Rembrandt Trio with Hossain Alizâdeh – ‘Same Self, Same Silence’
(Just Listen Records JL007. Review by Julian Maynard-Smith)
Given its name, it’s not surprising that the Rembrandt Trio is from the Netherlands. What is surprising is the instrumentation. On this album the trio’s pianist/leader Rembrandt Frerichs plays (along with occasional harmonium) a fortepiano that is an exact copy from 2014 of an instrument by Anton Walter that Mozart had in his house at the end of the composer’s life; bassist Tony Overwater plays a violone (bass viol with six strings); and drummer Vincent Planjer plays what he calls the ‘whisper kit’, his own eclectic collection of percussion from different cultures and eras. With Iranian musician Hossain Alizâdeh joining on shurangiz (a Persian long-necked six-stringed lute), however, the trio’s unusual instrumentation makes sense.
Hossain Alizâdeh is renowned as a classical player and innovator in Persian music, with a concerto and film scores to his name. For Same Self, Same Silence, he collected traditional Iranian folk songs based on nava, one of the oldest dastgāhs (Persian modes) known for its meditative quality. The problem for western instruments is that the dastgāhs require quarter tones. Overwater solved the problem by adding frets to his violone, and Frerichs by retuning a couple of keys. ‘In this D minor colour that we play in on the album called dastgāh nava,’ Frerich explains, ‘I have tuned up the Eb and Bb in the middle register by a quarter tone, to make my piano sound in the original colours and flavours of this specific tonal system. In this way my fortepiano blends in with Hossein’s instrument in such a way that it’s sometimes hard to tell who’s playing, Hossein or myself.’
It’s not the first time the trio has played these instruments nor with an Iranian musician: witness It’s Still Autumn (2019) with Kayhan Kalhor playing the kamancheh (an Iranian knee violin); and The Contemporary Fortepiano (2018), where the trio played originals in the European jazz tradition using their unusual instrumentation (but with conventional tuning) to refreshing effect.
It sounds complicated, but it really works and the results are beautiful. The fortepiano is closer to the timbre of Persian music than a modern pianoforte and easier to retune, the challenge for Frerich being that quarter tones exclude the use of chords – a problem he solves by taking a highly melodic approach reminiscent of players of the santur (Persian hammered dulcimer). Overwater’s violone manages to sound like a double bass in the lower register but, in the upper register, close to a lute and so providing an effective counterpoint to Alizâdeh’s shurangiz; and Planjer’s appropriately named whisper kit is quiet enough not to overwhelm the delicate sound of the shurangiz – especially as Planjer plays with his fingers rather than sticks, just as the tombak (Persian drum) is traditionally played.
As a listener attuned to equal temperament, I took a moment to adjust to the quarter-tone tuning of the fortepiano – and I suspect it’s why Frerichs placed his piano solo piece Rembrandinejad seventh out of nine in the track listing. But it really was only a moment, the beauty of the music soon overwhelming any initial discomfort. The moods of the other pieces range from the brooding and sombre Daramad and Torkeman, which bookend the album; to the slow dance or march feel of Sama, a tune that also appears on the Alizâdeh album Badeh Toei, which the Rembrandt Trio studied in depth and transcribed before partnering with Alizâdeh; to the chamber-music introspection of Kereshmeh; to a showcase for Alizâdeh’s solo playing on Intro to Neyshaburak followed by fine duetting between shurangiz and percussion on Neyshaburak; to the tightly woven ensemble pieces Sarmast and Nahoft.
The album’s title is taken from a poem by the living Iranian poet Mohammed Reza Shafiei Kadkani entitled Hallaj, after the 10th century Sufi mystic Mansur al-Hallaj, best known for his saying ‘I am the Truth’ and sentenced to death for political and religious reasons. In these troubled times of cultural clashes and the twilight of Trump’s hideous legacy, listening to an album that brings together diverse cultures to such beautiful effect, with musicians literally attuned to each other (those quarter tones), feels like a much needed balm for the soul.