Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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.

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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

Maqamfest – 2012’s Best Concert So Far

The first weekend after New Year’s in New York is the booking agents’ convention a.k.a. APAP, and most of the shows put on for conventiongoers are also open to the public. Because the artists performing are all auditioning for at least theoretically lucrative gigs, they’re usually at the top of their game. As a result, some of the year’s most extraordinary bills, and extraordinary performances, happen here, and this past weekend was no exception. While Winter Jazzfest on Saturday night and then Globalfest on Sunday – both part of the convention – had their moments, the best show of the weekend was the first annual Maqamfest at Alwan for the Arts.

The maqam trail, with its otherworldly microtones and eerie chromatics, stretches from northern Africa to central Asia, and across the Mediterranean to the Balkans. In a spectacularly successful attempt to cover as much ground as possible, the organizers assembled a diverse program including music from but not limited to Egypt, Greece, Syria, Iraq, Palestine and many points in between. Organizer Sami Abu Shumays – virtuoso violinist and leader of the first act on the bill, Zikrayat – took care to point out that while each group drew on centuries, maybe millennia of tradition, each added their own individual vision to the music. Middle Eastern cultures don’t typically differentiate between classical, and folk, and pop music as westerners do, anyway: over there, music is music, pure and simple.

In introducing the program, what Shumays omitted, maybe out of modesty, is that the players on the bill were not only some of the most important and creative Middle Eastern musicians outside the Middle East: they’re some of the most important and creative Middle Eastern musicians anywhere in the world. They make their home at Alwan for the Arts downtown, where a vital, cutting-edge scene has evolved. What the Paris salons of a hundred years ago were for classical, the 52nd Street clubs were for jazz in the forties and fifties and what CBGB was for punk rock in the 70s, Alwan for the Arts is for music from the Middle East now. Unsurprisingly, the acts on the bill each brought classical purism, jazzlike improvisation and some punk rock fearlessness too.

The most traditionally-oriented group was Safaafir. A trio led by Alwan music honcho Amir ElSaffar and his sister Dena (virtuoso of the jowza fiddle and leader of the considerably different but equally exciting Salaam), Safaafir play hypnotically rhythmic, centuries-old Iraqi court music and folk songs. The band name means “coppersmiths” in Persian, which is fitting because that’s what the ElSaffars’ grandparents, and their parents before them, did in the Baghdad marketplace. For all the stateliness and split-second precision of the music, Safaafir gave it a jolt of energy, sometimes with a bounce, sometimes with an insistent attack courtesy of percussionist Tim Moore, locked in with the graceful arcs of the fiddle and Amir ElSaffar’s precise lines on santoor dulcimer (and also occasional, unaffectedly exuberant trumpet). Some of the songs had a trancelike, Indian tinge while others allusively referenced modes from the other side of the Euphrates.

The most western-sounding performance was by Gaida and her band. Many of the musicians on the program made multiple appearances, Amir ElSaffar playing torchy muted trumpet in this group along with the night’s most popular musician, buzuq player Tareq Abboushi, with George Dulin on piano, Jennifer Vincent on bass, Zafer Tawil on oud and Hector Morales on percussion. The Syrian-born chanteuse has a minutely nuanced, warmly breathy delivery that looks back to iconic singers like Fairouz and Warda; like many of the instrumentalists over the course of the evening, she began a couple of songs with quietly spectacular, microtonally melismatic improvisations. Behind her, the band shifted effortlessly from bossa nova, to urbane saloon jazz, to vintage habibi singalongs and the most dramatic, impactful number in her all-too-brief set, a darkly apprehensive piano-driven ballad that evoked the more ambitious cross-pollinations of legendary Lebanese songwriters the Rahbani Brothers forty years ago.

The set that was the most cinematic (which happens to be the title of the band’s latest album) was delivered by Zikrayat (Arabic for “memories”). Their speciality is classic Egyptian film music from the 50s and 60s, along with originals that update this lush, slinky genre. This particular incarnation of the band featured Shumays accompanied by Abboushi, ney flute player Bridget Robbins, bassist Apostolis Sideris and percussionists Johnny Farraj and Faisal Zedan. Meanwhile, a trio of bellydancers twirled and dipped in front of them, managing to pull off a neatly choreographed balancing act without anyone in the tightly packed, sold-out crowd getting bumped. Through a trickily shapeshifting Mohammed Abdel Wahab mini-epic, a fetching Umm Kulthumm ballad delivered masterfully by guest singer Salma Habib, and another soulful number featuring young crooner Salah Rajab, the instruments blended voices and wove a magical tapestry of melody over beats that were as slinky as they were hypnotic. At the end, they abruptly switched from plaintive elegance to a stomping, ecstatically rustic, jajouka-ish folk tune that managed to be both ancient yet absolutely modern as it pulsed along with the percussion going full steam.

