Maalouf Masters of the Quarter-Tone Trumpet

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Lebanese-born father Nassim Maalouf and son Ibrahim Maalouf are two unusual trumpet players, who play quarter-tone trumpets to achieve the “notes between the notes”—half-sharps and half-flats—characteristic of Arabic melodies. The classical Arabic maqamat is comprised of 55 different melodic scales and modes that utilize both quarter- and three-quarter tone intervals, which standard trumpets are unable to reach.

Quarter-Tone Trumpet
A quarter-tone trumpet. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Take a look at this quarter-tone trumpet, and you’ll notice four valves (or keys) instead of the usual three. Valves are where a player’s fingers press down to adjust the pitch. Standard trumpets have only three valves, but by enlisting help from craftsman Michel Wikrikaz of the Paris-based Henri Selmer instrument manufacturing company back in the 1960s, Nassim designed his own quarter-tone trumpet so that he could shift fluidly between the Western classical canon and the rich traditional Arabic musical repertoire.

The only other quarter-tone trumpet players I can think of are LA-based avant-garde composer, Jon Hassell (known for his unreal soundscapes), and the late American jazz trumpeter, Don Ellis, who explored classical Indian microtones and experimented with new music tonalities and intervals during the 1960s.

I personally love quarter-tones because they open up an entire range of expression beyond that of our Western system of two whole tones, then a half-tone, followed by two more whole tones, and another half-tone. In the key of C major that would be: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C A quarter-tone scale doubles these notes, creating a full 16-note octave. To Western ears, quarter-tones might sound like the wrong notes being played, but, similar to the flatted fifth in blues music, that’s where the edge—the real juice—is.

Ibrahim remarked in an interview he did with NPR last year that his father “is not too keen on his current career path.” Following in his father’s footsteps, Ibrahim attended the venerable Parisian Conservatoire de Paris and mastered both Western and Arabic music. However, Ibrahim eventually broke with tradition when he became enamored with jazz and has since collaborated with artists of all genres. Drawing from these many influences, Ibrahim has cultivated his own signature style that explores and contemporizes the intersection of jazz and Arabic traditions, infused with influences ranging from contemporary rock and funk to even electronic. I’ve featured both father and son’s music on my KCRW programs over the years and wrote a previous post about Ibrahim that you can read by clicking here.

Pardon the French, but at the very beginning of this clip, Nassim Malouf demonstrates the tonal differences between the Western C major scale and its corresponding Arabic maqam.

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And a second clip of son Ibrahim Maalouf in concert.

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