Friday, June 23, 2017

The Languages of Large Ensembles

After a series of genre-breaking albums for Pi Recordings, trumpeter, vocalist ,and composer Amir ElSaffar moves to New Amsterdam Records for "Not Two", a fascinating double-CD, the first to feature his 17-member Rivers of Sound Orchestra. The eight song-program continues his search into adapting Iraqi song forms into Western music while his large ensemble differs from a traditional big band by adding more percussion and stringed instruments (such as the buzuq and oud.  Yet, the band rises and falls on the powerful work of drummer Nasheet Waits and bassist Carlo DeRosa, musicians along with saxophonist Ole Mathisen and oud master Zaafir Tawil who have been members of his Two Rivers Ensemble  since his 2007 debut as a leader ("Two Rivers").

photo by Alice Gebura
It would be unfair to describe each song but it is fascinating to hear how the different voices weave in and out of and around the enthralling rhythms.  Also striking is the composer's use of several voices working in counterpoint (for example, how the tenor saxophone and oboe solo together as other voices rise and fall behind them on"Penny Explosion").

"Rivers of Sound" is a perfect name for this group -  for many centuries, the river (and the seas and oceans) was one of the primary sources of cultural and economic movement.  That interaction between people of different cultures, when benign, help to infuse different sounds and words (as well as customs) into the everyday life of cities and countrysides.

These collisions of cultures and ideas are evident throughout the music on "Not Two". The violin with oud and buzuq on the opening of "Layl (Night)" carry the melody; then the vibraphone is added, then the reeds, the santur (hammered dulcimer), more voices added as the percussion thunders and pounds.  Soon, ElSaffar rises out of the storm, a plaintive vocal reaching towards the heavens.  There is also such urgency to this music. Listen to how "Shards of Memory/B Half Flat Fantasy" unfolds, the powerful motion, the different voices (at one point, JD Parran's bass saxophone carries the bottom yet is also in sync with the trumpet and violin), the hypnotic melodic exchanges between oboe and guitar, on and on right up to the glorious "...Fantasy" at the very end.

In essence, to get the full effect of this music, one must listen all the way through. And, when you return, all those different voices stand out more and more. How ElSaffar employs the guitar, how the vibes add lightness, the percussive quality of the piano (akin to Latin dance music), the different sounds of the hand percussion, the reed voices, the violin, and so forth. At times, so soft, the music whispers in your ear; at other times, the ensemble pounds, plucks, and roars pulling the listener into this glorious din.

Above all, Amir ElSaffar makes "human" music: joy, sadness, anger, humor, intermingle with other emotions. Give yourself up to and immerse yourself into "Not Two" - the pleasures are endless.

For more information, go to

Listen here:

Rivers of Sound Orchestra:

Personnel: Amir ElSaffar (trumpet, santur, vocals), Carlo DeRosa (acoustic bass), Craig Taborn (piano), Dena ElSaffar (violin, jowza - 4-stringed bowed instrument), Fabrizio Cassol (alto saxophone), JD Parran (bass saxophone, clarinet), Ole Mathisen (tenor and soprano saxophones), Mohammed Saleh (oboe, English Horn), Naseem Alatrash (cello), Jason Adasiewicz (vibraphone), Miles Okazaki (guitar), George Ziadeh (oud, vocals), Tareq Abboushi (buzuq), Nasheet Waits (drums), Rajna Swaminathan (mridangam), Tim Moore (percussion, dumbek, frame drum), Zaafir Tawil (peecussion, oud).


Steve Coleman, saxophonist, composer, and conceptualist, moves from strength to strength and has done so for nearly four decades. He's won several major awards including a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur "Genius Grant".   Whether leading a large ensemble or a compact quintet, his music is filled with surprises, melodies that move with the deftness of a dancer, and rhythms that draw from all corners of the Black music continuum.

His new album, "Morphogenesis" (Pi Recordings), features a new ensemble, Natal Eclipse, an octet without a drummer (Neeraj Mehta adds a percussive voice on four of the nine tracks but she is not a trap set drummer). Besides the leader, there are two reed players (tenor saxophonist Maria Grand and clarinetist Rane Moore) plus the wondrous voice of Jen Shyu that gives this music a bit of a lighter feel than other Coleman recording.  The composer has stated that this music was inspired by his study and appreciation for boxing, hence titles such as "Shoulder Roll", "Dancing and Jabbing", and "Inside Game." Both Ms. Moore and bassist Greg Chudzik are members of the "modern-classical group Talea Ensemble (and are members, along with violinist Kristin Lee, of the leader's Council of Balance ensemble) while Ms. Grand, Ms. Shyu, trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, and pianist Matt Mitchell have been involved with others of Mr. Coleman's groups.

Two of the nine tracks, "NOH" and "SPAN", are in-studio improvisations and, as such, play into the true meaning of morphogenesis ("...biological process that causes an organism to develop its shape.")  The first piece builds from the percussion slowly developing rhythm, the clarion call of the alto sax, deep bass notes, and Ms. Shyu's vocal into an arresting exploration.  The second piece also starts slowly, this time from a melodic fragment played by the alto sax into a delightful sonic puzzle. Note how each member of the ensemble plays the rhythm of the piece at one time or another.  

It has been noted time and again that Steve Coleman is a musical descendant from Charlie Parker but I can hear Henry Threadgill, at times, in his sound but especially in his adventurous compositions.  The manner in the composer utilizes each voice, how the support of the bass and piano often are in rhythmic counterpoint to the soloists. The clarity of the recording stands out as well, the sonic "weight" of the bass is as important as that of the clarinet and violin, never overshadowing any instrument but equal.  When listening to pieces such as "Morphing" or "Horda", you'll hear echoes of music from the Middle East, the Deep South of the United States, 19th and 20th Century European classical music, be bop, and more, all part of the evolving language of Mr. Coleman's music.  

As with the ElSaffar recording above, listen to "Morphogenesis" all the way through before going into deeper explorations.  Approach the program as a live concert where it is impossible for a listener to hear everything.  Then dig in. Enjoy the powerful melodies, listen to the excellent solos (the leader is generous in making sure every voice is heard throughout), follow the different trails the composer lays out for his ensemble members, take your time to enjoy this impressive recording. Natal Eclipse refers to astrology and certainly has great meaning for the composer. For the purposes of this music, the group is an engaging balancing act.  Steve Coleman is continually exploring and we are the beneficiaries.  

For more information, go to and to

Here's a taste:

Natal Eclipse:
Personnel: Steve Coleman (compositions, alto saxophone), Jonathan Finlayson (trumpet), Maria Grand (tenor saxophone), Rane Moore (clarinet), Kristin Lee (violin), Jen Shyu (vocals), Matt Mitchell (piano), Greg Chudzik (bass), Neeraj Mehta (percussion).

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