Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Rich, Multi-Layered, Epic New Middle Eastern-Flavored Album From Amir Elsaffar

Amir Elsaffar’s Rivers Of Sound Orchestra play oceanic, tidally shifting soundscapes that blend otherworldly, microtonal Middle Eastern modes, lushly immersive big band jazz improvisation and what could be called symphonic ambient music. Elsaffar has made a name for himself as an extraordinary multi-instrumentalist and composer who has done as much to create a new style of music based on the magical maqams from across the Middle East as anyone alive. His latest epically ambitious, absolutely gorgeous new album The Other Shore is streaming at Bandcamp. Thematically, this is more majestically improvisational than his other large-ensemble work, although he weaves several themes and variations into it. Subtle, occasionally cynical humor typically takes the place of the politically-fueled anger that would often surface on albums like his 2015 Crisis record.

The album’s opening number, Dhuha is a diptych. The seventeen-piece ensemble begin with dense, nebulous, rising and falling tones, with pianist John Escreet, drummer Nasheet Waits, percussionist Tim Moore and mridamgam player Rajna Swaminathan adding stately accents behind Elsaffar’s broodingly chromatic, resonant trumpet. Cellist Naseem Alatrash takes a stark microtonal solo, handing off to Elsaffar’s sister Dena’s bracingly textured joza fiddle as the group rise from a brisk stroll to a churning groove. Echo effects and dramatic vocalese from Elsaffar give way to a thicket of pointillisms from vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, oudists George Ziadeh and Zafer Tawil, and buzuq player Tareq Abboushi. Then the eagle rises again. That’s just the first thirteen minutes of the record, and it sets the stage for what’s in store.

Elsaffar’s soaring, wordless vocals fuel the upward drive in Transformations from a circling, steady stroll. Mohamed Saleh’s oboe shadows a restrained but ebullient trumpet solo, then comes to the forefront as a seemingly tongue-in-cheek Kashmiri groove develops. Saxophonists Ole Mathisen and Fabrizio Cassol work a triumphant triangulation before an elegant descent to the ouds and Miles Okazaki’s spare guitar.

The album’s most orchestral track, Reaching Upward begins with a stately, moody string theme that Elsaffar brightens with a deviously martial trumpet theme which suddenly goes 180 degrees from there. Knowing how Elsaffar works, is he going to take the hypnotic, spiky, circling theme that Okazaki and the percussionists develop and send it spinning into the maelstrom? Not quite. We get a web of concentric circles and an elusive, bracing maqam theme, Elsaffar accompanying himself with rippling santoor. A blazing sax solo backs off for a good facsimile of the Grateful Dead, which morphs into a shivery trumpet theme and eventually falls away for a calm series of waves and a gamelanesque outro. Who else is creating music this wildly and fearlessly diverse?

Ashaa is only slightly less of an epic, and the point where it becomes clear that Escreet is playing a piano in a Middle Eastern tuning. Bassist Carlo DeRosa holds the suspense until the bandleader enters into a regal trumpet passage….and then the band hit a steady, anthemic, tantalizingly chromatic clave theme that goes in a dusky Ethiopian direction. It’s arguably the album’s most wickedly catchy interlude. Syncopated quasi Isaac Hayes psychedelic soul and variations recede for a percolating DeRosa solo, then it’s back to the long road to Addis Ababa.

A bright stairstepping theme introduces the bandleader’s edgy, machinegunning santoor in the next number, Concentric. After that, Lightning Flash has a bit of a cloudburst, a calm, then a spare, biting Abboushi buzuq solo finally replaced by a steady, mechanically pulsing theme that could be Darcy James Argue.

March is all about victory, an Andalucian-tinged update on a famous Ravel tune, with a tantalizingly sizzling violin solo, a sober oud duel mingling with the vibes, the horns ushering in a rapidfire, stabbing Saleh oboe break. Elsaffar wafts uneasily through his most poignantly resonant solo of the night in the final number, Medmi. As usual with Elsaffar, this is a lock for one of the best albums of the year.

September 15, 2021 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jason Yeager Reinvents Pan-American Classics as Protest Jazz on His Searingly Relevant New Album

Pianist Jason Yeager couldn’t have timed the release of his latest album New Songs of Resistance – streaming at Bandcamp – any better. With Bolivian President Evo Morales driven from office by a right-wing coup and Nicaragua’s Sandinistas under increasing fire from corporate-aligned fascists, Yeager’s mix of original protest jazz and classic nuevas canciones from 1970s Latin America are more relevant than ever. He’s playing the album release show on Dec 19 at 8:30 PM at the Cell Theatre; cover is $15.

The album’s most stunning track is Yeager’s grimly modal, savagely kinetic setting of Somos Cinco Mil, the final poem written by iconic songwriter Victor Jara in the Santiago stadium in the hours before he and thousands of other members of the Chilean intelligentsia were murdered by Augusto Pinochet’s death squad following the 1973 CIA-sponsored coup. Vocalist Erini sings this defiant but eerily prophetic anthem with a plaintive calm against cellist Naseem Alatrash’s slashing, Egyptian-tinged accents and the bandleader’s crushing chords.

The group open the album with an elegantly pulsing take of Violeta Parra’s Gracias a la Vida, Erini’s expressive delivery over Matthew Stubbs’ clarinet and bass clarinet, Cosimo Boni’s trumpet, Milena Casado’s flugelhorn, Yeager’s spare piano and the understated rhythm section of bassist Fernando Huergo and drummer Mark Walker.

