Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Amir ElSaffar Refines His Majestic, Transcendent New Middle Eastern Jazz at NYU

Why would anyone want to see the same band play the same piece more than once? For starters, there are always plenty of surprises when Amir ElSaffar’s Rivers of Sound make their way through Not Two, the visionary multi-instrumentalist/composer’s 2017 suite. From this perspective, was a third time a charm? On one hand, it’s hard to imagine a more transcendent performance of this lavish, titanic work than the album release show in the financial district last June, where they played the whole massive thing. On the other, their show last night at NYU’s Skirball Center was plenty rapturous…and uproariously fun.

Much of the suite is absolutely harrowing, but ElSaffar has a devastating, deadpan wit, and this time out he was in a particularly good mood. A Chicagoan by birth, he was clearly psyched to bring the band back, “Fishtailing all the way,” from a deep-freeze midwestern tour.

What they play is a new kind of music, based on Middle Eastern maqam modes and microtonal scales, but with majestic, sometimes ominous, often stormy group crescendos which draw on the bandleader’s time in Cecil Taylor’s improvisational big band. Although Not Two – whose title speaks to the pitfalls of manichaean thinking – is a fully composed score, ElSaffar will shift gears and call on any number of soloists depending where the seventeen-piece orchestra is going in the moment.

By comparison to the suite’s live debut at Lincoln Center in April of 2015 and then the epic album release show, this one was shorter and seemed more concise. Although much of it is brooding, even shattering, the whole group seemed to be stoked to be off the road and back on their home turf. Maybe as a consequence, solos all around seemed more animated as well – with the exception of tenor saxophonist Ole Mathisen’s two long, methodically suspenseful upward tangents while the band coalesced in a somber grey mist behind him.

The crowd gave their most breathless applause for cellist Naseem Alatrash, whose elegaic, mournfully circling solo early in the suite refused to cave in to any kind of easy resolution. Likewise, he and ElSaffar’s violist sister Dena – leader of the similarly paradigm-shifting, somewhat smaller ensemble Salaam – held the audience rapt with their poignant dialogue a little later on.

Percussionist Tim Moore anchored the suite’s most haunting segment, Ya Ibni, Ya Ibni (My Son, My Son) with a chillingly echoing, funereal thump on frame drum as the group slowly swelled in an invocation of longing and loss. On the other side of the emotional equation, it turned out that the title of Penny Explosion looks back to ElSaffar’s childhood, when he and his sister would fill a jar with pennies – and then dump them on a tile floor, to max out the reverb.

Mohamed Saleh was charged with delivering a handful of the evening’s most pensively resonant solos, both on oboe and english horn. To his left, JD Parran took over the lows on bass sax and also joined the hazy ambience on clarinet. Alto saxophonist Aakash Mittal took two of the night’s most acerbic, intense, chromatically slashing solos; guitarist Miles Okazaki remained in even more low-key, terse mode.

Vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz reveled in the opportunity to fire off endless volleys of microtones while pianist John Escreet punctuated the rings and ripples with an exploratory precision. Oudists Zafer Tawil and Georges Ziadeh built a devastating rustle, eventually joined by buzuq player Tareq Abboushi and bassist Carlo DeRosa, as the night’s vertigo-inducing final number, Shards of Memory/B Half Flat Fantasy, built steam through several surreal variations on themes from throughout the suite. Drummer Adam Cruz, clearly psyched to get the chance to step in, gave the music a spring-loaded swing. Mridangam player Rajna Swaminathan’s stygian bubble was a river of sound all its own, underground.  Driving the highest peaks and most poignant lulls, the composer began with stately ripples on his santoor, rose eventually to blisteringly aching volleys on trumpet and also sang in an impassioned, microtonal baritone.

At the end, they flipped the script with a vaudevillian encore that had everybody laughing out loud: comic relief wasn’t such a bad idea after the intensity. ElSaffar’s next show with this ensemble is on March 3 at 8 PM at the North Beach Bandshell, 7275 Collins Ave. in Miami Beach; cover is $25/$20 stud/srs.

