Lucid Culture


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

Concert Review: The Dave Brubeck Quartet at Damrosch Park, NYC 8/5/07

A triumph of persistence and spirit. At 87, the legendary jazz pianist is still vital, still evolving. Maybe he’s been pushing the envelope for so long that now it’s pulling him. If Telarc had decided to record this evening’s show, they could have called it Brubeck Plays Blues and Ballads. That this band could turn a pretty standard night of blues and ballads into something as special as they made it says something about the quality of musicians onstage. Dave Brubeck didn’t try any fast righthand runs, not that the device was ever his thing. His approach has always been chordal, his innovations rhythmic, and tonight both were front and center and brilliant. One of Brubeck’s great achievements has been to bring classical and modern classical melodies into jazz, and it was evident that this is still one of his fascinations.

They opened a little shaky with one of the tracks from his forthcoming album Indian Summer, Brubeck joking with the audience about how they were going to be playing it at Newport next week and had to get to know it. But the show came together quickly after that. The best song of the night (Brubeck is a songwriter in the best sense of the word) was a surprisingly saturnine, austere autumn reflection that began with two insistent, pianissimo chords, while the audience was still applauding the previous number. They built quietly and deliberately to the point where bassist Michael Moore took an appropriately haunting, cello-like bowed solo.

The rest of the evening saw sax player Bobby Militello playing leads over Brubeck’s wittily magisterial, minutely intricate chord work, cleverly embellished by drummer Randy Jones’ tasteful cymbal splashes and rimshots. Moore showed a fondness for sliding up to notes for an effect like a trumpet player playing with a mute, or a guitar played through a wah pedal, even while running quickly up the scale, and this was quite gripping. They recast When the Saints Go Marching In in a minor key; the blues numbers had swing and bounce, both Brubeck and Militello taking a few playful bars against the beat when the mood struck them.

The night’s only Kenny G moment came when they tried to make something of Somewhere Over the Rainbow and as much as Brubeck tried to work his way around the melody, the rest of the band following suit, they still ended up somewhere under it. Jazzing up Broadway tunes has long been a way of life for a lot of players, but – Coltrane’s version of My Favorite Things aside – it’s an easy way to end up in quicksand.

At the end of the show, Brubeck admitted almost sheepishly that they hadn’t done much in the way of the odd time signatures that have been his stock in trade for sixty-odd years, so they did one in ten that segued into Take Five, which quickly turned into a very long drum solo. It took a long time to get going, but Jones eventually built it to a hypnotic, tribal war dance, then walked away from it, then came back and finally took it to the head, if only for a few seconds. Brubeck joined the crowd in appreciative, awestruck bliss. He’s a vastly underrated figure, a force of nature, and what a pleasant surprise to be able to see him at a universally affordable price on a shockingly gorgeous night in midtown Manhattan.

And what a pleasant surprise to see how the annual August Lincoln Center Out of Doors series (of which this concert was a part) has picked up the slack where the Central Park Summerstage series fell off the radar. It looks as if some old hippies have taken over the booking here, and are doing a tremendous job: the emphasis is still on world music and Americana, they still have their annual rockabilly and gospel nights, but the quality of performers this year is exceptional. Watch our updated NYC music calendar for this month’s many highlights.

August 6, 2007 Posted by | Live Events, Music, New York City, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments