Ibrahim Maalouf ‘Kalthoum’ (Impulse!) 5/5

ibrahim-maaloufBorn in Beirut and now residing in Paris, trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf is rapidly becoming one of the must see/hear musicians currently performing and recording on the world circuit. His unique sound comes from not just his East-meets-West style of composition, but is also inexorably linked to the instrument he plays; the quarter-tone trumpet. Designed by his father, renowned musician Nassim Maalouf, this is a custom made horn with four valves instead of three, allowing for a traditional Arabic technique to be integrated with modern jazz patterns to create a truly individual sound. “Kalthoum” is in every way an album that captures perfectly the magic of Maalouf’s distinctive sound, successfully integrating the cultural and artistic feel and passion with which he is becoming revered for.
Perhaps if we take a classic Ennio Morricone spaghetti western film score, add in a quintessential American modern jazz quintet, and mix together with the colour and vibrancy of traditional Arabic folk music, we would be getting somewhere close to explaining just what this recording sounds like. And yet it is so much more than that. “Kalthoum” is in fact an enthralling tribute to one of Egypt’s most legendary classical singers, Oum Kalthoum. During the fifty years of her incredible career, her songs were enormously popular throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Trumpeter Maalouf pays homage to the singer with his jazz-influenced interpretations of Oum Kalthoum’s enigmatic love song, “Alf Leila Wa Lella”, which translates as “One Thousand and One Nights”. Composed in 1969 by Baligh Hamdi, there have been many varied versions of this piece recorded over the last fourty plus years, with Maalouf’s interpretation coming over as being both respectful and daring, unafraid to push boundaries in an invigorating and fanciful way that surprises and delights in equal measure.

As is often the way with great music, this album is very much a team effort. Maalouf’s individuality is supported magnificently by leading American musicians Mark Turner on tenor sax, Larry Grenadier on bass and Clarence Penn on drums. German pianist Frank Worste completes the excellent line-up. Worste’s playing, at least in this quintet setting, reminds me of Tigran Hamasyan with his folk-tinged melodies being performed with an ease and grace that acts as the perfect counter-balance to Maalouf’s trumpet. The American trio of musicians are first class throughout, with Mark Turner especially proving once again what an incredible touch and mastery he brings to a session such as this. The album itself is presented as 7 pieces; Introduction, Overtures 1 and 2, and Movements 1 to 4. Most definitely “Kalthoum” is an album that needs to be listened to in its entirety to get the most from; picking out individual tracks doesn’t work as well and loses the flavour and comprehensive feel of the masterful suite as a whole. There is a vast amount of skill employed by all the musicians, with Maalouf’s arrangements providing some wondrous music to this listener’s ears. The music glides effortlessly between Classical Arabic melodies, intriguing harmonic motifs, jazz improvisation and swing, funk and esoteric folksy musings. A colourful template and rich tapestry of sound. “Kalthoum” is ultimately an inspirational and delightful project that can be enjoyed by any type of music lover- no need to get hung up by genre or classification here- put simply, great music is just great music, wherever you come from.

Mike Gates