LJF 2015: Ibrahim Maalouf

Barry Witherden enjoys Ibrahim Maalouf's impressive and exuberant live rendition of his tribute to Egyptian singer Oum Kalthoum

This set, a concert performance by Maalouf (pictured right at a previous concert) of his recent CD, Kalthoum, was substantially different from the recording. Much as I liked the album, I enjoyed this impressive and exuberant gig even more.

The band at the Barbican differed from the one featured on Kalthoum and on the excellent 2012 album, Wind, with Rick Margitza and Scott Colley replacing Mark Turner and Larry Grenadier on tenor and bass. Frank Woeste and Clarence Penn were retained on piano and drums. Despite the personnel change the band was as tight and well-attuned as you could wish, and although the set went on way beyond what was expected - close to an hour-and-a- half - it didn’t seem a moment too long. Come the interval, in the section where I was sitting people were asking each other if that was the end of the gig and, even without the second set by the splendid Manu Katché, would have felt they had had their money’s worth several times over.

Kalthoum is a tribute to a famous and highly respected Egyptian singer, Oum Kalthoum, and all the tracks on the album are based on a song associated with her, Alf Leila Wa Leila (The Thousand and One Nights). Traditionally, a performance of such a song would form a suite lasting around an hour with a three-minute chorus and verses of anything from five minutes to a half-hour, with substantial tracts set aside for improvisation. In transcribing it (minus lyrics) Maalouf and Woeste aimed to respect the conventions of the tradition whilst incorporating jazz methodology, with modes as well as improvisation as common ground, presenting a suite with an introduction, two overtures and four movements.

The concert began with a vocal and oud performance of the song, a valuable reference for those of us (most of the audience, I would think) unfamiliar with this piece in particular and Arabic music in general. This also enabled a better appreciation of the transformations Maalouf and Woeste had achieved.

During an interview before the concert (soon to appear in the print version of JJ) Maalouf told me “I don’t play bop.” Well, most of the time he doesn’t - bop was/is, after all, based on chords and chord cycles rather than modes/scales - but there was a section in one of the movements in which he and Margitza produced several scorching choruses of something that could easily have passed for bop. Mostly, though, the scale-based structure and Arabic approach dominated, facilitated by Maalouf’s customary use of a four-valve trumpet - Arabic scales being based on quarter-tones. Complex time-signatures were common too, though used with such skill and assurance that they never seemed intrusive, and there was some clever counterpoint too.

Speaking of which, Bach’s second Brandenburg Concerto was one of Maalouf’s showpieces before he turned to jazz, and tonight there was one crowd-pleasing virtuoso passage where he quoted (and sometimes pastiched) Bach whilst alternately rasping notes from the bottom of the trumpet’s register and shrieking them out from the top.

Photo by Brian Payne

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