Don’t jump to conclusions about trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf’s music. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on Diagnostic (the third album in a triptych that also includes 2007’s Diasporas and 2009’s Diachronism), an unforeseen twist will cause your theory to crumble. But seldom has being wrong felt so right.
A globe’s worth of influences interact on the album, which makes sense given that Maalouf was born in Lebanon but makes his home in France and recorded his latest with Zalindê, a 17-member all-female ensemble with a Brazilian flair. But just as important as the multi-cultural touchstones is the push and pull between Maalouf’s classical training and his jazz instincts. The juxtaposition of these elements infuses the tracks with a fascinating sense of tension that’s formal and restrained one moment and bursting with passion at its messiest the next.
The title track, for instance, is a beguiling miniature, with gently twinkling piano forming the backdrop for a subtly inquisitive Maalouf solo. But while the following song, “Beirut,” features a decidedly low-key introductory section, Maalouf’s playing ripens over the course of the tune, which in its final third bursts into a flurry of prog-rock guitar that’s as incongruous as it is thrilling.
Such shifts seem capable of giving listeners whiplash. Yet somehow “Will Soon Be a Woman,” which suggests a mildly baroque variation on ’60s-era Ennio Morricone, retains a philosophical kinship with “Maeva in the Wonderland,” with its bottomless percussion thumps, sprightly piano and brass splats, and even with “They Don’t Care About Us,” a Michael Jackson cover given an Arabic makeover that transforms the tune into either a rousing party or a wild protest — or perhaps both.
Why Diagnostic works is a mystery, but it’s one well worth repeated investigation.