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Amir ElSaffar and the Two Rivers Ensemble: Crisis

Hrayr Attarian By

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On his third album with the Two Rivers ensemble, Crisis trumpeter and composer Amir ElSaffar continues to explore the Arabic Maqam modal system. He uses this melodic type in a context with strong American influences and particularly jazz sensibilities. The result is not merely a superficial, kitschy fusion but true marriage of two improvisational traditions.

ElSaffar's tenure In Egypt and Lebanon partly inspired the seven-part suite commissioned for and performed at the 2013 Newport Jazz Festival. The work's launching point is a quartet by the nineteenth century great Iraqi poet Abdul Ghaffar Al- Akhras and hence it is primarily built around two jins or kind of tetrachordal maqams; the expansive and impressionistic Hijaz and the longingly wistful Saba.

ElSaffar's unaccompanied performance on the "Taqsim Saba" is, as its title indicates, in the latter format. His sublime, lilting trumpet blows haunting and yearning lines that are laced with a Levantine lyricism.

The subsequent "El Shaab (The People)," although still a Saba, is more dramatic and less mournful. Bassist Carlo Derosa's exacting thumping rhythms and drummer Nasheet Waits' martial rumble give it the assertiveness of a protest song. Buzuq player Tareq Abboushi and oudist/percussionist Zafer Tawil echo one another in crisp and confident spontaneous phrases with a touch of melancholy. ElSaffar's staccato tones mark his intelligent and angular solo as he ushers in the delightfully dissonant conclusion.

The cinematic and complex "The Great Dictator" and the passionate "Tipping Point" are both of the Hijaz variety. Arabic folk influences as well as western harmonies pepper the first. ElSaffar's warm, ardent horn soars over the band while Abboushi adds a contemplative touch with his stimulating extemporization that expands over Tawil's punctuating tablahbeats. Saxophonist Ole Mathisen exquisitely balances intense emotion with a forlorn, pensive feel as he takes center stage with his blues tinged soliloquy.

Mathisen wails with fiery abandon and soulful vigor on the second tune that opens with DeRosa's captivating, intricate reverberations. ElSaffar's trumpet maintains a somber streak while Abboushi and Tawil add tension to the piece with their evocative individual instrumentations. The group play devolves into a thrilling and breathtaking cacophony before the movement closes on a solemn and quiet note.

The disc also brims with a mystical sense that becomes most evident in ElSaffar's two vocal takes of Sufi poet Ibn Arabi's "Love Poem." ElSaffar's articulation of the ethereal words demonstrate compelling, universal spirituality as Mathisen's languid saxophone over shimmering strings and dancing drums give the chant like singing a vibrant romanticism.

ElSaffar continues to be a singular voice in modern music as this record clearly demonstrates. He has gone beyond others in superbly and seamlessly blending Middle Eastern melodies and Jazz. He achieves this by going to the elemental core of each genre and finding a common ground between them from which to construct his intriguing and captivating compositions. It is this splendid endeavor to transcend artificial categorization is what makes his art so unique.

Track Listing: Crisis Suite: Introduction – From the Ashes; The Great Dictator; Taqsim Saba; El-Sha'ab (The People); Love Poem; Flyover Iraq; (7. Bass Solo) Tipping Point; Aneen (Weeping), Continued; Love Poem (Complete.)

Personnel: Amir ElSaffar: trumpet, vocal, santour; Ole Mathisen: tenor and soprano saxophone; Nasheet Waits: drums; Carlo DeRosa: bass; Tareq Abboushi: buzuq; Zafer Tawil: oud, percussion.

Title: Crisis | Year Released: 2015 | Record Label: Pi Recordings

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