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Amir ElSaffar: Two Rivers

Troy Collins By

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The blues are universal. Nowhere is this more implicit than Iraqi-American trumpeter Amir ElSaffar's Pi Recordings debut Two Rivers. Drawing inspiration from the complex and often bloody history surrounding the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, ElSaffar's multi-layered writing is equally rooted in traditional Arabic classicism and Western concepts of jazz improvisation.

A child of the Chicago suburbs, ElSaffar's interest in traditional Iraqi music is fairly recent. A former sideman to pianists Cecil Taylor and Vijay Iyer, ElSaffar made multiple trips to Iraq in 2002 to study the music of his ancestral homeland. Smitten by the Iraqi classical vocal tradition of the maqam, ElSaffar studied extensively with the masters of the form, arriving back in the States just before the start of the 2003 invasion.

ElSaffar blends time-honored aspects of maqam with advanced jazz harmonies, simmering contrapuntal grooves and polyphonic melodies. An ancient tradition, with rules governing melody, harmony, improvisation and structure, maqam varies by region. Rich in textural detail and polyrhythmic drive, ElSaffar's ensemble seamlessly blends Eastern and Western traditions that are more analogous than disparate.

Maqam uses microtones similar to those found in blues music as the basis for its dense heterophony. Enriching the ensemble's unison passages, this polyphonic approach yields a vibrant textural mix as horns and strings weave a labyrinthine web of sound through numerous collective improvisations.

Rhythmically, maqam and jazz share a predilection for complex, unusual meters. "Menba'" is played in the traditional jourjina meter of 10/8, "Khosh Reng" uses a 17/8 rhythm from Syria and "Blood And Ink" blends the 10/8 jourjina pattern with a 12/8 march.

This meeting of East and West is mirrored in the instrumental line-up. Zaafer Tawil and Tareq Abboushi elicit colorful textures from violin, oud, dumbek, buzuq and frame drum while the leader alternates between santoor (hammered-dulcimer) accompanied haunting vocals and expressive trumpet playing. Bassist Carlo DeRosa and drummer Nasheet Waits lay down propulsive swing and hypnotic modal vamps while alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa unfurls thorny, chromatic spirals.

Together, the sextet unveils a rich mosaic of sound, with kaleidoscopic strings splayed across scintillating waves of percussion and driving bass ostinatos. ElSaffar dovetails with Mahanthappa's highly vocalized alto with microtonal detail, creating sumptuous polytonal voicings. Passionate and emotionally resonant, they bring a bluesy fire to the yearning modalities of ElSaffar's Arabic melodies.

A gorgeous record balanced between two worlds, Two Rivers is a stirring example of the creative possibilities of international jazz in the 21st century.


Track Listing: Menba' (Maqam Bayat) / Jourjina; Hemayoun; Shatt al-Arab (Maqam Hadidi); Flood (Maqam Hijaz Kar); Awj Intro; Khosh Reng (Maqam Awj); Lami Intro; Diaspora (Maqam Lami); Blood and Ink (Maqam Awshar) / Aneen (Maqam Mukhalif); Blues in E Half-Flat.

Personnel: Amir ElSaffar: trumpet, santoor, vocals; Rudresh Mahanthappa, alto saxophone; Zaafer Tawil: violin, oud, dumbek; Tareq Abboushi: buzuq, frame drum; Carlo DeRosa: bass; Nasheet Waits: drums.

Title: Two Rivers | Year Released: 2007 | Record Label: Pi Recordings


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