Chicago area native, Amir ElSaffar has been working inside and outside the typical context of jazz since his Two Rivers Ensemble debut, Two Rivers (PI Recordings, 2007). The trumpeter and composer (and master santour player) has built a unique musical architecture based his study of the microtonal techniques of his ancestral Iraqi maqam. While ElSaffar was not raised with a strong sense of father's native culture, his own interest led him to travel extensively in the Middle East. His recent travels coincided with elements of the Arab Spring movements and ElSaffar found himself particularly influenced by the events in Egyptwhere he had lived for a yearand had experienced the cultural turmoil related to the Mubarak regime and its troubled aftermath.
Crisis, the third release from ElSaffar's Two Rivers Ensemble, is decidedly more political in nature but treats the music with the same fervent enthusiasm as the group had applied to their more folkloric improvisational recordings. The more abstract elements that ElSaffar had employed on Two Rivers and Inana (PI Recordings, 2011) are circumvented as the emphasis here is on the dualism of purer jazz and authentic Arab styles of music. In this technique, ElSaffar creates a distinctive paradigm.
The intent of Crisis is not in any way veiled. Following the brief opening "IntroductionFrom the Ashes," the suite moves into the "The Great Dictator" with its fluid themes that speak to both repetitive oppression and rare glimmers of light and hope. ElSaffar's solo trumpet improvisation "Taqsim Saba" relies heavily on maqam and Hijaz (a region of Saudi Arabia) influences. The quiet beauty of the piece bleeds into Carlo Derosa's marching bass intro to "El-Sha'ab (The People)" where the mood becomes more confrontational. "Flyover Iraq" adds further layers of complexity combining Turkish melody and the flair of a Chicago horn section.
"Tipping Point" is a self-contained study in its own right. The thirteen-plus minute composition opens with DeRosa's cautious bass lines before launching into a narrative that answers to the earlier "The Great Dictator." ElSaffar describes the structure of the composition as ..."simultaneously pulling in multiple directions." There is an endemic sense of potential chaos even in moments of calm as they inevitably explode in remnants of previous pieces that go careering by like shrapnel. The album closes with the melancholy "Aneen (Weeping), Continued," referencing the latter half of the "Two Rivers Suite" from that 2007 recording, and finally "Love Poem" and ancient Sufi poem set to music.
What ElSaffar is doing on Crisis is unique in music. From a perspective of compositional technique, perhaps only multi-reedist/composer Hafez Modirzadeh with his In Convergence Liberation (PI Recordings, 2014) comes close and it's no coincidence that ElSaffar was an integral part of that project. But from a political and historical vantage point, the task of narrating complex global events through instrumental music is more than challenging. ElSaffar has not only commendably told this personal and globally important story but has produced a masterpiece of a recording in doing so.
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.)
Amir ElSaffar: trumpet, vocal, santour; Ole Mathisen: tenor and soprano saxophone; Nasheet Waits: drums; Carlo DeRosa: bass; Tareq Abboushi: buzuq; Zafer Tawil: oud, percussion.