Last night at the Fridman Gallery in Soho, trumpeter Amir ElSaffar opened the night solo with a series of sweepingly concise, panoramic phrases that came across more as a call to arms than to prayer. Or maybe just a calm, resolute series of wake-up calls. In between, he left some of the most pregnant pauses hanging in the air anywhere in this city. Maybe the effects of a Pauline Oliveros retrospective here the previous night lingered as well. In between notes, the hushed, high harmonies of the ventilation system – a ninth interval, if you were there to hear it – became part of the music, along with the occasional random footfall from an adjacent room. The effect was as suspenseful and cinematic as anything Bernard Herrmann ever wrote. There would be a lot of deep listening this evening, matched by the depth of the music onstage.
As ElSaffar went on, the images on this vast canvas became more distinct, the occasional moody, graceful riff appearing amid the desolation. A series of slow, matter-of-fact crescendos gave way to a brief series of doppler effects – a calm before a storm, or planes hovering high over the fields and plains of northern Iraq? While ElSaffar is best known for his ornate and often harrowing blend of jazz and Middle Eastern sounds from that country to Syria, if there was any specific genre he brought to mind, it was austere 19th century blues.
Tenor saxophonist Ole Mathisen and drummer Tomas Fujiwara joined him for the second half of the show, a series of interconnected themes and variations that echoed ElSaffar’s mighty, turbulent 2015 large-ensemble Crisis suite. Trumpeter Peter Evans, the sonic curator for this ongoing series of shows at the gallery, is known for his extended technique, pushing the limits of what his instrument can do. ElSaffar’s own ability to conjure images, from a diesel engine at peak RPM, to sepulchral microtones and keening, overtone-fueled polytonalities, proved every bit as daunting and inspiring.
Fujiwara grounded the music with majesty and gravitas on his toms, delivering a coy doppler of his own from the bell of his ride cymbal outwards, later riding the rims with a moody, mutedly syncopated suspense. ElSaffar and Mathisen locked harmonies, whether in the western scale or outside of it as the music finally rose into magically Middle Eastern microtones. The themes were sturdy, and emphatic, and hardly at ease. A stately, regal movement gave way to a troubled fanfare, a march and variations that more than hinted at sarcasm, then a wary, practically furtive passage that made for a gently resonant crescendo before the horns finally took the music toward the region where the Chicago-born trumpeter has found his greatest inspiration over the past fifteen years or so. There will be a “best concerts of 2017” page at the end of the year here, if we’re all still here, and this will be on it.