Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Hamid Al-Saadi Makes a Transcendent North American Debut

Hamid Al-Saadi and the Iraqi Maqam Ensemble made a transcendent North American debut at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine tonight, one of the highlights of a week of Iraqi cultural events sponsored by downtown hotspot Alwan for the Arts. Al-Saadi is widely considered the world’s foremost singer of Iraqi maqam music, a once-popular style now more widely performed throughout the Iraqi diaspora than where it began. Because there are vastly more Iraqi maqam modes than western musical scales, the repertoire is vast (Al-Saadi is said to have mastered it in its entirety) and so is the emotional terrain it covers. This being a historic event, the crowd was silent and rapt during the beginning of the show, but it wasn’t long before the clapping and singing along began. The choice of St. John the Divine as a venue was brilliant, the natural reverb bringing Al-Saadi’s highly ornamented, minutely nuanced vocals into intensely close focus against the sometimes plaintive, sometimes jaunty backdrop of Dakhil Ahmed’s raw, rustic jowza fiddle, Amir ElSaffar’s precisely rippling santoor and Sabah Kadhum’s hypnotically booming goblet drum.

By and large, outside of the west, cultures don’t invest much energy trying to establish boundaries between classical and so-called popular music. This concert had all the intensity and rigor of a classical performance and the improvisational electricity of a jazz show. Al-Saadi’s melismatic baritone, as he went down the scale, was sometimes aching and haunting, other times mystical and occasionally laced with humor – there were a few lyrics made up on the spot to go with the music. Likewise, Al-Saadi would occasionally turn a verse over to Ahmed, who also turned out to be both a fine singer and a solid percussionist, nonchalantly demonstrating his chops through a long, trance-inducing twin drum solo with Kadhum. Ahmed got most of the instrumental intros, ElSaffar – a student of Al-Saadi and one of the world’s leading advocates for the maqam tradition – finally getting the chance to lead the band on a mysterious tangent into one of the final numbers. As a whole, the show followed a familiar trajectory, beginning serious and viscerally somber in places (these guys are from Iraq – who could possibly blame them?) before picking up with an unexpectedly lighthearted bounce, then moving into more pensive, brooding, often angst-ridden terrain before closing on a fiery, rhythmic note.

When there were vocal harmonies (everybody sang at some point), they added a jarring, almost breathless edge to the music. There was a lot more intricate interplay than straight-up call-and-response between instruments, but the band made the most of those opportunities, whether with a biting, jousting edge, or slowly and meticulously building suspense or intensity when trading bars. The acoustics in the church being what they were, the effect of ElSaffar’s long, sustained, bell-like pedal notes against the almost horn-like resonance of the jowza was otherworldly to the extreme. Maqam music tends to be intimate: this wasn’t, by a long shot, but as the richness of the microtones blended and swirled throughout the vast space, it was sonic heaven. Or as one could say in Arabic, alwan. Al-Saadi has further stops on his debut US tour including March 22 at 8 PM at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago and March 23 at 8 PM at the Hill Auditorium at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. For Illinois and Michigan fans of Iraqi music – or anyone with a fondness for otherworldly, hypnotic, emotionally transporting sounds – these are shows not to be missed.

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March 16, 2013 Posted by | concert, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Naseer Shamma’s First US Concert in Ten Years: Transcendent and Cutting-Edge

There was a point during oudist Naseer Shamma’s sold-out show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art last night where in the middle of an expansive, bucolic theme, he suddenly transformed it into a menacing raga, wailing and then sirening downward on the high strings against an ominously reverberating low note. It was one of many such moments for the Iraq-born, Cairo-based virtuoso, performing with a seven-piece version of his extraordinary Al-Oyoun Ensemble and earning a standing ovation from a crowd that throughout the show spontanteously broke out into clapping and singing along with Shamma’s instrumentals.

