The French have always embraced jazz and American jazz musicians. Sidney Bechet, Dexter Gordon, Kenny Clarke, Bud Powell, Lucky Thompson and many other jazz greats spent part of their careers living and working on French soil. Meanwhile, the French had no problem producing their own jazz musicians; Stéphane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt are certainly legendary.
France’s love affair with America’s art form has never cooled, and the French jazz scene is just as vital today as when Reinhardt, Grappelli and other members of the Quintette du Hot Club de France provided a long-running soundtrack to Parisian nightlife. Today a host of young French musicians are making music and exploring new worlds. Among them is trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf, born in Lebanon and reared in Paris, drawing from a deep well of far-flung musical influences. He refers to his Symphony Center Presents Jazz Series concert May 15 as a “confluence of classical Arabic music and ‘classical American’ music [jazz].”
The concert also will mark his Chicago debut. “The music I’ll be playing is a tribute to Oum Kalthoum, the Egyptian diva,” says Maalouf, who worked with pianist Frank Woeste on arranging her most famous songs, such as “Alf Leila wa Leila” (“1001 Nights”).
In addition to pianist Woeste, the rest of Maalouf’s group consists of Americans Mark Turner (saxophone), Ira Coleman (bass) and Clarence Penn (drums). French-American pianist Jacky Terrasson, who is featured on Maalouf’s 2009 release “Diachronism,” will join the group for this concert. “This band is special because all of them are great, great jazz musicians,” Maalouf says. “I’m very lucky to play with them — it’s quite special for me.”
For Maalouf, music is a vast ocean to be explored and experienced. “I listen to all kinds of music,” he says. “Whenever I want to be serene, to calm down, I listen to Bach — especially the piano inventions. Sometimes when I’m with my little girl [who’s 5], I listen to pop music. She likes hip-hop. When I’m with the guys in my band, we listen to jazz. Every time I come to New York, I go to churches to hear gospel music. When I’m in Beirut, I spend lots of time with my friends listening to underground electronic music.”
Maalouf began his trumpet studies with his father, a student of famed French trumpet virtuoso Maurice André. “My father taught me most of what I know about trumpet,” he says. “I started playing when I was around 7 or 8 years old. I used to play piano, but just by ear. I played by myself, inventing things, but the trumpet was different. I was instructed by my father in a very strict and methodical way. He taught me how to play classical music, and he taught me how to play classical Arabic music as well.”
The young Maalouf learned well. He’s had a successful classical career, winning numerous international awards for his trumpet playing, and he received the first prize at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris. Maalouf, though, is a musical polyglot. “I’ve always listened to American music — not only jazz, American pop, American hip-hop, American country music — all kinds of styles,” he says. “I discovered jazz when I was 15 years old when somebody told me about Miles Davis.”
Maalouf ran across a Miles Davis CD in a shop and bought it. “It was the music Miles Davis recorded for the Louis Malle movie ‘Ascenseur pour l’échafaud’ [“Elevator to the Gallows”]. The thing I really loved was his sound — not necessarily the music he was playing, but the sound — you know, very soft, not much vibrato — velvet! I really loved it. This is what I wanted to do. These last few years I’ve been listening to [American trumpeter] Jon Hassell. He’s created something really unique in the trumpet world.”
Among other trumpeters who have influenced him, Maalouf lists his father first, then Maurice André, followed by Chet Baker and Dizzy Gillespie. Despite all these influences and his many performances with the elite of jazz, Maalouf doesn’t consider himself a jazz musician. “I’m not a jazz trumpet player,” he says. “I’ve played and improvised since I was young. I never learned how to do this. I just do it. My improvisation is not at all in a jazz style. It’s a mix of what’s inside me: my culture, lots of Arab influences, Balkan influences and also lots of classical music and jazz, a little bit of everything. I love jazz so when I play, there’s always a little bit of jazz in it but it’s not the conventional, traditional way jazz musicians improvise.”
It doesn’t matter. Audiences, critics, and his fellow musicians find his work intriguing and enormously entertaining. Presently Maalouf is producing three albums and working on three different movie soundtracks. But he’s so busy, Maalouf admits with a sigh that “I don’t really think of the future. I’m really into now.”
Jack Zimmerman, a recovering trombonist, is a Chicago-based writer and novelist.