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Kayhan Kalhor

By Phil Freeman
Published March 13, 2007

Improvisation is linked strongly with jazz, or jam bands, in Western music fans’ consciousnesses. But improv has a long and storied history in other cultures, particularly in Asia and the Middle East. Kayhan Kalhor, an Iranian-born master of the kamancheh (a three-stringed instrument similar to a violin), has been playing since the age of seven, composing for famous vocalists like Mohammad Reza Shajarian and Shahram Nazeri. Since 1997, he’s been a member of the group Ghazal, performing Indian fusion music. All of Kalhor’s music crosses national and traditional boundaries in pursuit of transcendence and beauty, wherever it’s to be found.

Kalhor’s partner on the brand-new disc The Wind (ECM) is Erdal Erzincan, a Turkish baglama player. The disc’s twelve untitled tracks are all improvised collaborations between the two men, bolstered by bass saz from Ulas Özdemir, who also served as translator while Kalhor was traveling back and forth to Istanbul, searching for melodies he and Erzincan could use as starting points for their musical journeys. Kalhor says of his partner on The Wind, “I appreciated at once that Erdal is a very good musician, a very serious baglama player...I explained to him, ‘I’m looking for something that departs from nothing and then goes into developing material and then goes into something else really improvised. Maybe we’ll go for a climax in terms of melody and energy and keep it there…And I’m looking at this for a form for maybe an hour of music.’ And he said, ‘I haven’t done that before, but I would like to do this.’ And he showed that he was indeed very much able to do this, and many of the things he played surprised and delighted me.” The results are a thrilling and beautiful example of duo improvisation in a thoroughly non-Western tradition.