Amir ElSaffar Unleashes a River of Sound at Lincoln Center
Chicago-born, New York-based composer Amir ElSaffar books a comfortable, classy joint in the financial district, Alwan for the Arts, a hotbed for cutting-edge new music coming out of the Middle East and cross-pollinating with other styles from around the world. This evening at Lincoln Center, the trumpeter-santoorist-singer debuted his new suite, Not Two with a mighty seventeen-piece ensemble centered around the members of his regular quintet Rivers of Sounds: drummer Nasheet Waits, bassist Carlo DeRosa, buzuq player Tareq Abboushi, oudist/percussionist Zafer Tawil and tenor saxophonist Ole Mathisen. It was a magically epic performance, one which will momentarily be recorded and which is scheduled to be released on vinyl within the year. That’s major news.
As the group slowly rose with a pensively emphatic, mournful signal from the trumpet, were they going to continue in the direction of long-toned massed improvisation, a slightly Arabic-toned take on Karl Berger or Butch Morris? As it turned out, no. The opening segment grew to a sort of take on the distant, august majesty of a theme from another cross-pollinator, Hafez Modirzadeh, with whom ElSaffar has memorably collaborated. As the work went on, multiple themes rose and fell, slowly crescendoing long-toned melodies against an uneasily rippling, relentlessly rhythmic backdrop, Waits augmented by several percussionists including Tim Moore (of the transcendently good Middle Eastern jamband Salaam). ElSaffar’s sister Dena – leader of that group – supplied what was arguably the night’s most plaintive moment, playing achingly raw, sustained lines on her joza fiddle, also adding austere oud and atmosphere on viola and violin. DeRosa did the heaviest lifting of anybody in the ensemble, working up a sweat with endlessly vamping, incisively circular riffs, a couple of times racewalking his scales as he pushed the tunes into a couple of lickety-split hardbop swing interludes.
Abboushi, Tawil and fellow oudist George Ziadeh each got to take long, crescendoing solos against a hushed, anticipatory backdrop, ElSaffar adding more rippling, suspenseful flourishes on his santoor than he did on trumpet. ElSaffar built Gil Evans-like lustre, from the bottom of the sonic register – bass, cello and JD Parran’s bass saxophone – to the very top, with the santoor, violin, vibraphone and pianist Craig Taborn’s insistent, repetitive close harmonies. The rhythms would shift artfully from a stately dirge, to galloping triplets or a circling gait evocative of Ethiopian folk music. The themes embraced Mohammed Abdel Wahab-esque classical Egyptian anthemicness as well as lingering, otherworldly, minimalist Iraqi melodies and a couple of romps through pretty straight-ahead American postbop tinged with Monk-like modalities. They took it up for an explosive outro and then slowly wound it down at the end. ElSaffar has enjoyed a long association with Lincoln Center, who co-commissioned this work, another impressive notch in the belt for both.
This show is typical of the kind of coucerts in the atrium series at Lincoln Center: an abundance of styles from across the spectrum and around the world. One particularly enticing upcoming show is the JACK Quartet‘s appearance on April 23 at 7:30 PM where they’ll be playing works by John Zorn, Missy Mazzoli, Caroline Shaw and others.