Much has been written about Amir ElSaffar's Iraqi-American background and the influence that birthright has had on his music. The demographics, however, do little to prepare the ear for the exotic and completely distinctive sound that he creates. ElSaffar's Western and Middle Eastern amalgam of disciplines had best manifested itself in his sextet, the Two Rivers Ensemble. His Rivers of Sound ensemble of seventeen players expands ElSaffar's musical reach to incorporate a broader global perspective on Not Two.
There is a strong Zen component to the ideology behind Not Two. The perfection of maqam is in achieving a trance-like state that appears to be similar, to the Northern Paiute Ghost Dance in that both theoretically bring together distinct cultures. When combined with the Chicago native's experience in Cecil Taylor's big band, ElSaffar is armed with awareness that few composers and arrangers have at their disposal. His methodology does not include the integration of regional styles but rather he deploys both in complimentary ways. It is as complex as it sounds and is difficult (and likely ambiguous) to attempt to convey the finished product.
The customary Arab maqam micro-tonality that dominates the first half of "Iftitah" gives way to a stately gust of horns before East and West trade off in shorter intervals. "Jourjina Over Three" opens with a piercing Iraqi air, becomes more animated and then disintegrates. Initially melancholy, "Ya Ibni, Ya Ibni (My son, my son)" later features Craig Taborn's piano, adapted to meet the maqam scale, the piece closing with Jason Adasiewicz' quirkily melodic vibraphone. Solos stand out on the beautiful "Hijaz"; ElSaffar, guitarist Miles Okazaki, violinist Dena ElSaffar (the leader's sister), and Adasiewicz all getting their time to shine. The sixteen-minute "Shards of Memory/B Half Flat Fantasy" is a striking suite; a genre-defying, late-arriving overture, wrapping up many elements of Not Two, and adding some new ones.
ElSaffar's ambitious, ecstatic two-disc set is yet another enormous achievement of structure and improvisation. Percussionist Tim Moore and drummer Nasheet Waits add immeasurable qualities and complexities. The pair, often subdued, succeed in the masterful movement of ElSaffar's musical phases and shifting moods. The music of Not Two can be poignant, shadowy and tempestuous, all at once. It swells and collapses into new shapes like a chemical reaction and though there is little in the way of white space here, there is plenty of room for breathing between the surges of energy. Another ElSaffar masterpiece.
Disc 1: Iftitah; Jourjina Over Three; Penny Explosion; Ya Ibni, Ya Ibni (My son, my son).
Disc 2: Layl (Night); Hijaz; Shards of Memory/B Half Flat Fantasy; Bayat Declamation.
Amir ElSaffar: trumpet, santur; Carlo DeRosa: acoustic bass; Craig Taborn: piano; Dena ElSaffar: violin, jowza; Fabrizio Cassol: alto saxophone; George Ziadeh: oud, vocals; Jason Adasiewicz: vibraphone; JD Parran: bass saxophone, clarinet; Miles Okazaki: guitar; Mohammed Saleh: oboe, english horn; Naseem AlAtrash: cello; Nasheet Waits: drums; Ole Mathisen: tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone; Rajna Swaminathan: mridangam; Tareq Abboushi: buzuq; Tim Moore: percussion, dumbek, frame drum; Zafer Tawil: percussion, oud.