His music is as cutting-edge as anything in the Arabic-speaking world, yet remains rooted in ancient traditions and often in familiar themes. Shamma began the concert judiciously with a solo improvisation that rose and fell dramatically, using his fret hand to tap out rapidfire clusters with a precision that was both spectacular and uncanny. The show ended with the ensemble hamming up a bright pastoral theme, nay flute player Hany ElBadry firing off a wildly trilling, buffoonishly masterful display of chops that drew the most explosive applause of the night. In between, the group – which also included Saber AbdelSattar on qanun, Hussein ElGhandour and Said Zaki on violins, Salah Ragab on bass and Amro Mostafa on riq frame drum – made their way through an eclectic program rich with emotion and intensity. Shamma and AbdelSattar engaged in several wryly adrenalized duels and exchanges, while a long, droll call-and-response between the oud and drum grew more amusing as it went on. But as much fun as the band and audience were having, the majority of the themes were sober, even severe, marked by a shared terseness and restraint that often spilled over into unselfconscious plaintiveness as the group mined the microtones of the maqams (Arabic scales) with a sophistication that was stunning both for its technical skill and emotional attunement. This pensive, raw quality may well have had something to do with the fact that this was Shamma’s first American concert in over a decade since he’d boycotted this country throughout the Iraq war.

Opening act the Alwan Arab Music Ensemble (better known as the Alwan All-Stars) were just as cutting-edge and intense. Bandleader/santoor player Amir ElSaffar, who brought this bill together, also programs the music at Alwan for the Arts, the downtown hotspot which has become a home for paradigm-shifting Middle Eastern sounds much as CBGB was for punk rock in the 70s: if you’re somebody in that world, you want to play there. In a set that could have gone on for thee times as long as it did without losing any interest, the group – also including ElSaffar’s virtuoso sister Dena on violin and jowza fiddle, Lety AlNaggar on nay, George Ziadeh on oud, Shusmo bandleader Tareq Abboushi on buzuq, Apostolis Sideris on bass, Zafer Tawil on qanun and percussion, and Johnny Farraj on riq – played variations on an Iraqi repertoire that has all but disappeared since its heyday sixty or seventy years ago. Stately, steady themes were interspersed with solo passages that in the band’s epic second number had been devised to represent the individual styles of the various regions in Iraq. Amir ElSaffar also took care to mention that the mini-suite also memorialized the ten-year anniversary of the Bush regime’s unprovoked invasion of Iraq, which may have accounted for the understatedly brooding, lingering effect of a purposeful but mesmerizing santoor solo, ElSaffar’s sister raising the ante with an edgy intensity before Ziadeh took it back down with a shadowy unease. Let’s hope that it isn’t another ten years before another such a riveting, exhilarating doublebill as this one happens on American turf.

March 9, 2013 Posted by | concert, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble Explores Love and War

Iraq-born trumpeter Amir ElSaffar has been making extraordinary music for several years, most notably with his sister Dena in eclectic pan-levantine band Salaam,and more recently with saxophonist Hafez Modirzadeh . ElSaffar’s latest adventure in east/west cross-pollination, his Two Rivers Ensemble has a new album, Inana, recently out on the adventurous Pi label, that’s a lock for pretty much everybody’s best-of-2011 lists as far as both jazz and Middle Eastern music are concerned. This is ElSaffar’s deepest venture into jazz to date, reminding how well his microtonal quartertone style – which basically doesn’t exist in western music – is suited to American postbop as it is everywhere east of the Nile and many points in between. The album is a thematic suite inspired by the Mesopotamian goddess of love and warfare. The melodies shift seamlessly between Arabic and western jazz modes, and as usual ElSaffar has a sensational band to play them: Shusmo’s Tareq Abboushi on buzuq; Zafer Tawil on oud and percussion; Ole Mathisen on alto sax; Carlo DeRosa on bass and Nasheet Waits on drums. One comparison that springs to mind is Ansambl Mastika, reedman Greg Squared’s deliriously intense pan-Balkan band, which also works many of the same tonalities as this group, although they’re crazier and more improvisational.

The opening track, Dumuzi’s Dream is stunning and intense, ElSaffar’s bright but allusive trumpet contrasting with the suspenseful, rustic, dark levantine groove underneath. Rolling triplets give way to insistence, an otherworldly, spiraling qanun solo, and a biting, pensive oud solo over judicious bass that ElSaffar breaks out of with the Arabic equivalent of major on minor. It’s creepy, and it gives absolutely no idea of how wildly he’s about to take it outside. Meanwhile, Waits proves as comfortably at home moving from one odd (to western ears, anyway) tempo to another, often playing polyrythms against the bass or the rest of the percussion, injecting one counterintuitive, incisive riff after another when he can sneak one in.

