Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Amir ElSaffar Strikes Gold with Alchemy

Trumpeter/santoorist Amir ElSaffar‘s paradigm-shifting career blurs the boundaries between jazz and traditions from across the Middle East, both ancient and in the here-and-now. His new quintet album, Alchemy, stays within the jazz idiom while pushing the envelope with Middle Eastern themes, melodies and technique as well as employing western classical architecture. This is a sonata of sorts, two central themes with many variations and plenty of room for thoughtfully crafted individual contributions and solos from Ole Mathisen on saxes, John Escreet on piano, Francois Moutin on bass and Dan Weiss on drums.  Echoes of the traditional Iraqi melodies that ElSaffar plays in his Safafir project are plentiful throughout the album, mingling with boisterous postbop improvisation as well as ElSaffar’s signature steely focus and sharp, vivid tunesmithing. And as much as this is cutting-edge to the extreme, ElSaffar being a generally very serious guy, both the playing and compositions here have an unexpected amount of sardonic wit. Whether serious or less so, what’s here has a lot in common with recent work by Vijay Iyer, a frequent ElSaffar collaborator.

The opening track, Ishtarun, introduces a stately, chromatic, flamenco-tinged canon that the ensemble explores through a misterioso piano-and-bass interlude, ElSaffar circling uneasily around the tonic as the band blusters. Nid Qablitum sets the rhythm loose and livens it, a rippling piano solo kicking off a series of jaunty, wryly puddle-jumping variations. The triptych Embubum – Ishtarun – Pitum returns with a Miles Davis-esque gravitas, its purposeful stroll serving as a launchpad for ElSaffar’s unexpectedly bluesy solos and then a return to hypnotic yet biting, chromatically-fueled insistence before a big crescendo and some jousting between trumpet and sax.

12 Cycles builds a series of loops, in more of an indie classical than a jazz vein: ElSaffar’s circling trumpet artfully expands them, Escreet again adding a suspenseful edge along with eerie close harmonies from the horns. Quartal opens with those close harmonies but quickly swings hard with Mathisen’s refusenik sax edging toward microtonality yet without the slightest reference to any Orientalisms, Escreet defiantly echoing it, Moutin intertwining with the piano and then Weiss’ rustling, furtive drumwork. Balad brings back a stately, somber ambience with creepy, neoromantic microtonalisms from pretty much everybody over moody, prowling rhythm – it’s one of the album’s many high points.

5 Phases reworks the circular, Steve Reichian theme while adding a microtonal edge and a more dancing rhythmic drive, soprano sax shadowing the trumpet over a sotto vocce cymbal shuffle that builds to a sardonic faux-martial theme and variations.  Athar Kurd brings back the briskly walking hardbop, a feature for more spiraling, stairstepping sax and a deviously scurrying Moutin solo. Miniature #1 hardly qualifies as one: it’s about a four-minute reprise of that dancing, circular riff with a cool boomy/whooshy drum/cymbal dialectic and tensely agitated, quietly chattering horns. Ending Piece is the summation where the themes come together: lively, dancing, looped motives followed by more straight-ahead bluesy riffage; a delightfully messy sax/trumpet conversation; droll hints of funk from the bass and eerie close harmonies from the horns as Escreet chooses his spots. It’s one of the most successfully ambitious albums of recent months, full of disquieting energy and a contender for best of 2013. Pi Records gets a shout-out for yet another important, doubtlessly influential release.

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December 21, 2013 Posted by | jazz, middle eastern music, Music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dave Juarez’s Round Red Light Burns Brightly

Dave Juarez’s new album Round Red Light – just out on Posi-Tone – is sort of the last thing you would expect from a jazz guitarist. There are compositions here that he doesn’t even play on, which speaks volumes. He’s a strong, individualistic, potently melodic writer who gets the max out of all the voices he has available here, with strikingly interesting arrangements where everything counts. He doesn’t like to waste notes, especially impressive for a guitarist: while there are other six-string guys in jazz who also play tersely and memorably, there’s also a whole generation of post-Stern, post-Scofield guys who refuse to play fewer than a thousand notes where one or two would do just fine. This guy is as far from that style of playing as Coltrane is from Kenny G. The excellent band behind him embraces that esthetic with joy and passion: Seamus Blake on tenor, John Escreet on piano, Lauren Falls on bass and Bastian Weinhold on drums.

The album opens and closes with jazz waltzes. The buoyant first track, Montepellier View swings its way through to a judicious Juarez solo where he climbs in stages with a graceful intensity. The concluding track, RNP, works off a biting modal theme that serves as a launching pad for a stunningly precise, tricky staccato solo from Escreet, some tastefully balanced pyrotechnics by Juarez and finally a fullscale, menacing intensity, the whole band burning beneath Blake’s ecstatic crescendos. Juarez is also very adept at boleros. La Noche Oscura del Alma begins slowly with more unease than dread and builds to a disarmingly funny series of false endings, lit up by a gimlet-eyed solo by Escreet. The Echo of Your Smile, a vivid ensemble piece, brings out the best in everybody. Falls, whose striking, incisive lines make many of this album’s most memorable moments, elevates it at the end with more than a hint of funk, Escreet adding a tinge of menace with his cascades. The best of these is the broodingly intense Luna de Barcelona, Juarez nonchalantly firing off a snarling chord or two as he winds his way up, Escreet bringing a funky edge this time, but with plenty of bite, introducing a plaintive, blue-flame, full-ensemble take of the final verse.

Just from the title, you know that Seratonina is trouble. She’s fast, and not a little satirical, bass and drums practically walking themselves off the edge of the song as Juarez wanders obliviously, Escreet taking it from caffeinated to starlit and then back again. Belleza Anonima takes its time coming together and after another clever false ending emerges as a song without words, Blake leading the way. Lonely Brooklyn doesn’t feel that lonely – with an understated Afro-Cuban vibe, it pairs Escreet’s cascades against Falls’ good-natured pulse. And the title track, a ballad, gives Blake a chance to get expansive before Escreet and Juarez pair off gingerly afterward. Not a single weak track here: a stealth contender for one of 2011’s best jazz albums.

May 17, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment