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Hafez Modirzadeh Expands Jazz’s Harmonic Foundations on New Album

The tenor saxophonist's new album, Facets, features a piano retuned to play pitches not heard in Western music

Hafez Modirzadeh
Hafez Modirzadeh (photo: Jill Steinberg)

Hafez Modirzadeh was surprised when he translated a Russian review of Facets, his newest album, which features a piano meticulously retuned so it can play eight pitches not heard in Western music. Although the article was positive, it posited that the Iranian-American tenor saxophonist’s musical approach makes him a “hater of equal temperament.” Amused by the statement, Modirzadeh also wonders if the writer missed the point. “Equal temperament is a beautiful temperament,” he says. “The idea is we’re embracing these eight tones that coexist with equal temperament on the piano. So how can you be a hater?”

On Facets (Pi), pianists Kris Davis, Craig Taborn, and Tyshawn Sorey perform duets with Modirzadeh. The eight piano notes in question—three in the octave above middle C, five in the next octave—create some harmonic combinations that might, to Western ears, sound alternately dissonant or like a compelling blend of two different instruments. Tranquil at some moments, rhythmic at others, the album has the exploratory spirit of jazz, which gets taken someplace else by the unexpected harmonies.

The journey toward this music began during the 1980s. Modirzadeh, who was born in North Carolina and has spent most of his life in California, was an undergrad at San Jose State University when he was introduced to Persian music by master violinist Mahmoud Zoufonoun (1920-2013). Up to that point, he had concentrated on straight-ahead jazz, but he soon set about learning alternate fingerings on his saxophone to get the accurate intonation for koron and sori, Persian notes that might be considered “half-flats” and “half-sharps” in Western theory. “I thought, ‘This is amazing.’ It blew my mind,” Modirzadeh says. “That was the epiphanal moment. I said, ‘How can these two worlds exist together?’”

The answer came in the early ’90s following time at the New England Conservatory, where Modirzadeh studied with George Russell. The saxophonist called his new musical concept “chromodality,” which he introduced on the 1993 album In Chromodal Discourse. Not simply wanting to be considered microtonal or esoteric, he worked to tap into a harmonic language that had room for both Persian notes and 12-note even temperament. “I was trying to express a concept that wasn’t expressed in jazz circles or certainly any others,” he explains. “In Iranian [music], they weren’t looking for what I was looking for. I was looking for where those tones could fit inside of chord changes.”

On 2010’s Radif Suite, Modirzadeh continued his search in collaboration with Iraqi-American trumpeter Amir ElSaffar. He followed that with Post-Chromodal Out, which featured pianist Vijay Iyer using three different temperaments to expand the sound of the music. That album caught Sorey’s ear. “It’s a beautiful kind of resonance,” he says of the music. “It makes you think of other sounds that you hear in nature, as you’re driving in a city, or something like that … things that you wouldn’t necessarily associate with music, per se.” The two kindred spirits eventually met as instructors at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity in 2013.

When it came time to record Facets, Sorey was the only pianist who had played the material on a retuned piano beforehand. In fact, three of Sorey’s performances come from duets he and Modirzadeh performed live at the Jazz Gallery in 2018. “Hafez just gave me one simple instruction: Be musical, and that was it,” Sorey says.

In addition to Modirzadeh’s compositions, Taborn and Davis also interpret two Thelonious Monk compositions on Facets, “Ask Me Now” and “Pannonica.” First, on “Facet 34 Defracted,” Davis mashes them together in a playful solo that Modirzadeh compares to viewing a pencil in water: “It gets bent. It looks a little different.” Then Taborn and Modirzadeh take on both tunes separately, with the pianist sticking to the range of the keyboard that wasn’t retuned. “I’m accompanying him. It’s not a saxophone solo,” Modirzadeh explains. “What I’m playing are all these korons and soris. All these tempered tones.”

Modirzadeh hopes Facets won’t simply be labeled as “Persian-tuned jazz” or some other oversimplistic term. “I’d rather people just hear this and say, ‘There’s a lot more vibrations going on out there. Maybe we can live together,’” he says. “The reality is that we’re embracing and sharing the possibility of equal temperament with everything else.”

East Meets East: Amir ElSaffar & Hafez Modirzadeh

Learn more about Facets on Amazon!

Mike Shanley

Mike Shanley has been a lifelong resident of Pittsburgh and gladly welcomes any visitors to the city, most likely with a cup of coffee in one hand. Over the years, he has written for several alternative weekly papers and played bass guitar in several indie rock bands. He currently writes for the bi-weekly paper Pittsburgh Current and maintains a blog at shanleyonmusic.blogspot.com.