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Ibrahim Maalouf’s Illusions

Ibrahim MaaloufWe all have our instinct-based responses, and mine is to recoil from bombast. That’s why I liked the last two albums by the Lebanese trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf — lovely music filled with subtle touches — and also why I’m surprised that I enjoy his latest one. Its predecessors — Diagnostic (2011) and Wind (2012) — were marked in the first case by a subtle blend of east and west and in the second by a perfect understanding of the sort of melodic, modally based two-horns-and-rhythm jazz perfected by Herbie Hancock with “Maiden Voyage” and heard most recently on Manu Katche’s first two ECM albums.

The new one, titled Illusions, is very different, and its cover seems to set the tone: Maalouf, all blinged up in a white suit, shiny turquoise shirt and gold shoes, surrounded by what appear to be a kind of burlesque version of the musicians from Prince’s band. There’s surely something ironic going on here.

Born in Beirut 33 years ago, he moved with his family to Paris during Lebanon’s civil war. His father, Nassim Maalouf, was a well known trumpeter,  the inventor of the four-valve quarter-tone instrument, and ensured that his son was thoroughly educated in both Arab and western music. Ibrahim was on the road with his dad from the age of nine, long before he began his studies at the conservatory in Paris. His subsequent career has been varied and distinguished.

The trumpeter’s extensive sleeve notes to Illusions — which is released on his own label, Mi’ster Productions — describe his ambition of using the album to portray the lives of men and women in the modern world as he sees it, with all the dissatisfactions, deceits, dilemmas and compromises that stand in their way. So the music makes use of three trumpeters (as well as himself) and keyboards to provide textures that often flare like neon above a hard-driving jazz-funk rhythm section. The playing is outstanding (Frank Woeste, the keyboards player, is a holdover from Wind), even when it goes a little too far over the top for my taste, as on the hard-rock “hidden” track — but perhaps that’s the point. As a composer, Maalouf shows in an intricately arranged piece like “Unfaithful” (listen here) that he is capable of juxtaposing the churn and the lyricism and blending them into something exhilarating.

I don’t love Illusions in the way I loved its predecessors, although I think I see what Maalouf is trying to achieve through this sustained essay in garishness. His own playing, however, is extraordinary. This is a voice that definitely comes from a non-western world, with a silvery tone and liquid phrasing, whether bouncing lines off the answering trumpet choir or producing passages of glowing lyricism. Like Ambrose Akinmusire in the US and Arve Henriksen in Norway, he demonstrates that this ancient instrument, with a history going back several millennia, definitely belongs to the present day.

If you don’t know him, I’d recommend starting with Wind, which consists of music written by Maalouf to accompany a  Rene Clair silent film from 1927, The Prey of the Wind, and was inspired by Miles Davis’s soundtrack for Louis Malle’s Lift to the Scaffold. It’s relatively conventional, but he and Woeste sound completely at home in the company of three top-class American musicians: the always-interesting tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, the bassist Larry Grenadier and the drummer Clarence Penn. Then you’ll probably want to discover what else he’s been up to.

* The photograph of Ibrahim Maalouf is from one of the postcards included with Illusions and was taken by Denis Rouvre.

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