Ibrahim Maalouf: In Miles’s Mode

Ibrahim Maalouf - WindI had not heard of Ibrahim Maalouf until I “heard him on NPR,” but I’ve been missing out. Maalouf’s eclectic trumpet playing—heard most often in classical work—now finds him taking on jazz. He has created a film score for the René Clair 1927 silent film Le Proie du vent (The Prey of the Wind), Clair’s first dramatic feature. But Maalouf has taken his musical cues from Miles Davis, to whom Wind is dedicated.

I’ve not seen Clair’s film, though if it is anywhere in the ballpark of his subsequent Italian Straw Hat (1928) and has any semblance of Entr’acte’s visual flair from 1924, it is well worth seeking out. But while Maalouf’s score joins those of other jazz musicians who have tackled the silent era in recent years (Bill Frisell for Buster Keaton, Dave Douglas for Roscoe Arbuckle, Wycliffe Gordon for Paul Robeson), his point of reference is Davis’s 1957 contribution to the nascent French nouvelle vague, Louis Malle’s feature debut Ascenseur pour l’echafaud (Elevator to the Gallows). Many are the inheritors of Miles Davis’s particular style of trumpet playing, that reticent, sometimes muted, at times pinched mode of expression that more and more seems to dominate the way the instrument is played in a jazz context. Terence Blanchard, Wallace Roney—the list is long.

No complaints here. Something about Davis’s tough tenderness caught the ears of audiences and critics a half-century ago, and it hasn’t let up. Combined with his self-conscious visual representation, the man personified “cool,” as I examine in some depth in Chapter 3 of Blue Notes in Black and White. With Wind, Maalouf has captured Davis’s aural elegance. Davis’s legato elongations and Andalusian evocations are intact, but Wind is more than mere homage.

The Davis jazz family tree is so extensive that more than twenty years after his death, the tribute albums and tours continue and those who played with him understandably point up the connection. But Maalouf brings something particularly fresh to the ongoing conversation with Davis’s mode. Maalouf’s quarter-valve trumpet—his father invented the fourth valve design—allows him to smear notes in the Davis manner (a technique of Davis’s in which his sense of risk sometimes led to clams that became celebrated evidence of his naked authenticity). But it also allows Maalouf’s Lebanese-French roots full play, staking out microtonal harmonic improvisations that recall Davis’s Mediterranean collaboration with Gil Evans, Sketches of Spain, while staking out a territory in jazz nearly all his own.

Helping out are saxophonist Mark Turner, fresh from a dynamic turn with drummer Billy Hart’s successful band, the versatile bassist Larry Grenadier, Turner’s partner in Fly who made his name with Brad Mehldau, drummer Clarence Penn, and pianist Frank Woeste, whom Maalouf credits with arrangements for the album. Woeste does seem to be a key ingredient here, his spare comping recalling René Urtreger’s teardrops for Davis back in 1957. Woeste knows just how much not to play, particularly on those tunes (“Suspicions,” “Issues,” “Questions and Answers,” the delirious “Excitement”) that most obviously employ middle eastern textures and Maalouf’s most daring microtonal stylings.

Ascenseur_echafaud“Waiting,” however, is nearly a rewrite of “Générique,” the Davis classic from the Malle film. “Générique” underpins a key scene, perhaps the best-known in a feature that is more about atmosphere than anything else. Filmed in close-up while ensconced in a phone booth, Jeanne Moreau whispers “Je t’aime, je t’aime,” into the receiver, hangs up, and then wanders through the Paris night to the aching accompaniment of Davis’s trumpet, recorded as he viewed the footage with Malle. You don’t even have to know or care who she loves or what the trouble is—the scene is a short subject unto itself. I’ve written elsewhere about Moreau’s phenomenal walking. Who walked better on film? And who better to comment on that walk than the man who performed “Walkin’” for years? Moreau’s is the coolest of strutting, the physical manifestation of desperation completely underplayed to great effect. Wind takes that sense of atmosphere and runs with it.

Maalouf has created a lovely artefact here. In the era of digital downloads, it is almost a relief to handle Wind’s elaborate but tasteful packaging, read Maalouf’s thoughtful and heartfelt notes, and consider the similarities to the work of his inspiration. But leaving aside Clair, Davis, and all the rest, this flowing and well-judged recording deserves a wide audience.

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