A Magic Flute

A Magic Flute

by Mike Zwerin

copyright © 2003 Mike Zwerin

Paris: On Saturday, September 20, at the Trianon club in Montmartre, the young French flutist and bandleader Magic Malik took jazz into uncharted territory when he presided over a happening that combined the music with chess.

Although not exactly a chess grand master, he did win a mid-level cup recently and he loves the game. He finds openings, gambits and end games in chess and jazz alike, and they both involve theme and variations -- he works a lot with that.

Most jazz flutists have been saxophonists doubling. Eric Dolphy, Joe Farrell, Lew Tabackin and James Moody were basically doublers. Malik, on the other hand, feels that, "the flute is an instrument all by itself. If you play sax, too. it's like speaking Spanish and Italian at the same time. I started with the flute, I'll finish with the flute."

From time to time, he also sings. Trying to "make the flute a two-voiced instrument," he's learning how to play two-part Bach, singing one of the parts multiphonically. Improvising, he sometimes hums and shouts along with himself, in homage to Rahsaan Roland Kirk, one of his heroes. "Kirk combined the intellectual with the physical in a unique way," he said. "No other flutist ever touched me so deeply." Malik also lists J.S. Bach, George Benson, James Galway and John Scofield among his musical mentors.

Jazz and chess day on the 20 started about one p.m. with a chess tournament accompanied and punctuated by soft acoustic music, not necessarily jazz. He'd invited friends to play both. (There were also mime and photography presentations.) The evening concert included two DJs, elaborate electronic effects and guest soloists. Malik, who expected it all to end around two in the morning, explained: "As long as I'm living in a big city like Paris, I'd like to try and do something a bit bigger."

Born Malik Mezzadri in the Ivory Coast from an Ivorian father and a French mother, he grew up in Guadeloupe with his mother and a stepfather, a theater director. The theater played an important role in his childhood. His biological father had come from a nomad tribe and Malik considers himself "a nomad by inheritance." He combines the lights of the big city with a life on water by living on a boat ("Neptune"), anchored near the Bastille. With his pilot's license, he can take regular trips up and down the Seine and the Marne.

After graduating from the Marseille Conservatory of Music, he worked with such French pop-oriented jazz groups as St. Germain and Julien Lourau's Groove Gang in Germany, China, Africa and Latin America as well as France. He has never performed in the U.S. For four years, he's been leading the Magic Malik Orchestra -- in fact, a quintet. It has become one of those rare events in jazz, a working band. "We're lucky," Malik said. "We get enough work to be able to continue to stay together without having to compromise."

It's more than luck. The originality of his delicate balance between territories is impressive. He is proposing another texture. Given its folkish melodies, rock and reggae feel, abstract flurries, whole-tone sequences, computer programs and his sophisticated funky flute lines, traditionalists do not quite know what to make of Malik's music. Malik once called himself a "self-taught dilettante." He has said that he likes to blow into bottles: "It can sound like a DJ scratching." He can talk about Django, Ravel and Stockhausen. On his recent double-CD 00-237 (Label Blue), the fertile mix is enriched by several guest appearances by Steve Coleman. (A single CD would probably have been enough.)

Malik prefers the departure point to be determined in advance by "old-fashioned notes written on paper," but after that there are variations. "I don't like it when jazz gets too theoretical," he said. "'Musique Contemporain' can take care of that department. I hope my music is intellectually satisfying, but it's also supposed to make the body move.

"What I like about jazz is that it's as valid as any other music worth devoting your life to -- but at the same time it's popular music. That doesn't mean stupid music. You have to judge pop music from its own point of view and to learn from it -- to learn tolerance at the very least.

"Pop musicians like Prince, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye have a special combination of quality and humanity. Sting writes beautiful songs -- I've been trying to reharmonize them. I love what jazzmen do with popular songs. Like Miles Davis with [Cindy Lauper's] 'Time After Time.' They transform something made for the masses into a personal statement. They can make the most subtle, complicated music out of the most simple material. I'm going to do something like that on my next album. It's provocative."

Mike Zwerin published this piece originally in the International Herald Tribune. Ed. Howard Mandel, a flute freak, wants to comment that regardless of their sax doubling, players such as Wess, Moody, Mann, Tabackin, Dolphy, Kirk and Lateef all contributed significantly and specifically to flute language.

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