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February 11, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Brooklyn’s Best-Kept Secret

Back in the days before myspace, this was often how you learned about shows: some guy would stand outside a venue after the band had finished and the crowd was exiting, feverishingly handing out cards for another similar show elsewhere. Word of last Saturday’s show reached Lucid Culture HQ via the program notes given out at the scintillating solo oud performance by Zafer Tawil and then George Ziadeh at Barbes last Friday. As it turned out, the Brooklyn Arts Council had been promoting a monthlong Arab music festival at venues throughout New York, which Friday’s show had been a part of, and as much as fun as it undoubtedly would have been to have seen more of these events, it was still great fun to catch the tail end of the festival.

Arab music is Brooklyn’s best-kept secret. Arab culture as it exists today is vastly more musical and literate than corporate-driven American culture, and the Arab diaspora throughout New York swarms to events like these. Saturday night at Alwan for the Arts downtown, it was mostly the diaspora that showed up and packed the hall, although there were other communities represented. Essentially, the program was Arab country music. “These days, you get mostly Levantine dance music and Egyptian pop,” the woman from the BAC told the crowd. “Not that that’s a bad thing!” She was right: this was a brilliantly assembled bill featuring seldom-heard music from across the Arab world, from outside the cities. The night started with singer Naji Youssef and his band, playing a passionate set of Lebanese standards including songs by the “voice of Lebanon,” Wadie el Safi. There’s a darkness and melancholy in a lot of this, and Youssef, with his soaring baritone and his supporting cast, brought out all of it. Maurice Chedid played oud, reminding of how much fun it was back in the day when he was essentially the house band at the Hosri family’s somewhat legendary Cedars of Lebanon throughout the decade of the 90s.

The next act was Yemeni expatriate Ahmed Alrodini, playing oud and backed by two percussionists, doing a fascinating set of music from across Yemen. Most Yemenis in New York hail from around the capitol, Sana’a, but Alrodini comes from the seacoast, thus, his repertoire is somewhat more diverse. He opened with a “habibi” song, imbued with considerable sadness and longing before changing tempos in an instant toward the end of the song and turning it into a dance number. After that, the group did a Hindi love song (the area has a sizeable South Asian population) with more of a hypnotic feel, followed by a brief but rousing drum interlude where they boisterously showcased the area’s various rhythms. They closed with a complex, intriguing pastoral number, Alrodini’s split-second timing and seemingly effortless tremolo-picking as energizing as it was throughout the rest of the show: he’s a spectacular player to watch.

The evening’s final act was essentially a bass-and-drums unit. Southpaw Moroccan multi-instrumentalist Abdel Rahim Boutat played the loutar, a four-string acoustic bass and sang, accompanied by two percussionists. Strangely, the drummers were playing what looked to be modern drum heads that weren’t locked down, producing a shivery rattling throughout the show that may not have been intentional. In the corner of the room, a drunken reveler was clapping and singing along: “Go to the middle!” Youssef encouraged him. Genius: the crowd where the guy had been holding a party for one could hear the music again, and now the band had a dancer up front with them. In his all-too-brief set, Boutat frequently sang the same lines he played on his instrument, running through a set of Moroccan mountain music. It’s more melodic and Arab-inflected than the hypnotic, afropop-inflected music usually found elsewhere in Morroco. With the dancer bouncing around up front, the crowd was energized and so was the band. They opened with a haunting, hypnotic number, then another in a similar vein featuring the percussion toward the end, then brought the night to a rousing crescendo with their third song. Bass and drums never sounded more melodic or more interesting, as the crowd seized on the counter-rhythm and clapped along. The hypnotic yet ecstatic party ambience continued through the end of the show.

Even if you don’t speak a word of Arabic, concerts like these are a great introduction to what could become a lifelong addiction: the calendar at Alwan for the Arts is a good place to start.

April 2, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment