As soon as I started listening to “Intizar,” the first and title track on this beautiful album by the Rembrandt Trio and the Iranian classical singer Mohammad Motamedi, I thought I was hearing a santur, the Iranian hammer dulcimer. Then I thought, no, that sounds kind of like a piano … but it turns out it’s something even more complicated than that, in a way that’s illustrative of the ideas and performances recorded here.
The Netherlands-based Rembrandt Trio is led by jazz keyboard player Rembrandt Frerichs, with Tony Overwater (double bass and violone) and Vinsent Planjer (drums and percussion). They have collaborated before with Iranian musicians on instrumental projects. This time out they’re working with the highly respected singer Mohammad Motamedi, a gifted improviser and student of Persian poetry both secular and spiritual. The album is a blend of songs from the spiritual Persian tradition and more worldly songs, and some pieces improvised by the trio; over them all, Motamedi chooses a piece of poetry to improvize over the music, which includes influences from Persian and Western classical traditions as well as jazz.
Adding to the unique nature of the project is the trio’s penchant for using antique and rare instruments including old church organs (the album was recorded in a former church in Amsterdam converted into an organ concert hall) and antique fortepianos; Overwater a violone, a bass member of the viol da gamba family; and Planjer a set of percussion instruments from various cultures and periods that he calls a whisperkit. They’re joined on some of these pieces by violinist Myrthe Helder, cellist Maya Fridman and clarinetist Maarten Ornstein, giving them a sound that blends chamber music and jazz. Motamedi has an amazing vocal range, and sings most often here in what I’d call a tenor.
Persian music, like other Middle Eastern styles, has a modal nature and uses microtonal ranges, while European music uses harmony and tempered tuning. It’s hard to combine the two. The fortepiano, a predecessor of modern pianos that was used by Mozart for example, is actually similar in construction and sound to the santur, and Frerichs has adapted it for use in his collaborations with Persian musicians. So that’s what I was hearing in the beautiful opening passage of “Intizar.” This song is one that employs the chamber jazz players to great effect, particularly in Ornstein’s jazz informed clarinet solo. It’s an emotional song of nostalgia, love and longing that Motamedi remembers from childhood, which can also be understood as a longing for a return to less repressive times in Iran, which is a subtle recurring theme.
Planjer’s whisperkit is front and center on “Dami Ba Gham,” a duet in 7/8 by the drummer and Motamedi that dramatizes a work by the great 12-century Persian poet Hafez. Planjer’s percussion rides a line between Middle Eastern and hip-hop, and Motamedi’s improvized interpretation of Hafez’s words is just as exciting. The poem is on a familiar theme around the world: a little wine and happiness are better than riches and power:
The grandeur of a king’s crown, though it inspires fear,
Is a charming hat, but it’s not worth losing your head.
Like Hafez, strive for contentment and leave behind the world’s madness,
For a single sip of happiness, two hundred tons of gold are not worth it.
Another real gem, to my ear, is “Kouze Gar (The Potter),” an Omar Khayyam poem set to music by Overwater. It employs droning bass and cello strings behind Motamedi’s dramatic, soaring recitative vocals, with color from Rembrandt’s pianoforte and Ornstein’s clarinet. The album ends on an equally strong note, with Motamedi reciting a fragment of another Hafez verse over modernist improvizing by the trio. I’m reminded of Katayoun Goudarzi’s poetic recitations of Rumi’s ghazals. This one is given the translated title “An advice from Hafez,” and reads in part:
Listen to my advice and don’t make excuses,
Accept whatever the kindhearted advisor tells you.
Enjoy the company of the young while you can,
For life is full of tricks and traps when you are old.
In all kinds of ways, Intizar is an impressive album.
(NativeDSD Music, 2023)