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Hafez Modirzadeh - Post-Chromodal Out!

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Artist: Hafez Modirzadeh

Album: Post-Chromodal Out!

Label: Pi Recordings

Review date: Sep. 13, 2012

Saxophonist Hafez Modirzadeh seems right at home on Pi Recordings, who have steadily assembled a roster of serious conceptualists. The Californian player and academic (do yourself a favor and check out his writings) has always impressed with his synthetic imagination, but on Post-Chromodal Out! he sets himself an almost impossibly ambitious task. Modirzadeh himself describes his “quest to create a seamless exchange of musical structures across cultures.” But rather than another entry in the history of faintly awkward jazz and exotica “fusions,” Modirzadeh’s “chromodality” system is rooted in a very rigorous tuning and harmonization concept that explores the intersections between Iranian dastgah music and improvisational polytonality ranging from Harry Partch to Joe Maneri.

Over the course of two lengthy suites — his own nearly 50-minute “Weft Facets” and James Norton’s “Wolf and Warp” (Modirzadeh wanted to see if his system could stand up to another composer’s explorations) — the results prove to be surprising, quizzical, and “fuck yeah” exhilarating. This quintet — the leader on tenor and soprano, trumpeter Amir ElSaffar (with whom Modirzadeh co-led Radif Suite), pianist Vijay Iyer, bassist Ken Filiano and drummer Royal Hartigan — plays with so much range and feeling and technique that they at times sound nearly orchestral. At the heart of these often head-turning effects is the integration of standard and Iranian classical tunings and intonations to shape improvisational possibilities. There’s microtonality simply everywhere, not just in the subtle intervals Modirzadeh uses to make up his craggy, fast-moving lines, but in the timbre of the horns and the piano (Iyer is a knockout from start to finish, playing an instrument retuned to three-quarter tones). Each of these multi-sectioned suites moves through sequences of fascinating tension between passages for swing rhythm section and jabbing piano (“Wolf Two,” for example, or “Facet Seventeen,” which sounds like a Persian Ornette cover band with player piano, buoyed by an immense Filiano/Hartigan groove). Modirzadeh and ElSaffar play fascinating solos where the horn tones seem to flip, quaver, vibrate, and have their own bottom drop out (notice the soprano flourishes on “Facet Twenty-Two” or ElSaffar’s exchanges with Iyer on “Facet Twenty-Four”), as Iyer shifts deftly between disorienting prepared piano and conventional playing, often within a single bar. It’s a pretty terrific effect.

The “Weft Facets” suite features three guests who pop up for extra timbre to boot: Danongan Kalanduyan plays Filipino kulintang on three sections; Faraz Minooei plays Persian santur on another three; Tim Volpicella handles guitar on two. “Interlude One” and “Facet Sixteen,” in particular, shine with these contributions, and Iyer sounds outrageously good alongside the santur on “Interlude II.” Filiano and Hartigan are absolutely central to the coalescence of these multiple moments, an ominous throb here, an anchored groove there, a terpsichorean race all popping up rapid-fire as definable rhythmic and harmonic shapes both set and scramble the contexts for Modirzadeh’s thematic material.

Norton’s “Wolf & Warp” starts out sounding superficially more like what one expects from “jazz.” But as the close harmonies of the horns develop alongside Filiano’s arco and pounding, decentered piano, it speaks to you in its own language that is distinct from the compositional material in Modirzadeh’s suite, even as it is shaped by his concept. And while the leader’s writing tends to blur the boundaries of composition and improvisation more emphatically, Norton’s slightly more lyrical writing (just check the gorgeous closing fragment) tends to put the spotlight on good ol’ solos just a bit more. “Wolf Two – Ensemble” and “Wolf Six” are tours de force for Iyer in this piano idiom, with probing accompaniment from Filiano (who also does some slurring double-stops to great effect). But Modirzadeh and ElSaffar are dazzling as well, combining quick melodic imagination with false fingerings, a wide range of embouchures, and modest overblowing here and there to bring out polytonality.

The effect of Post-Chromodal Out! is like having your head buffeted by a barrage of head-scrambling information, all of it resisting conventional listening, and most emphatically not announcing itself as anything close to conventional jazz-plus-exotica. It’s a powerful statement from a composer, instrumentalist, and band that deserve your time and acclaim.

By Jason Bivins

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