Review Summary: Jazz + Arabic + Urban = one of the most interesting contemporary jazz releases out today
Free Jazz is a brand of music that appeals mostly to a select group of listeners, being difficult to digest on multiple levels. So what if music that is so removed from popular tastes was combined with urban or hip-hop music that is currently in vogue? For an extra twist let’s say that there is a traditional Arabic harmonic tonality that gets naturally incorporated into the music. This could only give you Ibrahim Maalouf’s 2007 release “Diasporas.”
Maalouf’s music is the epitome of the term “melting pot;” instrumentally, harmonically, and stylistically “Diasporas” pushes many musical norms aside. Many exotic instruments make appearances such as the kanoun, buzuq, oud, ney, and a arsenal of auxiliary percussion instruments. These are combined with violins, electric and acoustic cello, drum set, numerous electronic effects, and Maalouf’s own trumpet. Maalouf’s trumpet is very different from most however; it has an extra valve to facilitate playing quartertones, or notes between the twelve pitches that the Western ear is trained, which dominate the vast majority of the world’s music. These quartertones give the music on “Diasporas” a distinctly Arabic quality because they are found most commonly in the traditional music of the Middle East.
In terms of a style it is very difficult to place “Diasporas” in a clear category. Although showing incredible amounts of influence from jazz, much of the album really doesn’t fall neatly into any jazz subgenre cliché. The widespread use of both electronics and urban ambient sounds also pulls the album somewhat out of the jazz world and more into hip-hop. Not to mention that all of the Arabic elements are still very present. Ibrahim Maalouf has done a fantastic job at creating a mesh of these styles that sacrifices very few of the qualities of each individual style.
Ibrahim’s playing on the record is absolutely phenomenal. His quartertone improvisation and incorporation of Middle Eastern melodic material into his solos are very unique - the only other artist who even remotely resembles his trumpet playing is Don Ellis and that is still a bit of a stretch. For an aural summary of the album check out Maalouf’s version of the jazz standard “A Night in Tunisia” called “Missin’ Ya” and for extra credit, compare it to any other version of “A Night in Tunisia.”
The album really has very few shortcomings. Any negativity is much more of a personal, artistic choice than something being distinctly out of place. Some of the same barriers that listeners have when listening to very abstract jazz will still be present, but beyond that the album is fairly accessible and has an appeal of some kind for fans of many different kinds of music.
While an extremely varied and experimental album in many ways, “Diasporas” can be a very rewarding listen. Any fans of jazz or contemporary Arabic music should definitely give this album a listen as well as hip-hop or urban enthusiasts looking to get in touch with more experimental variants of their music. This album is only the beginning of perhaps a new subculture of jazz and urban music.