Ibrahim Maalouf’s fourth album, Wind, originated from a commission to write a soundtrack for René Clair’s 1927 silent film The Prey of the Wind.
But it was directly inspired by another soundtrack long admired by the Beirut-born, now Paris-based trumpeter: Miles Davis’ iconic score for Louis Malle’s 1958 noir classic, Ascenseur Pour L’échafaud.
On pieces like the Doubts, the influence is absolutely unmistakable: a laconic blues with Maalouf blowing sweet and melancholy, with more than a hint of the young Miles’ haunted vulnerability.
It’s lent further nocturnal mystery by the effortlessly laidback accompaniment of the crack team of New York sidemen assembled for the album: bassist Larry Grenadier, saxophonist Mark Turner and drummer Clarence Penn, as well as Maalouf’s longstanding collaborator, pianist and co-arranger, Frank Woeste.
They form an acoustic quintet dripping with mid-20th century insouciance.
Yet there’s more to this project than merely recreating 1950s black and white cool. Maalouf’s instrument of choice is the quartertone trumpet, which features an extra, fourth valve, enabling him to incorporate microtonal intervals more commonly heard in Middle Eastern music.
Thus, the smouldering, offbeat groove of Suspicions carries a heavily spiced hook, played by Maalouf and Turner in tight unison, transforming it into a street dance in the Arab Quarter.
Elsewhere, Questions & Answers feels like a Balkan-flavoured take on the tumbling circularity of The Jazz Messengers’ Wheel Within a Wheel.
Excitement features a stumbling rhythm and Maalouf’s melodramatic exclamations come across like a parody of Charles Mingus’ satirical swipe, Fables of Faubus.
But it’s on some of the slower, more spacious pieces that Maalouf’s artistry with the quartertone really cuts through. On Waiting, a minimalist background of drizzling brushes and a stark, two-note bass riff provides the context for delicate, upward-arching vocal inflections, like an Arabesque crooner singing with seductively gentle control.
And on Certainly, a loose and lush contemporary ballad setting – featuring some beautifully paced piano comping from Woeste – lets Maalouf ease off on the Arabic dialect and play with a soft, sighing accent, like a homesick visitor on the streets of New York.
It all adds up to a very satisfying cultural exchange.