually quite consonant, even soothing.
What’s most striking about this album is how articulate the band is. This isn’t some tentative adventure in exoticism: their comfort level is as if this was their native tongue. Modirzadeh plays with a richly tuneful precision, eschewing the usual reliance on effects like blue notes, squalling and wailing as means of introducing microtones. ElSaffar is an extraordinary musician – anyone who’s seen him play santoor might tell you that trumpet isn’t even his best instrument. His approach is similar to Modirzadeh’s if a little more rapidfire and energetic. The only noticeable difference between Iyer’s work in this context and elsewhere is that here he employs fewer chords. Filiano swings the beat, walks and embellishes the melody with a rewarding matter-of-factness, Hartigan adding equal amounts propulsion and counterintuitive color.
At its most upbeat, parts of Modirzadeh’s suite evoke an evocatively surreal hybrid of New Orleans and Moroccan sounds. The santoor is employed during the most recognizable Middle Eastern interludes; likewise, the kulintang for most of the hypnotically enveloping, gamelanesque segments. Conversations between santoor and piano, sax and trumpet abound; the composer’s use of echo phrases enhances the otherworldliness of much of this. Iyer’s triumphant cascades, flourishes and judiciously emphatic accents provide the icing on the cake. Lusciously strange as the tonalities here are, much of the architecture is straight-up postbop: there’s plenty of brisk swing with bright hooks to open followed by thematic variations, cleverly orchestrated rhythmic shifts and an unselfconscious joy in the interplay. The electric guitar doesn’t make an appearance until the suite is almost done but adds a terse suspense and then grandeur that sets up the final, lush swell.
Norton’s composition is a quartet piece for tenor, trumpet, bass and drums that draws heavily on more modern jazz tropes: a head followed by variations and free improvisation with divergent voices, beginning slower and less rhythmic but eventually taking the energy up a notch higher than in Modirzadeh’s work. Terse, often minimalist exchanges build to wry shuffles, with solo spots for piano, drums and bass. Filiano is much more present here than in the first suite, digging into the melody with a memorably growly tone, sometimes employing a bow. Melodically, this also hews closer to the west than the east: the more cohesive and upbeat segments seem almost as if they’ve simply been transposed to this scale rather than having been written for it. Here it’s ElSaffar who finally seizes the chance to raise the ante with moody microtones and bring the atmosphere full circle to where it originated. Iyer’s phantasmagorically funky lines as it builds toward a final crescendo wouldn’t be out of place in the Frank Carlberg songbook. It ends with an unexpectedly macabre, rain-drenched, funereally hypnotic reprise of one of the initial themes.
On one hand, this is one of those rare moments in jazz history that will change the way a lot of people hear music – and the way they play it. On the other, there’s a sizeable contingent, most of them on one side of the globe, who will be saying, “Big deal, so you’re playing Middle Eastern jazz now. What took you guys so long to catch up?”
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