Video presentation and photography by Molly Sheridan
The approach to improvisation that the recently deceased Ornette Coleman pioneered in the late 1950s and early 1960s was one of music’s seismic shifts. Though Coleman was certainly not the only person to break away from the underpinning of chord progressions, the title of Coleman’s 1960 Atlantic double quartet album, Free Jazz, and his musical philosophy of “harmolodics,” gave the new music a name as well as a raison d’etre. There’s a transformation of similar significance happening in improvised music right now involving the embrace of a greater intervallic palette. Bay Area-based composer, saxophonist, and musical theorist Hafez Modirzadeh, a great admirer of Coleman, has been one of the key architects of this intervallic expansion.
Of course, jazz soloists have played pitches outside of conventional 12-tone equal temperament from the very beginning. And later on, many of the non-keyboard playing advocates of free jazz purposefully eschewed the piano—Coleman in particular—not only to avoid being influenced by possible chordal underpinnings but also to avoid a fixed tuning. By the 1960s, some iconoclastic musicians—such as Don Ellis, Emil Richards, and Joe Maneri—began taking a more systemic approach to improvising microtonally. In the early 1990s, even one of the most prominent free jazz pianists, Marilyn Crispell, found a way around her instrument’s de facto pitch limitations, recording a series of sprawling duets on retuned pianos with Georg Graewe. But whereas each of those instances was somewhat anomalous, a more inclusive attitude about pitch seems to be one of the defining qualities of a great deal of recent improvisationally oriented music, whether it’s the Middle Eastern-infused suites of Amir ElSaffar, the untempered multicultural tapestries of Bill Cole, the spectral octet of Steve Lehman, or the sonic explorations of Modirzadeh. Modirzadeh has even coined a harmolodic-sounding word for his approach, chromodal, though he is leery of terminology getting in the way of possibility.
“It’s better sometimes when there are no names because then you can’t own it,” he explained when we met with him at the aptly named Pioneer Works, a performance space in a converted warehouse near the Brooklyn waterfront. “When an idea becomes an ideology it gets dangerous. … You get in a position where you have to call it something; you put a flag in there because you’re doing something that sounds different nor unusual—that horrible word new. … But as Ornette said, ‘It’s just an invention; we’re a creation.’”
For Modirzadeh, who for a time was a key sideman in the revolutionary big band led by the late Fred Ho, being open to a wider range of pitches, and exploring them on his saxophone, is also an important political statement.
All the [saxophone’s] materials come up from the Congo, from the lifeblood of the African peoples. The zinc and copper that goes into the brass, the rubber, the cork, the reed—so much were taken from what they called the Belgian Congo. … Chromodality is a way of looking at the spectrum of relationships in the universe… It helps me understand where I’m going to place tones when I practice, not to counter things so much as to complement them. Working [with] these twelve—what they call—half-steps, or semitones, is very problematic because it dominates and in the rest of the world not everyone is working in this system. The particular system of chromaticism really took hold during the peak of the age of colonialism. That same mindset that calls something a semitone happened to also call someone a semi-human being. So when someone says to me, ‘Oh, you play quarter steps.’ If I try to explain it in quantitative terms, like three-quarter tones, I think. ‘We’re tones. Are you a three-quarter human being?’ We’re all different heights, but we’re all whole human.
But unlike most of the other improvisatory pitch pioneers, Modirzadeh does not avoid using a piano. Instead, he carries around a tuning wrench which he wields like a weapon in the quest to effect intervallic change.
“The piano is this sacred cow that has to be sacrificed,” he declares. “When the piano comes into it, everything gets quantified. In a way it’s beautiful geometry and infinite symmetry, but if you tweak a few tones, then you’ve punctured that circle. With every puncturing there’s some blood, but you’re into the human experience of being incomplete.”
As you might imagine, showing up at venues and sticking a wrench inside their pianos does not always ingratiate Modirzadeh with the management, but he is undeterred and has managed to convince many of today’s most forward-thinking musicians to accompany him on his quest. For his groundbreaking 2012 album Post-Chromodal Out!, he was joined by ElSaffar, bassist Ken Filiano, and percussionist royal hartigan, as well as Vijay Iyer on the retuned piano, which elicited from him some of his most inspired solos. On Modirzadeh’s latest release, In Convergence Liberation (2014), he worked with a group of traditional Iranian musicians as well as Argentine-Mexican vocalist Mili Bermejo and the string quartet ETHEL. Still, no matter how many high-profile collaborators Modirzadeh has been able to bring on board, he knows that what he is doing is far removed from the commercial mainstream and he has no problem with that.
“You can tell when it’s about the money and you can tell when it is the money,” he opined. “It helps when it’s not about the money; working with the sound itself and the friendships—that’s the money. The musicians that lend themselves to these ideas I’m trying to work out have ideas of their own, so it becomes like a collective. Ultimately I’m not comfortable with side men—side people—being part of projects; it’s a common mission. It’s not a question of ownership—that would be about the money; it’s about a larger picture. It’s joyful. It keeps you alive and connected. … For all of us who begin on this path, these things become a bridge to get somewhere. You don’t live on or under the bridge; you just cross it.”