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Ibrahim Maalouf – Kalthoum at Wexner Center

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by Richard Sanford on September 21, 2016

Of the 20+ sets I gorged myself on at this year’s Winter Jazz Fest in NYC, none impressed me more than French-Lebanese trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf’s quintet at the New School. Columbus is lucky enough to see this group kick off another star-studded jazz season at the best-sounding room in town, the Wexner Center for the Arts, on Thursday, September 29th. More about this combo, including videos, below the jump.

Maalouf said in an illuminating interview with Erminia Yardley for Jazz in Europe, that “I started when I was 7, but even before that if you like, I was listening to my parents play piano and trumpet at home.   My mother used to play Schumann, Chopin; her culture background is Arabic music and classical music.  I was attending lots of International classical music competitions.”

At the same time, Maalouf’s father, Nassim Maalouf, designed a quarter-tone trumpet specifically for Arabic maqam modes. As Maalouf says to Emaho Magazine, “Initially, I tried to copy my father, but very soon I started to play differently. He used to play the trumpet quite loud, but my style was different. So I used to take the trumpet to my room and play very softly, trying to imitate Arabic scales the way my father played them, but also adding my own touch. It was a big challenge to make my father accept the fact that I played microtonal trumpet and the fact that the way I played it would be very different from his own.”

He’s succeeded in spades. Maalouf has a clear tone and depth of both melody and rhythm. From the film soundtracks that garnered international attention beyond the jazz world like Mohamed Hamidi’s La Vache and Lespert’s Yves Saint Laurent through his electronics-and-electric guitar spattered firey exhortations like last year’s Red and Black Light, everything he does has the hand of a great artist coming into a mastery of his powers.

But like many of his trumpet forebears, the live arena with a small combo is where Maalouf will knock you back on your heels. The project he’s bringing to the Wexner Center, Kalthoum is a tribute to the improvisational Egyptian singer Om Kalthoum. Rearranging and getting inside one of her most beloved pieces,”Alf Leila Wa Leila,” Maalouf’s version is an investigation, an interrogation, and a riotous celebration. It holds this piece up to the light and slowly turns it around and inside out, not just revealing facets of the original but about what each of the players brings to the composition and, like all the best art, reflects the listener’s soul back at them clearer than they could see themselves.

The firepower Ibrahim Maalouf brings in his finely-tuned small group is a wonder, all headliners themselves. Pianist Frank Woeste has lent his supple touch in collaboration with Wex favorites like Nasheet Waits and Larry Grenadier and has a new record coming out very shortly with another trumpet master, Dave Douglas. Tenor saxophonist Rick Margitza has played with everyone from Tony Williams to Maria Schneider. Scott Colley’s bass might be best known as a key color in Chris Potter’s groups but has also held down artists as diverse as Taj Mahal, Carmen McRae, and Pat Metheny. Clarence Penn, I believe last seen at the Wex with Dave Douglas, is one of the great drummers full-stop.

After the performance I saw in January, I can’t imagine any reader of this website, whatever their leaning, not being enraptured by this quintet doing these gorgeous melodies. It’s the best hard-bop you’ll find today and something else entirely. It’s a keening cry to the heavens and a balm in this time we so need it.

Ibrahim Maalouf’s Quintet performs at 8:00 pm on Thursday, September 29th at the Wexner Center. Tickets and more info are available at http://wexarts.org/performing-arts/ibrahim-maalouf-kalthoum

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