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Safa: Alight

AAJ Staff By

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In an obvious sense, jazz is firmly rooted in tradition. For the last century, artists have passed this music down from generation to generation through aural (and other) forms of communication. And, quite appropriately, that mode of inheritance also fits the definition of folk music quite well.

Likewise, jazz musicians have long drawn upon other cultural idioms as a source of inspiration. Afro-Cuban jazz appeared in the '40s, with Brazilian styles such as bossa nova and samba not far behind. In recent years, artists have crossed the Atlantic to incorporate Balkan music (eg. Pachora; the Tiny Bell Trio) and the styles of West Africa (eg. the World Saxophone quartet and its members).

The group called Safa mixes traditional Persian themes with jazz improvisation in a combination that sounds like it should have been obvious all along. On Alight, Iranian expatriate Amir Koushkani shares his wealth of experience: a classically-trained master of tar and setar (lute-like instruments), Koushkani has a firm grasp of his native music. Clarinetist François Houle and percussionist Sal Ferreras join Koushkani to create a stew of styles that also includes significant elements of Turkish, Latin American, and North African music.

"Whisper of Love," for example, has an soft, lilting feel despite its melancholy message. Koushkani lends his slender voice to the piece, a contemporary Persian composition:

Where, oh where are you rushing so fast?
the desert bush begged the wind.

Punctuating the singer's brief, spare statements on voice and strings, Ferreras provides deep, melodic dumbek drumming and suggestive treble counterpoint. Houle applies his usual understated accompaniment, drifting in and out in a shadow-like fashion. Overall, this piece has a trance-like meditative feel. A journey, indeed.

Further along, "Aurora" enters the realm of abstraction. This brief duet mixes overtone-rich clarinet jousts with sparse frame drum patterns. It's a pleasant break from the song-form approach of the other pieces. On the penultimate piece, "Saghinameh," a traditional minor Persian theme is realized through decorative tar trills and start-and-stop rhythms on Cuban batá drums. Obviously these cross-cultural fusions reflect much more than simply jazz and Persian styles. That's cool; it works.

In the end you have to accept Safa on its own terms. The group's name means "inner purity, sincerity, sincere affection" in Farsi—and while its approach is anything but pure in the stylistic sense, there's a strong sense of sympathetic meditation. The fact that these three players have conjoined so effectively to realize this project reflects a fundamental attribute of good music everywhere: musicians must rely on each other to reach a shared plateau. The bonus, of course, is that we get to share the experience as well.

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Track Listing: Chahar Mezrab; Sufinameh; Navai; Shadi; Whisper of Love; Ninavae; Drunk; Nihawend Lunga; Aurora; Saghinameh; Epilogue.

Personnel: Amir Koushkani: tar, setar, vocals; Fran

Title: Alight | Year Released: 2003 | Record Label: Songlines Recordings


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