That’s sort of a prelude. The suite really gets going with Venus the Evening Star, where the main themes get introduced: this one, a tricky dance with a distinctly Greek shuffle bounce, flutters along amiably until Zawil’s oud solo takes it in a much more ominous direction, DaRosa’s pulse signaling a long, captivating return to the party as ElSaffar casually works his way up to a triumphant note. A suite within a suite, Inna’s Dance coalesces slowly, then sets a catchy, simple trumpet/sax riff over a hypnotic bass vamp, Abboushi adding a thoughtfully energetic sitar-like solo. As it progresses, it takes on a funky edge (that’s Abboushi bringing a little James Brown to the party), Waits and DaRosa’s polyrhythms hypnotic under ElSaffar’s river of microtones.

The warm, stately Lady of Heaven kicks off the most straight-up jazz-oriented section here, simple, sustained trumpet/sax harmonies over clanking buzuq and Waits’ gentle flurries. Infinite Variety picks up the pace, Abboushi reminding that jazz chords are also suited to the buzuq, ElSaffar’s clever arrangement setting up a series of echo permutations against the central bass riff. The big fifteen-minute epic Journey to the Underworld should be Journey Through the Underworld instead: moving from lengthy improvisations for oud and vocals, it reaches unexpectedly upbeat terrain, driven by DeRosa’s insistent bass, then goes murky and rubato until ElSaffar finally signals that the end of the tunnel is in sight, yet almost having to pull the rest of the ensemble out by himself. Those are merely the highlights: it’s an absolutely fascinating, intricately orchestrated performance.

The suite’s concluding segment, Venus the Morning Star, answers the question of what side the goddess will end on: with a return of the simple, supple opening theme, it’s an optimistic, brightly evocative early morning tableau. The final track, Al-Badia, isn’t part of the suite, but it ends the album on the same richly intense note where began, an imaginative blend of oldschool funk and Mohammed Abdel Wahab cinematic hitworthiness, the instruments taking turns nailing the place where the choir would respond as the verse hits a turnaround. The fun the band is having is visceral: count this among the best albums to come over the transom here this year.

November 16, 2011 Posted by | jazz, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rahim AlHaj’s Little Earth Breaks Down Barriers

A protege of legendary Iraqi oud player Munir Bashir, Rahim AlHaj was persecuted and jailed during the Saddam Hussein regime for writing a protest song questioning the Iraq/Iran war. Following his release, he was driven into exile, first in Syria and then eventually the United States, where his sponsoring agency, thinking he would prefer a desert climate, set him up in New Mexico. It wasn’t exactly what AlHaj was hoping for, but in retrospect it seems fortuitous. One of the world’s foremost oud players and composers in his own right, AlHaj’s latest album Little Earth is a cutting-edge collaboration with some unlikely but supremely well-suited suspects, several of whom he met in his new surroundings. To call what he does “world music” is accurate in the purest sense of the word – on this massive two-cd set, AlHaj mixes Iraqi oud styles with American Indian, Greek, Appalachian, West African, Australian aboriginal and Chinese chamber music, bringing out the best in a spirited crew of like-minded boundary-defying adventurers: a famous jazz guitarist, a world-renowned chanteuse, the scion of a prominent Malian musical family and one of the guys in REM. Yet despite the broad stylistic reach, AlHaj’s signature, steely intensity remains front-and-center: this is one of the most fascinating and gripping albums in any style of music in recent months.

