Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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.

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

The New Threadgill Album: Same Old? Not Really

If you’re a Henry Threadgill fan, you’ve probably already got his new sextet album Tomorrow Sunny/The Revelry, Spp on Pi Recordings with his long-running band Zooid. Threadgill’s been at the forefront of improvised music for so long that we take him for granted, and we shouldn’t: 68 years old, still constantly questioning, searching, reflecting, pushing the envelope. For fans of collective improvisation, the question isn’t whether this is a good album, it’s where it fits in the Threadgill oeuvre, and the answer is close to the top. How sunny does the future look here? Is today all rain and gloom? Hardly. This is an upbeat, optimistic, richly energetic album.

The revelry is between the players: along with Threadgill on alto sax and flutes, there’s Jose Davila on trombone and tuba, Liberty Ellman on acoustic guitar, Christopher Hoffman on cello, Stomu Takeishi on acoustic bass guitar and Elliot Humberto Kavee on drums. Nuts-and-boltswise, what Threadgill is doing is assigning specific intervals to each instrument as a basis for improvisation, creating seemingly endless permutations of the intricate counterpoint that’s been a signature device of his for decades. It does for rhythm what Miles Davis’ modal approach did for melody. Threadgill has long been praised by his fellow musicians as a composer who writes specifically to his players’ strengths, and that’s especially apparent here.

The opening track, A Day Off, is basically a fractured swing tune. A bass/cello pulse loosens as Ellman wanders and Hoffman fills in the spaces with a carefully interweave. Then Takeishi joins the spiral as Ellman dips low, Threadgill joins the party and the rest of the group can’t help but take the casually jaunty energy up a notch. The title track begins as artfully camouflaged clave and a rhythmic thicket lit up on one end by prowling tuba and on the other by Ellman’s atonal chords, Threadgill’s blithe flute handing off to the cello which takes it in a darker direction while Kavee slowly switches to a shuffle. The relatively brief So Pleased, No Clue slows the pace and distances the instruments from each other: spacious pizzicato cello and guitar echoing each other, tectonic shifts between the low instruments and if you listen closely, you realize they’re playing a rondo!

The centerpiece here is See the Blackbird Now. It’s the most overtly melodic and by far the darkest track here: Threadgill’s long, moodily bluesy bass flute solo following Hoffman’s apprehensive staccato is arguably the album’s high point. Ellman follows it gingerly as the band meanders murkily behind him, the trombone pulling everybody back above ground. Hoffman’s agile staccato lines evoke Stephane Grappelli as the band pulses and shuffles on the neatly entwining Ambient Pressure Thereby, Threadgill’s enigmatic alto sax bobbing and weaving as the rhythm coalesces apprehensively and then relaxes for a playful joust between guitar and tuba. Davila’s trombone gets to build spaciously joyous suspense for the rest of the band to explore and gently sway toward a resolution on the concluding cut: Hoffman gets to take his time relishing in bringing it around. For fans of improvised music, it doesn’t get much better than this.

June 13, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment