Transcendent sound is the rarest kind. Dedicated musicians are always striving to get past the body, above the mud, and have a cup of tea with the infinite. But transcendence doesn’t come cheap. First you need something to transcend.
Pain, that is. Like John Coltrane, playing through rotted teeth and liver failure on A Love Supreme. Or Charles Lloyd, who melted into advanced degrees of transparency in the ’90s following a near fatal illness. Or Leni Stern, who dodged cancer and found new heights/depths in her songs and sounds. Or Etta James in R&B, or Schubert in classical music, or keep listing till you’re tired.
The subject crops up because Masters of Persian Music are coming. These four pull off quite a feat: They tap and transcend the pain of a whole culture through modern interpretations of its classical tradition. You’d almost think they were present during the many centuries when Persia/Iran, formerly the world’s greatest empire, underwent its stages of enslavement and revival. Sufism flourished and was repressed and rose again; Arabs, Afghans and Mongols invaded; Western influences ebbed and flowed like an acid tide; respites from war were brief. How can musicians reflect all that?
Obviously they’ve got to be proficient, and the Masters aren’t called that for nothing. A tougher trick: They can’t sound slick. The lyrics of the Sufi poet Rumi (“My spirits and my cravings, my garden and my spring!”) gush from the heart, and vocalist Mohammad Reza Shajarian never comes off like a trained classical gymnast — he means it, man! On tombak, Homayoun Shajarian shoulders the roles of drum, foundation and unifier — one guy, slapping whole and solid. Kayhan Kalhor’s kamancheh (spike fiddle) must have gut strings, ’cause guts is what he’s got, delivering the grandeur with roughspun folkiness and genuine heat. And the great, great Hossein Alizadeh plucks his tar with a mixture of dynamism and passion that makes you forget how damn difficult his runs are; let’s hope he gets some serious solo space, because this blazer’s improvisations can get you crawling up your own spine.
Since the Iran-hatin’ pendulum has swung ’round again, it’s interesting to note that Alizadeh’s last album, Endless Vision, was denied release in his home country because a woman sang on it alongside men. Two years later, the decision was reversed. Iran, you see, experiences a range of opinions.
Iran’s classical repertoire runs intricate and deep, offering up its arabesque symmetries as an abstraction of emotion, a prayer for transcendence. One of these millennia, America will boast a classical tradition to match it. But before then, we’ll have to face a world of hurt.
Masters of Persian Music play UCLA’s Royce Hall on Thursday, March 16. Call (310) 825-2101 or visit www.uclalive.com.