Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Release the Most Rapturously Epic Album of 2017

Trumpeter/santoorist Amir ElSaffar’s epic, rapturous new double vinyl album Not Two, with his large ensemble Two Rivers, is a new kind of music. It sounds more composed than improvisational; the reverse is probably true. While the lp – soon to be streaming at New Amsterdam Records – embodies elements of western classical music, free jazz, Iraqi maqams and other styles from both the Middle East and the American jazz tradition, it’s not meant to be cross-cultural. Pan-global is more like it. Haunting, dark and incessantly turbulent, it reflects our time as much as it rivets the listener. The performances shift tectonically, dynamics slowly surging and then falling away. ElSaffar and the ensemble are playing the album release show outdoors at 28 Liberty St. at William in the financial district (irony probably intended) at 6 PM tomorrow night, June 16 as the highlight of this year’s River to River Festival.

The personnel on the album come out of as many traditions as the music, and more. The core of the band comprises ElSaffar’s sister Dena, a first-rate composer herself, who plays viola and oud, joined by multi-instrumentalists Zafer Tawil and Geroges Ziadeh, tenor saxophonist Ole Mathisen, oboeist/horn player Mohamed Saleh, multi-reedman JD Parran, vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, guitarist Miles Okazaki, cellist Kaseem Alatrash, saxophonist Fabrizio Cassol, buzuq player Tareq Abboushi, bassist Carlo DeRosa, percussionist Tim Moore and drummer Nasheet Waits.

That the album was recorded in a single marathon sixteen-hour session, live to analog tape, makes this achievement all the more impressive. The album’s first track, Iftah capsulizes the scope and sweep of ElSaffar’s vision. It slowly coalesces with shivery rhythmic variations on a majestic three-note theme the group slowly expanding on a vast ocean of ripples and rustles both near and distant, drums and cymbals introducing ElSaffar’s towering fanfare. But this is not a celebratory one: it’s a call to beware, or at least to be wary. Ole Mathisen’s meticulously nuanced voice-over-the-prairie sax signals another tectonic shift outward, ripples and rings against brassy echo effects. The result is as psychedelic as any rock music ever written, but deeper. A scampering train interlude with sputtery horns then gives way to the main theme as it slowly winds down.

The second track, Jourjina Over Three follows a lively, spiky groove that rises to an energetic, microtonal Iraqi melody and then takes a sunny drive toward Afrobeat on the wings of a good-natured Abboushi solo, the whole orchestra moving further into the shadows with a shivery intensity as the rhythm falls out.

The groove of Penny Explosion alludes to qawwali, while the melody references India in several places, the stringed instruments taking it more enigmatically into Middle Eastern grandeur that then veers toward what could be a mashup of Afrobeat and the most symphonic, psychedelic side of the Beatles. A Mingus-like urban bustle develops from there, the bandleader leading the charge mutedly from the back.

Saleh’s mournful oboe over a somber dumbek groove opens Ya Ibni, Ya Ibni (My Son, My Son), plaintively echoed by Mathisen and then the bandleader over a stark, stygian backdrop. Adasiewicz then channels a glimmer, like Bryan & the Aardvarks at their most celestial. How the group unravels it into an eerie abyss of belltones is artful to the extreme.

Layl (Night) is just as slow, more majestic, and looks further south toward Cairo, with its slinky, anticipatory electricity, a mighty, darkly suspenseful title theme. The composer’s impassioned, flamenco-inflected vocals and santoor rivulets drive the group to an elegantly stormy peak. Live, this is a real showstopper.

More belltones and a bristling Andalucian-tinged melody mingle over an implied clave as Hijaz 21 gets underway, the strings building acerbically to a stingingly incisive viola solo, trumpet combining with vibraphone for a Gil Evans-like lustre over a clip-clop rhythm.

The next-to-last number is the titanic diptych Shards of Memory/B Half Flat Fantasy, with galloping variations on earlier themes. Its intricately intertwining voices, vertiginous polythythms, conversational pairings and echo effects bring to mind ornately multitracked 70s art-rock bands like Nektar as much as, say, Darcy James Argue or Mohammed Abdel Wahab. The cartoonish pavane that ends it seems very sarcastic.