Maeandros, unlike what their name might imply, don’t meander: their oud-based Greek music is straightforward, soulful and frequently dark. Their connection to the rest of the acts on the bill is that they favor bracing Arabic maqams via music from the underground resistance movement in the 1930s as well as originals with the same kind of edgy intensity. Frontman Mavrothi Kontanis is a world-class oudist and a strong singer who conveys drama and longing without going over the top, but he’s a generous bandleader, leaving the spotlight mostly to violinist Megan Gould – whose pinpoint, precise, microtonal inflections wowed the crowd – along with clarinetist Lefteris Bournias. Bournias may not be a household name in the United States, but he’s one of the most sought-after reedmen in the world, especially in his native Greece, a truly Coltrane/Papasov-class soloist. Predictably, it was his rapidfire, flurrying, judiciously incisive soloing that stole the show, supersonic speed matched to an intuitive feel for where to employ it. The band’s set built an undulating, cosmopolitanally nocturnal ambience much as Zikrayat had done, Kontanis opening one number with a long, achingly crescendoing improvisation and ending the set with a brief, upbeat song featuring some blistering tremolo-picking.

With its funky rock rhythm section and electric bass, Abboushi’s genre-smashing band Shusmo – with Abboushi, Morales, Dave Phillips on bass and Zafer Tawil on percussion – rocked the hardest, covering a vast expanse of sonic terrain, from an understatedly scorching, intense take on an apprehensive Turkish folk melody, to a brief detour into stately western baroque, to hints of jazz, all with a purist, levantine undercurrent. With Bournias’ clarinet salvos bursting out alongside the clank of the buzuq and the hypnotic rhythmic pulse, they evoked another great New York group from ten years earlier, the Dimestore Dance Band, except with Arabic tonalities. Bournias used a long one-chord vamp to cut loose with his most feral, wailing solo of the night, Abboushi also wailing a lot harder than he had as a sideman earlier, particularly through a long, very welcome taqsim where like Bournias, he expertly spun furious clusters of chromatics spaciously and suspensefully, choosing his spots. As the clattering, rumbling grooves shifted unpredictably from funk, to rock, to less predictable tempos and then back again, the intensity was relentless.

The show ended with the Alwan Music Ensemble: Shumays, Abboushi, Farraj, Tawil (now on eerily reverberating qanun), Amir ElSaffar on both trumpet and santoor, George Ziadeh on oud and Cairo Opera star Ahmed Gamal on vocals, making his U.S. debut. It seems that Gamal had other things in mind than the set list Abboushi had come up with: with a little humming and a few cues beforehand, it was amazing to watch the band create a lush arrangement on the spot behind Gamal’s smooth but powerful baritone crooning and breathtaking microtonal inflections (where European opera is all about bombast, Arabic opera is built on subtleties). Gamal sang to the women in the crowd and then got everyone singing and clapping along with a joyous mix of swaying, popular Egyptian standards. Even after more than five hours of music, the crowd was ready for more: as ElSaffar had predicted before the show began, it was impossible to feel tired at this point.

January 10, 2012 Posted by | concert, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review – Salaam’s Seventh Album Puts an Exciting New Spin on Middle Eastern Music

Salaam is the creation of violist Dena ElSaffar, big sister to acclaimed trumpeter/composer Amir ElSaffar and most likely one of his major influences – it comes as no surprise that he’s in the band. Brother-sister acts hardly being the norm in the Middle East, it figures that this would be an innovative group. Though Iraqi-born, both ElSaffars were raised on western music – and for each of them, discovering the centuries-old maqams of their native land would be a life-changing experience. This self-titled cd, their seventh, is pretty much the best of both worlds, a boundlessly creative, completely out-of-the-box mix of styles. The instruments are ancient and mainly Arabic – the music literally spans the centuries.

This band’s Layla is a lot better than the one you’re probably thinking of – it’s a lush, richly orchestrated, swaying Levantine instrumental seemingly straight out of the Mohammed Abdel Wahab repertoire that morphs into a bouncy march and then to austere atmospherics before the magnificent opening theme returns, spiced by Amir ElSaffar’s trumpet. Sellefeena sets hypnotic crescendoing qawwali-ish vocals over soaring layers of strings and  trumpet. The brief Balkan trumpet-and-accordion dance  21st Century Gypsy builds playfully over a series of modulations.

Chobi Party grows from swaying and sparse to an exuberant kanun solo by adventurous Turkish pianist Hakan Toker. A bluesily soulful take of a popular Iraqi folksong, Hadha Mu Insaaf Minnek has Dena ElSaffar’s stark fiddle playing over her brother’s acoustic guitar and her husband Tim Moore’s incisively boomy percussion. A sizzling Levantine dance with vivid Romantic piano, Mandira evokes the groundbreaking Iranian composer Abolhassan Sabah.

Arazbar Pesrevi, Salaam’s version of a medieval Ottoman court processional layers thoughtful microtonal trumpet over fiddle and kanun. A surreal dream sequence, part boogie, part maqam, Yugrug features piano and kanun over an insistent, crescendoing beat. The rest of the cd includes a gorgeously slinky instrumental, the pensive improvisation Taqsim Lami with its swirling strings and kanun, a bouncy hypnotic Iraqi folksong with ney flute, and a clever trumpet tune that ends it on an upbeat, jazzy note. Amir ElSaffar just got a rave review here for the NY debut of his Two Rivers Ensemble – this album proves he’s hardly the only brilliant musician in the family.

Something bears repeating here – this beautiful, inspiring music comes from the culture that Cheney and Rumsfeld wanted so desperately to destroy.

August 11, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment