Friday, July 24, 2015

"Crisis" & Fusion

Trumpeter, vocalist, composer, and arranger Amir ElSaffar, a native of Illinois, is the son an American mother and a father born in Iraq.  He studied at De Paul University in Chicago and soon was playing in various orchestras and groups in that great hub of music.
After moving to New York City at the turn of the 21st Century, the trumpeter was playing with Cecil Taylor, Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthappa. He also began to study the music of his ancestral home, specifically Iraqi maqam which is "a set of notes with traditions that define relationships between them, habitual patterns, and their melodic development." (To find out more about the musical form, go to To do this studying, he traveled to Iraq and Europe to find the maqam masters. By 2006, ElSaffar had learned to speak Arabic, to sing maqamat, and to play the santur (the Persian hammered dulcimer).  ElSaffar is the leader of 5 ensembles including Safaafir (a group dedicated to playing maqamat in original settings) and the Two Rivers Ensemble (a sextet - there is also a "large ensemble" version - that plays music utilizing the modal system unique to maqam with elements of jazz.)

ElSaffar formed the latter group a decade ago with the rhythm section of Nasheet Waits (drums), Carlos DeRosa (bass), Tareq Abboushi (buzuq, a Persian string instrument related to the Greek bouzouki and Turkish saz), Zafer Tawil (oud, violin, qanun - a Persian zither - and Arab percussion) and Rudresh Mahanthappa (alto saxophone). In 2007, the group released its debut album for Pi Recordings, "Two Rivers." By the release of 2011's "Inana", tenor saxophonist Ole Mathisen had replaced Mahanthappa and remains with the sextet to this day.

Around the time the 2nd CD was released, ElSaffar received a commission from the Newport Jazz Festival for a new work to be premiered in 2013.  The composer spent 8 months living, studying and composing the work in Egypt while keeping a wary eye as the positive outcomes of the Arab Spring of 2011 began to unravel.

The piece was ready in time for its premiere (click here to watch a video about the Newport Festival date) and, earlier this year, the Sextet entered the studio.  The resulting album, titled "Crisis" (Pi), is both a continuation of the maqam studies of the group's first 2 recordings and a reflection of the turmoil in Iraq and the Middle East.  The blend of traditional Middle Eastern and Black American music is even more seamless than on the earlier albums. The "Crisis Suite" opens with a barrage of drums from Waits that leads to the opening theme of "Introduction - From the Ashes." Everyone drops out save for ElSaffar (santur, vocal) and Abboushi's echoing buzuk.   Listen to the flow of the second track ("The Great Dictator"), how the melody moves and the rhythms shift, how the brilliant drum work of Waits keeps the pulse and sets a fire under Mathisen's hard-edged tenor spotlight.

In the midst of the sextet work, ElSaffar plays a mournful trumpet solo. Titled "Taqsim Saba", the composer and performer dubs the work "a lamentation on oppression and destitution" - the music rises up into the horn's higher ranges before coming to its final, hushed, notes. DeRosa opens the following piece "El-Sha'ab (The People)" in his own quiet world before Waits and the rest of the ensemble crash in.  There's a funky, Middle-Eastern, vibe here, the declamatory trumpet and saxophone weaving around the buzuq, the drummer pushing very hard while the bass throbs below.  ElSaffar steps up and digs into a strong solo, one that echoes his singing voice in places.  The addition of Mathisen's soprano sax is a treat.

"Flyover Iraq" and "Tipping Point" are the 2 long pieces (8:19 and 13:40 respectively) that close the 7-movement "...Suite." The former is fired by Wait's incendiary drumming (he is in "high energy" mode up until the 7:30 mark when everyone stops and DeRosa takes the tune out by himself with a powerful bass statement. The rolling rhythms of the opening minutes of the latter track begin to give way to harder beats, a trumpet and saxophone dialogue, and an oud solo shadowed by the buzuq while the beat breaks down.  The trumpet and tenor saxophone solos follow, both musicians delivering a powerful message. The beat continues to press forward, Tawil going hand in hand percussion before a forceful buzuq solo enters.  The scene changes several times before the fiery rubato close.

The final 2 tracks are variations, the first "Aneen (Weeping), Continued" acting as an epilogue and based on a section from the "Two Rivers Suite."  That slow meditation fades out and then into the full version of "Love Poem", a tune that is part of the "Crisis Suite" with lyrics from the 13th Century Sufi mystic Ibn Arabi. The earlier reading only employs several lines of the text while the closing track had ElSaffar singing all the lyrics.

Amir ElSaffar is building quite the repertoire for his ensembles, traditional music apart from but also married to contemporary rhythms.  His 2013 quintet recording "Alchemy" featured his trumpet and Mathisen's tenor sax in the company of drummer Dan Weiss, bassist Francois Moutin and the impressive young pianist John Escreet. While several of the pieces on that critically acclaimed CD are based on Middle Eastern modes, there's more of an American jazz feel overall. With his return to the Sextet, "Crisis" reflects the trumpeter/composer's journey into a world that harbors danger and extracts sadness from those attempting to survive the purging of a people's history by forces out to remake the countries of the conflict-ravaged area. Those of us who are far away from the reach of militant strikes and endless suffering ave this this music, music that serves to tell an important story and still sound innovative while also preserving ancient customs. "Crisis" is brilliant and important music for the 21st Century.

For more information, go to  Take note, this band will play a week of live dates that includes 2 nights in Chicago and one each in Northampton, MA, New Haven CT (Firehouse 12!!) and Toronto Canada.  See this music live, it's so important.

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