Farayi Malek delivers Yeager’s cynical broadside The Facts over a sardonically ominous pseudo-march – a frequent and potently effective trope here – bringing to mind the fiery intensity of Todd Marcus‘ similarly political work, especially when the bass clarinet kicks in. Yeager introduces another Jara song, Aqui Me Quedo with a pensively unsettled solo intro, Erini’s vocals rising defiantly over  sweeping orchestration.

Mother Earth, a Yeager original, has strong Monk echoes along with more suspiciously straightforward strutting and,a long, insistent trumpet crescendo. Singer Farayu Malek’s matter-of-fact recitation of Yeager’s scathing, spot-on lyrics to In Search of Truth addresses a host of problems – eco-apocalypse, the corporate-driven race toward slavery and dehumanization – over an increasingly agitated backdrop. Then Yeager opens Leon Geico’s Cinco Siglos Igual with a brooding, Rachmaninovian noir interlude, Erini’s expressive, ripely wounded vocals bringing to mind Camila Meza, Casado picking up the pace against the band’s lustre.

The rest of the record includes three originals and a Brazilian song. Protest, a menacing, stabbing little march, leads into the album’s creepiest, most carnivalesque number, Reckoning: with a tune and a Malek vocal this coldly dismissive, who says revenge songs need lyrics? Yeager’s final instrumental interlude follows, macabre and suspenseful. The album ends on an upbeat note with a loose-limbed take of Brazilian songwriter Chico Buarque’s Apesar de Voce, sung with dusky resolve by Mirella Costa. Yeager’s relentless, usually understated intensity, starkly evocative compositions and imaginative reworking of a smartly assembled mix of classic songs make this one of the best albums of 2019 in any style of music.

December 14, 2019 Posted by | jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Visionary Trumpeter Amir ElSaffar Explores Indian Themes at a Familiar Lincoln Center Haunt

Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble played the most epic, richly ironic show of 2017. Deep in the wicked heart of the financial district, completely unprepared for a frequent drizzle that threatened to explode overhead, they swept through a vast, oceanic suite largely based on Arabic modes in the shadow of a building festooned with the most hated name in the English language. That the visionary trumpeter/santoorist/singer’s mighty, heavily improvisational orchestra would be able to pull off such a darkly majestic, ultimately triumphant feat under such circumstances is reason for great optimism.

While this monumental suite, Not Two, references an Indian vernacular on occasion, that isn’t a major part of the work. However, ElSaffar has an auspicious concert coming up this Friday, September 8 at 7:30 PM at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St., where he’ll be leading a septet much deeper into Indian-inspired themes. Fans of the most deliciously rippling sounds imaginable should be aware that this band will feature both the Egyptian kanun and the Iraqi santoor. The show is free, and ElSaffar’s previous performance here sold out: it can’t hurt to get here early.

Another great irony is that this mid-June performance of Not Two featured lots of pairings between instruments. ElSaffar’s title reflects how few questions can be answered in black-and-white terms, and how manichaean thinking gets us in trouble every time. This is a profoundly uneasy, symphonic work with several themes: the two that jumped out the most at this show were a cynical fanfare of sorts and a swaying, anthemic Egyptian-influenced melody and seemingly endless variations.

The most poignant and plaintive duet was between ElSaffar, who played both santoor and trumpet, and his similarly talented sister Dena (leader of brilliant Indiana Middle Eastern band Salaam) on viola. Playing a spinet piano retuned to astringent microtones, Aruan Ortiz calmly found his footing, then lept a couple of octaves and circled animatedly while vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, at the opposite edge of the stage, maintained a warier, more lingering presence.

As the suite rose and fell, Ole Mathisen’s desolate microtonal tenor sax and Mohamed Saleh’s oboe emerged and then receded into the mist. Three of the night’s most adrenalizing solos were pure postbop jazz: ElSaffar’s cyclotronic Miles-at-gale-force trumpet swirls, baritone saxophonist Josh Sinton’s artfully crescendong development of a moody circular theme, and finally alto saxophonist Aakash Mittal’s rapidfire, surgically slashing foreshadowing of the coda. Many of the rest of the players got time in the spotlight, ranging from cautious and ominous to an intensity that bordered on frantic, no surprise in an era of deportations and travel bans. For this distinguished cast, which also comprised cellist Naseem Alatrash, oudists/percussionists Zafer Tawil and Georges Ziadeh, multi-reedman JD Parran, guitarist Miles Okazaki, buzuq player Tareq Abboushi, bassist Carlo DeRosa, percussionist Tim Moore and drummer Nasheet Waits, it was the show of a lifetime.

ElSaffar has a similarly stellar lineup for the September 8 show: Alatrash on cello plus Firas Zreik on kanun; Arun Ramamurthy on violin; Abhik Mukherjee on sitar; Jay Gandhi on bansuri flute, and Shiva Ghoshal on tabla. What’s more, this show is the first in Lincoln Center’s new series Outside India, a collaboration with the Brooklyn Raga Massive and the India Center Foundation. The game plan is to “disrupt the hierarchical nature of many Indian music collaborations and position Indian classical music as a space for inclusion and conversation in an innovative and radical new way.” Artists who will be joined by Massive members at future concerts include adventurous Afro-Cuban drummer Román Diaz on Nov 10, and Malian singer Awa Sangho on Feb 9.

September 3, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, jazz, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment