For clarinetist, composer, and improviser James Falzone, a quote from the anti-war protest singer Phil Ochs resonates with him in the post-9/11 world: “In such ugly times, the only true protest is beauty.”
Observing the great lack of understanding between the western world and the Arabic world, Falzone created pieces that were inspired by the centuries-old song concept of the lament, recorded and compiled on the 2010 album Lamentations by his ensemble Allos Musica Trio.
A celebrated clarinet virtuoso whose home base is Chicago, Falzone has a strong background in jazz that is enhanced by his studies in Arabic music, and his interest was piqued earlier in his musical life by listening to the multicultural work of Peter Gabriel. While a lament can express grief and sadness, it could also be an expression of concern, and it is not necessarily gloomy music; Falzone’s laments are pensive and fascinating, while also spirited and kinetic, with improvisational moments built into his compositions.
In advance of his Chattanooga show with Allos Musica Trio, Falzone answered some questions for The Pulse.
The Pulse: Did any specific experiences or stories inspire your compositions on Lamentations?
James Falzone: Most of my laments were meditations on time: the slowness of it and the lack of change that can sometimes happen in life or culture, or the never-ending persistence of time—that it refuses to allow us to catch our breath at times. All this was wrapped up in the wars being fought in Iraq and Afghanistan and the fact that at the same time I was studying and investigating Arabic music and culture, my country was growing more and more suspicious of the same.
TP: How did you assemble the group? What strengths do the other players bring to the trio?
JF: I have played with Tim Mulvenna since the mid-1990s, mostly in jazz contexts, but I know Tim to be an incredible hand drummer and percussionist and a thoughtful rhythmic accompanist. He has impeccable taste and thinks like a composer. [Oud player] Ronnie Malley is an incredibly diverse musician who is deeply steeped in Arabic music traditions but also open to other styles and synthesizing that tradition with others. Both Tim and Ronnie bring to the ensemble a simpatico with my own views on music making, which is striving for honesty and depth at all levels.
TP: You’ve said that you don’t play strictly traditional Arabic music but you create compositions that indulge this aesthetic. How does this differ from “World Music Soup” as you’ve referred to it?
JF: “World Music Soup” winds up being music that dabbles in various cultural reference points with no real vision for what it is you are trying to do with those references. If you’re trying to play “traditional” music, be that Arabic or bluegrass or Irish, whatever, and your vision/goal is to learn this tradition and play that music in an authentic manner, then great, go for it. Study and steep yourself in the idiom and make it authentic.
But my vision for Allos Musica is to create my own music that has synthesized the references of my studies and interests but is not intending to be “authentic.” Nobody who knows Arabic music well will think Allos Musica Trio is “traditional,” but they would also recognize the allusions to the tradition and that those allusions are honest and studied.
TP: What are your thoughts on improvisation?
JF: I believe an improviser needs to have true command over their instrument so that it is an extension of their subconscious. This takes a tremendous amount of practice time on the instrument and a universal knowledge of theory and history. At the same time, an improviser must remain humble, allowing the moment to dictate what is needed from them. A great improviser is a virtuoso who submits their ability to the needs of the moment.