Bayat Declamation, the album’s most traditional maqam piece and arguably its most austerely beautiful track, makes a richly uneasy coda. Other than saying that this is the most paradigm-shifting album of the year, it’s hard to rate it alongside everything else that’s come over the transom this year because most of that is tame by comparison. There’s no yardstick for measuring this: you need astronomical units. If you’re made it this far you definitely owe it to yourself to immerse yourself in it and make it out to the show tomorrow night.

June 15, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Amir ElSaffar’s Intense, Brooding Crisis Transcends Middle Eastern Music, Jazz and Everything Else

“Driving and to the point, Amir ElSaffar’s music is beyond categorization: not jazz, world music or any facile fusion thereof but a world unto its own.” A lot of bravado there, but the Chicago-born, New York-based trumpeter backs it up. His fifth album, Crisis – a suite inspired by his year in Egypt in 2012, as witness to the Arab Spring – is just out from Pi Recordings, and it’s arguably his best yet. Towering, majestic, haunting, dynamically rich, often grim, it might be the best album of 2015 in any style of music. Here ElSaffar – who plays both trumpet and santoor and also sings in Arabic in a resonant, soulful baritone – is joined by brilliant oudist/percussinonist Zaafir Tawil, fiery buzuq player Tareq Abboushi, tenor saxophonist Ole Mathisen, bassist Carlo DeRosa and drummer Nasheet Waits. Since the album is just out, it hasn’t hit the usual streaming spots yet, but three of the tracks are up at ElSaffar’s music page. He’s joined by his entire massive, seventeen-piece Two Rivers Ensemble – comprising all of these players – for the album release show tonight, September 17 at 8 PM at Symphony Space. Cover is $25.

Rumbling, tumbling drums underpin a alow, stately, chromatically edgy trumpet theme distantly echoed by the oud as the introduction, From the Ashes, rises and falls. ElSaffar switches to the eerily rippling santoor for a serioso solo, utilizing the exotic microtones of the Iraqi classical maqam music he’s devoted himself to over the past fifteen years after an auspicious career start bridging the worlds of jazz, latin music and the western classical canon.

Mathisen doubles the reverberating pointillisms of the santoor on The Great Dictator, until a flurrying trumpet riff over distorted electric buzuq, and suddenly it becomes a trickly dancing Middle Eastern art-rock song. Abboushi’s long, slashing solo is one of the most adrenalizing moments committed to record this year, the song moving toward funk as Mathisen sputters and leaps.

After ElSaffar’s plaintive solo trumpet improvisation Taqsim Saba – imbued with the microtones which have become his signature device – the band slinks and bounces their way into El–Sha’ab (The People), which for all its elegantly inspired shadowboxing between the oud and the trumpet is a pretty straight-up funk song. The aptly titled, apprehensively pillowy Love Poem, a variation on the introductory theme, overflows with lyrical interplay between santoor, sax and oud, as well as a graceful pairing between santoor and bass. It takes on an unexpectedly dirgelike quality as it winds out.

The epic Flyover Iraq – as cruelly ironic a title as one could possibly imagine in this century – begins as bright, syncopated stroll, goes back to funk with a lively trumpet/buzuq duet, ElSaffar then taking flight toward hardbop with his trumpet. DeRosa takes it out with a lithe, precise solo. The suite’s most titanic number, Tipping Point introduces an uneasily contrapuntal melody that expands throughout the band, follows an upbeat, funky trajectory toward a fanfare, then vividly voices a theme and variations that literally follow a path of dissolution. ElSaffar’s somber trumpet solo out sets the stage for Aneen (Weeping), Continued, a spare, funereal piece that brings to mind similarly austere material by another brilliant trumpeter with Middle Eastern heritage, Ibrahim Maalouf. The album winds up with Love Poem (Complete), a more somber take on the first one. Clearly, the revolution ElSaffar depicts here has not brought the results that he – or for that matter the rest of the world – were hoping for.

September 17, 2015 Posted by | jazz, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

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