A jazz convergence with Hafez Modirzadeh

Hafez Modirzadeh: playing Berkeley on xxx. Photo: Andrew Nozaka
Hafez Modirzadeh: playing Berkeley on Friday, May 22. Photo: Andrew Nozaka

Conversations with Hafez Modirzadeh often swerve in unexpected directions. The Iranian-American saxophonist/composer is a confidant of jazz legends like Ornette Coleman and a mentor to cutting edge stars like Vijay Iyer. Always looking to expand his conceptual framework, he’s created an enthralling body of music that encompasses classical modes from Persian, Arabic and Turkish music and beyond. A longtime professor of music at San Francisco State where he’s the co-director of Jazz and World Music Studies, Modirzadeh plays an extremely rare East Bay concert 8 p.m. Friday at the California Jazz Conservatory with pianist Mark Levine, bassist John Wiitala and drummer Akira Tana.

Catching up with Modirzadeh recently by phone from his home in San Jose he was eager to discuss his recent Fulbright-funded sojourn to Turkey, but first he wanted to talk about last week’s front page New York Times story about an 11-year-old piano prodigy from Jakarta.

Reading the profile and watching the video, Modirzadeh recalled a premonition about “varieties of intonation eventually coming from our youth to advance consciousness through sound. There’s something about where he’s from, a clear inspiration from gamelan, the shimmer in the beat between the instruments. That’s a key element in a lot of the music I’ve been trying to develop, and I believe that shimmering resonance is at hand, and with it comes our humanity’s resolution!”

This may sound like flighty stuff, but Modirzadeh makes fascinating connections wherever he goes. During his recent trip to Ankara, he was studying with a Turkish composer who happened to have a copy of Mark Levine’s classic The Jazz Theory Book in German on his piano, which led to a conversation about Levine, the veteran Bay Area jazz pianist and educator.


“I’ve known Mark for a long time,” Modirzadeh says. “I’d sub for him in his jazz theory classes at the San Francisco Conservatory. When I came back from Turkey I called him right away and was so glad he was able to do this show.”

Ace bassist John Wiitala and drummer Akira Tana, who’s recorded with jazz legends from Milt Jackson and Zoot Sims to J.J. Johnson and Art Farmer, played on Modirzadeh’s beautiful 2003 album Dandelion, which is why he says “I feel trust and comfort and support from these guys.”

An SF State student of Modirzadeh’s, Iranian-born percussionist Pezhham Akhavass, will sit in on several pieces during the concert, which will include standards like “What’s New” and blues as well as some original long-metered pieces by the saxophonist. For Modirzadeh, the concert serves as a warm up for next week’s performance at the Ferus Festival in Brooklyn, where he’s performing duo with pianist Leo Genovese (best known for his work touring and recording with bass star Esperanza Spalding).

Though esteemed by his musical colleagues, Modirzadeh is something of a Bay Area secret. Some years ago avant-garde patriarch Ornette Coleman invited him on stage at a San Francisco Jazz Festival concert to play with his quartet. Modirzadeh delivered an epic statement then left the stage unannounced, leaving most of the audience unaware they had just witnessed a hometown hero’s remarkable encounter. Like many musicians, Modirzadeh is averse to self-promotion, but he’s also tends to focus on big ideas rather than the hustle for gigs.

“I don’t play much locally,” he admits. “I get preoccupied with my job at SF State and my family in San Jose. I get caught up in the search for sound and the music.”

Few musicians in recent years have searched more widely or found more interesting resonances than Modirzadeh. He’s documented his far-reaching musical explorations on a series of brilliant albums for Pi Recordings, such as his 2010 collaboration with Iraqi-American trumpeter Amir ElSaffar, Radif Suite, and 2012’s Post-Chromodal Out! featuring ElSaffar, bassist Ken Filiano, drummer Royal Hartigan, and pianist Vijay Iyer. Already on treacherous harmonic territory while exploring the radif, brief melodic pieces linked to Persian classical modes, Iyer provides the glue that holds the suite together while navigating a retuned piano.

Iyer, a recently minted professor at Harvard University, first met Modirzadeh while pursuing a doctorate in physics at UC Berkeley in the mid-1990s. They were both associated with AsianImprov, a collective devoted to advancing adventurous Asian-American jazz artists, and Iyer vividly remembers attending the concert marking the release of Modirzadeh’s debut album, 1993’s In Chromodal Discourse (AsianImprov).


“Hafez just blew my mind completely,” Iyer told me in an interview several years ago. “I was amazed and inspired and terrified by what he was achieving. The music was so bold and beautiful, and had such rigor and autonomy. Then I’d see him crop up in interesting places, with E.W. Wainwright, or Peter Apfelbaum, or Ann Dyer, and every time he would bring something to the table no one else had, just expand the situation in such an inspiring way.”

Recommended gig: The NextNow Performance Series

The NextNow Performance Series returns to the Berkeley Arts Festival performance space at 2133 University Avenue for a three-day fundraiser benefiting the Homeless Action Center. Running from 6:30-10 pm Friday, and noon to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, the event brings together a diverse array of artists from the Bay Area’s new music scene. All three evenings will include performances pairing live music with visual and performance elements such as film, dance, installation, and spoken word. Improvisation is the name of the game, particularly Saturday and Sunday afternoons, when performances will be interspersed with ad hoc ensembles drawn from performers and musicians in the audience.

Among the featured acts are guitarist Henry Kaiser and Tania Chen on piano and electronics; the trio of saxophonist Josh Allen, drummer Tim Orr and guitarist John Finkbeiner; and Swedish saxophonist Biggi Vinkeloe with L.A.-based flutist/vocalist/composer Emily Hay and pianist Motoko Honda. Vinkeloe also joins Scott R. Loney and Donald Robinson in the group Innuendo. Guitarist Ross Hammond plays solo, and cellist Crystal Pascucci performs with saxophonist Steve Adams and drummer Vijay Anderson. For a complete list of artists with approximate performance times and more information on NextNow see: http://nextnow.edgebuzz.tv or email info@nextnow.edgebuzz.tv . For more on the Homeless Action Center see http://homelessactioncenter.org

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