Samir Zarif: Starting Point (2011)
How we rate: our writers tend to review music they like within their preferred genres.
The excitement of hearing the voice from a musician of significant new talent knows no bounds. Violinist Majid Khaliq, vocalist Khalil Wilson, bassist Michael Feinberg, composer Gene Pritsker, and now saxophonist and storyteller Samir Zarif, are just beginning to fan the rapidly growing new brushfire of 21st century music. Zarif's talent is significant enough to merit Starting Point, his first album as leader, coming after paying his dues in Texas (where he grew up) and in New Orleans, the cradle of Afro-American music, with drummer Jason Marsalis and the rest of the Marsalis family. But to drop anchor and produce an album that boldly erases the artificial barriers that exist in music, thanks in part due to a fractured industry, requires high praise indeed.
Two of Zarif's tracks on Starting Point are pivotal in understanding the persuasions of his music. The darkly beautiful "Dancing in a Garden of Dead Roses" and deeply soulful and mystical, "The Old Man's Box" are compositions that gently pry open up the musician's heart. The lyric of the former, voiced with cold fire and naked emotion by Maria Neckam, lays bare the artist in turmoil, something which is resolved by tumbling headlong into a ponderous abyss of human conflict. The resolution takes place in the later track, one where the artist confronts his whole being, emerging from a vortex of spirituality. Zarif explains this in the chart immediately following, "The Story of 'The Old Man's Box.'" Somehow, however, this would have been almost redundant if it were not for the poetic metric of the track's narrative.
Zarif is a horn player who brings a searching soulfulness to both soprano and tenor saxophones. There is an almost inaudible vibrato in his playing as he makes deep and searing forays into the after world of spiritualism. In this respect, he directly follows the John Coltrane of later years. But Zarif is a singular voice as well. His tone is somewhat dry, and his ponderous journeys into the realm of harmonic invention are characterized by the gilt-edged glide of broad glissandos. Moreover, his playing assumes an almost cubist personality as he brings a statuesque, Zen-like imagery to the exploratory phrases and lines that pepper his musical excursions, especially when he employs his own voice to narrate his lyric poetry and when he slides in the electronics.
Starting Point leaves an indelible mark on the mind's ear from the very first time it is spun. "The Story of 'The Old Man's Box'" is one of the more memorable reasons why this is so. Another unforgettable track is "Keep the Faith." But it is also the music of "Letter to the Brothers," swirling with irony and also with a sense of breaking free, that marks Zarif's music with great expectation of more music in the future of this outstandingly lyrical and achingly thoughtful musician.
Track Listing: Circle of Truth; Dancing in a Garden of Dead Roses; Letter to the Brothers; Precocious Nation; The Old Man's Box; The Story of "The Old Man's Box"; Interlude to Life; Fear & Deception; This Life; Keep the Faith.
Personnel: Samir Zarif: soprano saxophone (3, 5, 7), tenor saxophone (1, 2, 4, 7-9), vocals (2, 6, 9, 10), electronics (6, 10); Zack Lober: electric bass (2, 5, 7), acoustic bass (1, 3, 4, 8, 9); Colin Stranahan: drums (1, 4, 7-9), percussion (1); Greg Ritchie: drums (2, 3, 5); Maria Neckam: vocals (2, 9); Lars Dietrich: alto saxophone (4, 8).
Record Label: Mythology Records