Many jazz albums are just collections of tunes, and that’s fine. But others are more conceptually unified than that—they may represent the exploration of a musician’s compositional theories, attempts to fuse music from diverse cultures, or something more. In our new feature, What’s the Big Idea?, we’ll periodically ask a musician to provide some background or context for an album we think needs it.
First up is saxophonist Hafez Modirzadeh. His latest album, Post-Chromodal Out!, is described as follows by his label, Pi Recordings:
“It is the culmination of a system he calls ‘chromodality,’ which Modirzadeh originally developed to integrate Persian tones with Western equal temperament to further explore harmonic possibilities in jazz. He has since expanded his concept to encompass a ‘post-chromodal’ approach in which all kinds of intervals co-exist; one with meta-cultural potential that allows each musician to use his own distinctive voice to explore music from a full palette of tonal possibilities.”
Yeah, but what does that mean to someone who can’t read music, doesn’t play an instrument, and just listens to music for pure aesthetic pleasure? We sent Modirzadeh four questions about his music and his album, which he was kind enough to answer.
What does “post-chromodal” mean, in terms of how the music will actually sound to someone walking in off the street, so to speak?
To the unfamiliar ear, post-chromodal music will sound “out-of-tune” at first, regardless of what instruments are being played. This is because tones beyond those found on a piano or guitar are being used together to shape melodies that do not follow any one style. Since several different styles could be played at once, the word refers to what comes after we are done describing and combining different musical styles or systems.
Did you write this music specifically for the players who appear on the album, and if so, in what ways does it cater to their particular skills/talents?
Yes, this is music to be conceived with specific players in mind, brought together here for their own original contributions on their instruments: Royal Hartigan is able to adapt numerous drumming traditions to the drumset, going beyond jazz; likewise, Ken Filiano‘s extended bass techniques carry a deeply personal expression; Amir ElSaffar makes trumpet history with his ability to integrate tones from Iraqi modes on his instrument; Vijay Iyer‘s own virtuosic approach to piano enables him to absorb new concepts in a completely innovative way; guests Tim Volpicella on re-tuned guitar, Danongan Kalanduyan on Filipino kulintang, and Faraz Minooei on Persian santur demonstrate how others’ tunings can co-exist with ours in newly harmonious ways.
If you played one of these songs back to back with a more traditionally structured (whether that’s in terms of melody, harmony, or something else, which you could feel free to explain) jazz song, how noticeable would the differences be to a neophyte listener?
At first, not that noticeable, especially if the “jazz song” you are referring to is in a modern jazz style after about 1960. The melody form is being driven in a loose way by a standard jazz quintet instrumentation; some melodies may have a Persian style of phrasing that goes beyond standard jazz feel. Then, one hears a tuning that is not standard in any sense of the term—couldn’t be identified by any traditional style anywhere—particularly when heard by the piano. The listener will have to deal with this different sound in their own personal way.
How do you utilize your background and musical knowledge when composing—do you start writing a jazz piece and then “Persian it up,” for lack of a better phrase, or start writing from a Persian point of view and then “jazz it up,” or is there something else going on?
I have developed a way of composing that doesn’t draw exclusively from any particular musical system, although my primary inspiration comes from the jazz model. Many years ago, I would seek to adapt Persian musical phrasing to jazz tunes—as I was born in Durham, North Carolina, with living experiences from all over the world, I cannot claim to have any sort of “Persian point of view” to music—anything musically Iranian came through my personal studies with Mahmoud Zoufonoun. Later, as a player, I found deep structures shared among several musical idioms of the world, from Africa to Asia, and worked all this into my own way of conveying a story, or message about cherishing relationships wherever we can find them.