A Mesmerizing, Paradigm-Shifting, Intimate New Album From Hafez Modirzadeh
Hafez Modirzadeh’s 2012 album Post-Chromodal Out! isn’t just one of the greatest jazz albums ever made: it’s one of the most paradigm-shifting albums ever made in any style of music. After decades of blending classical Persian modes with jazz, the tenor saxophonist employed several microtonal piano tunings for a session packed with riveting, otherworldly sounds. It’s probably the best album Vijay Iyer ever played on. It’s the dream record Erik Satie never wrote, that Thelonious Monk and Abdolhasan Saba never got to make. It also sounds like absolutely nothing else ever recorded…except for this.
With his latest release, Facets – streaming at Bandcamp – Modirzadeh switches out the pyrotechnics for a mesmerizing, intimate series of duets and solo pieces. He chose three completely different pianists as partners: Craig Taborn, Kris Davis and Tyshawn Sorey. The first comes out of the Knitting Factory school of the late 80s, the second is known for her lyricism but also has recently branched out into both more electronic and avant garde sounds. In the jazz world, Sorey has built a strong career as a drummer, but in the last few years he’s turned to solid, purposeful new classical composition.
Here, Modirzadeh employs a piano tuning where eight of the keys in the scale are retuned microtonally. Most of these pieces are on the short side; several of them are miniatures. While he gave each pianist a score prior prior to the recording sessions, none of them had played the music in this tuning before. The overtones are to die for: there’s as much sound in between the notes as there is when the hammers hit the strings. Davis is the most expansive pianist here, relishing the opportunity to discover new harmonic universes. True to form, Sorey is all about atmosphere and focus. Taborn, who opens and closes the album solo, is clearly learning on the job and takes his time, ceding centerstage to the ringleader here for some of his most invocative passages.
The first pianist Modirzadeh engages with is Sorey, for a blend of gentle, soulful, rhythmic sax over a solemn, lingering minimalism with just a few hints of microtonality. It fits his style perfectly.
The first duet with Davis, on the same composition, comes across as a more picturesque dawn tableau, Modirzadeh wafting and in one place sounding what could be a muezzin’s call as the pianist calmly but playfully works rising righthand against a still, low resonant figure. Their miniature after that is more concise and over too soon, although that could be said for everything on the album: who would ever want such rapturous music to end? Time stands still when you hear this.
Her methodical gestures, thoughtful syncopation and symphonically vast dynamic shifts on the album’s ninth track, a solo piece, are as otherworldly as they are fun: good luck trying not to crack a smile when she hits that ridiculous dance theme. And she finds regal solemnity but also moments of puckish mirth in a solo piece later on.
She also gets to take Monk through a funhouse mirror, with a coy restraint, in Modirzadeh’s minimalist microtonal mashup of Pannonica and Ask Me Now. The saxophonist does each as a duet with Taborn, the former a cautious hint of a stroll, the latter with spare yet inviting and increasingly surreal wee-hours ambience
With Sorey, Modirzadeh develops a warm, increasingly hypnotic nocturne; playfully expands and contracts around a clustering, jumping riff; and ushers in the album’s most mystical nocturne. The contrast between low crush and high belltones in Sorey’s first solo improvisation is spine-tingling. Later, he parses a Satie-esque fugue.
To compare this album to anything else released this year is unfair: jazz is more microtonal than most people realize, but Modirzadeh is still galaxies ahead of anybody else. That being said, it would take Ellington and Mohammed Abdel Wahab coming back from the dead to knock this one off the top of the best jazz albums of 2021 list.