All the compositions here are instrumentals with the exception of an Iraqi lullaby turned into an oud/flute duet with a brief vocal from Pueblo Indian flutist and craftsman Robert Mirabal, and a collaboration with Maria De Barros, a Cape Verde morna teleported to the Middle East. The pieces closest to AlHaj’s home turf wield the most power: the funereal Sama’i Baghdad, its haunting string chart played by the Little Earth Orchestra; the absolutely sizzling Dance of the Palms, and Qaasim, a requiem for his cousin, killed in Bush’s Iraq War, Stephen Kent’s oscillating djeridu lines meant to evoke the tears of the survivors. The others are somewhat more upbeat: to call them inventive would be an understatement. The Searching uses djeridu as a bass, holding down the low registers while accordionist Guy Klucevsek swirls over the incisive attack of the oud. Morning in Hyattsville, a duet with Americana jazz guitar legend Bill Frisell, evokes John Fahey or Leo Kottke at their brightest, with a wickedly unexpected shift into Middle Eastern territory from the guitar. Athens to Baghdad, with Peter Buck on twelve-string acoustic guitar, is gentle Tuatara/Tribecastan esoterica.

AlHaj also includes some richly intertwined pieces for oud and accompanying instruments, twisting and shifting shape until it’s hard to tell who’s playing what. The Other Time mingles oud with the West African kora harp of Yacouba Sissoko; River (the Passage) does the same, with some wildly interesting pipa work by Liu Fang. Other pieces set the oud against an unorthodox backdrop, whether a baroque-tinged piece featuring the Santa Fe Guitar Quartet, or the Andalusian-flavored Rocio, with oud over hypnotic sitar by Rosman Jamal Bhartiya. A listen to this ought to expand a listener’s brain at least as much as it did for the musicians involved. Talk about thinking outside the box! And what might be most impressive here is who’s not included on this album: no celebrity dj’s, no bedheaded indie rock dilettantes, no techno remixes. With all the amazing cross-pollination going on here, who needs any of that?

January 12, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, folk music, jazz, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review – Salaam’s Seventh Album Puts an Exciting New Spin on Middle Eastern Music

Salaam is the creation of violist Dena ElSaffar, big sister to acclaimed trumpeter/composer Amir ElSaffar and most likely one of his major influences – it comes as no surprise that he’s in the band. Brother-sister acts hardly being the norm in the Middle East, it figures that this would be an innovative group. Though Iraqi-born, both ElSaffars were raised on western music – and for each of them, discovering the centuries-old maqams of their native land would be a life-changing experience. This self-titled cd, their seventh, is pretty much the best of both worlds, a boundlessly creative, completely out-of-the-box mix of styles. The instruments are ancient and mainly Arabic – the music literally spans the centuries.

This band’s Layla is a lot better than the one you’re probably thinking of – it’s a lush, richly orchestrated, swaying Levantine instrumental seemingly straight out of the Mohammed Abdel Wahab repertoire that morphs into a bouncy march and then to austere atmospherics before the magnificent opening theme returns, spiced by Amir ElSaffar’s trumpet. Sellefeena sets hypnotic crescendoing qawwali-ish vocals over soaring layers of strings and  trumpet. The brief Balkan trumpet-and-accordion dance  21st Century Gypsy builds playfully over a series of modulations.

Chobi Party grows from swaying and sparse to an exuberant kanun solo by adventurous Turkish pianist Hakan Toker. A bluesily soulful take of a popular Iraqi folksong, Hadha Mu Insaaf Minnek has Dena ElSaffar’s stark fiddle playing over her brother’s acoustic guitar and her husband Tim Moore’s incisively boomy percussion. A sizzling Levantine dance with vivid Romantic piano, Mandira evokes the groundbreaking Iranian composer Abolhassan Sabah.

Arazbar Pesrevi, Salaam’s version of a medieval Ottoman court processional layers thoughtful microtonal trumpet over fiddle and kanun. A surreal dream sequence, part boogie, part maqam, Yugrug features piano and kanun over an insistent, crescendoing beat. The rest of the cd includes a gorgeously slinky instrumental, the pensive improvisation Taqsim Lami with its swirling strings and kanun, a bouncy hypnotic Iraqi folksong with ney flute, and a clever trumpet tune that ends it on an upbeat, jazzy note. Amir ElSaffar just got a rave review here for the NY debut of his Two Rivers Ensemble – this album proves he’s hardly the only brilliant musician in the family.

Something bears repeating here – this beautiful, inspiring music comes from the culture that Cheney and Rumsfeld wanted so desperately to destroy.

