Amir ElSaffar’s Intense, Brooding Crisis Transcends Middle Eastern Music, Jazz and Everything Else
“Driving and to the point, Amir ElSaffar’s music is beyond categorization: not jazz, world music or any facile fusion thereof but a world unto its own.” A lot of bravado there, but the Chicago-born, New York-based trumpeter backs it up. His fifth album, Crisis – a suite inspired by his year in Egypt in 2012, as witness to the Arab Spring – is just out from Pi Recordings, and it’s arguably his best yet. Towering, majestic, haunting, dynamically rich, often grim, it might be the best album of 2015 in any style of music. Here ElSaffar – who plays both trumpet and santoor and also sings in Arabic in a resonant, soulful baritone – is joined by brilliant oudist/percussinonist Zaafir Tawil, fiery buzuq player Tareq Abboushi, tenor saxophonist Ole Mathisen, bassist Carlo DeRosa and drummer Nasheet Waits. Since the album is just out, it hasn’t hit the usual streaming spots yet, but three of the tracks are up at ElSaffar’s music page. ElSaffar and all of these players perform the album release show tonight, September 17 at 8 PM at Symphony Space. Cover is $25.
Rumbling, tumbling drums underpin a alow, stately, chromatically edgy trumpet theme distantly echoed by the oud as the introduction, From the Ashes, rises and falls. ElSaffar switches to the eerily rippling santoor for a serioso solo, utilizing the exotic microtones of the Iraqi classical maqam music he’s devoted himself to over the past fifteen years after an auspicious career start bridging the worlds of jazz, latin music and the western classical canon.
Mathisen doubles the reverberating pointillisms of the santoor on The Great Dictator, until a flurrying trumpet riff over distorted electric buzuq, and suddenly it becomes a trickly dancing Middle Eastern art-rock song. Abboushi’s long, slashing solo is one of the most adrenalizing moments committed to record this year, the song moving toward funk as Mathisen sputters and leaps.
After ElSaffar’s plaintive solo trumpet improvisation Taqsim Saba – imbued with the microtones which have become his signature device – the band slinks and bounces their way into El–Sha’ab (The People), which for all its elegantly inspired shadowboxing between the oud and the trumpet is a pretty straight-up funk song. The aptly titled, apprehensively pillowy Love Poem, a variation on the introductory theme, overflows with lyrical interplay between santoor, sax and oud, as well as a graceful pairing between santoor and bass. It takes on an unexpectedly dirgelike quality as it winds out.
The epic Flyover Iraq – as cruelly ironic a title as one could possibly imagine in this century – begins as bright, syncopated stroll, goes back to funk with a lively trumpet/buzuq duet, ElSaffar then taking flight toward hardbop with his trumpet. DeRosa takes it out with a lithe, precise solo. The suite’s most titanic number, Tipping Point introduces an uneasily contrapuntal melody that expands throughout the band, follows an upbeat, funky trajectory toward a fanfare, then vividly voices a theme and variations that literally follow a path of dissolution. ElSaffar’s somber trumpet solo out sets the stage for Aneen (Weeping), Continued, a spare, funereal piece that brings to mind similarly austere material by another brilliant trumpeter with Middle Eastern heritage, Ibrahim Maalouf. The album winds up with Love Poem (Complete), a more somber take on the first one. Clearly, the revolution ElSaffar depicts here has not brought the results that he – or for that matter the rest of the world – were hoping for.