August 11, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Concert Review: Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble and the Dave Brubek Quartet with Simon Shaheen at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, 8/5/09

In their New York debut, Iraqi-American trumpeter/composer Amir ElSaffar’s seventeen-piece Middle Eastern jazz orchestra the Two Rivers Ensemble were nothing short of transcendent. Since music in the Middle East goes back so many millennia, most attempts at melding jazz with music from the region have come out of the jazz arena. This particular ensemble comes at it from the opposite direction, layering a feast of tonalities from both hemispheres with the occasional jazzy flourish over a slinky, Levantine-style snakecharmer groove, at times evoking Mingus in their most darkly lush moments. The music was as hypnotic as it was otherworldly beautiful. ElSaffar began the show on santoor (a hammered zither that sounds almost identical to a kanun) before moving to trumpet and eventually vocals. The full orchestra, with trumpet, santoor, alto and baritone saxes, ney flute, trombone, guitar, upright bass, drums, percussion, vibraphone, kamancheh (spike fiddle), oud, lute and piano would come together as they reached a swell, but frequently there would be just a couple or small handful of musicians playing off each other intricately over the beat.

The first of their long pieces, which could be something of a suite, was a stately rollercoaster ride of dynamics, moving up and then down again with solos from bari sax and trumpet with starkly beautiful piano accents, fading down to the bass solo that would eventually start the next composition. That one had an even more otherworldly feel, caught somewhere in limbo between major and minor but resolving to neither, lit up by a gorgeous oud solo played against the beat and another by the guitarist, moving from the Levant to gently incisive, staccato blues. Guest vocalist Gaida – a pioneer and a star in her own right – contributed heartfelt, shimmering vocalese on a couple of the latter pieces, the last – a fanfare and the night’s most overtly jazzy number – in tandem with ElSaffar. Considering how fascinating the solo spots were, it would hardly be fair to single out only a few of the players, but it was also impossible to keep up with ElSaffar’s band intros at the end to figure out who was playing what. Of those, Michael Ibrahim’s straightforward ney flute and practically macabre zurna (Turkish oboe) playing, Vijay Iyer‘s wirewalking piano work and ElSaffar’s own microtonal trumpet were especially captivating. ElSaffar also has an intriguing project, Salaam, with his sister Dena – their auspicious new album comes out August 11, watch this space for a review. And just for the record, this is the culture that Dick Cheney, in his insatiable greed for oil, wanted to destroy.

Dave Brubeck is 89, so he can do whatever he wants. Yet the jazz piano icon remains as deviously shapeshifting and fascinating as ever. He and his quartet had just been in Washington where there’d been an Ellington festival going on, and since Duke is Brubeck’s hero they took a stab at Take the A Train and reinvented it with characteristic passion and nuance. As usual, they messed with the time signature – a couple of particularly poignant 6/8 passages led by the piano – when bassist Michael Moore wasn’t pushing it along with a growling, hypnotic power, or when alto player Bobby Militello wasn’t giving it a warm, sailing vibe. After they’d run through the head the last time, Brubeck added a cleverly playful little fugue between the left and right hands. Brubeck has always been more about substance and innovation than flash, so if he’s lost some speed, it hardly makes a difference: the swing, the ideas, the timing and the voicings are as vital as ever.

Swanee River got a similar treatment, shifting subtly from poignancy to exuberance, Militello leading the charge. It’s a Raggy Waltz was similarly, warmly expansive, Brubeck pulling out the hooks and then reassembling them, drawing in his bandmates when everything was back together. This group has been a Lincoln Center Out of Doors institution for over a decade, and among their notable concerts are a handful of collaborations with the extraordinary Armenian oud player George Mgrdichian. It was no surprise, then to see the equally extraordinary oudist/violinist/composer Simon Shaheen join them for a couple of numbers. He played oud on the first, a murky, atmospheric tune that didn’t really come together, and it didn’t help that Militello stepped all over him before finally realizing that he’d overswung, finally taking a seat after all that exertion. They closed with a spirited Take Five, Shaheen adding subtle textures and harmonies on violin in tandem with the sax. How they manage to keep that one fresh after all these decades is testament to both the song and the quality of the crew that played it last night.

August 6, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments