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Radical Cross-Pollination From Amir ElSaffar and the Brooklyn Raga Massive at Lincoln Center

The waves of melody slowly massing, leaping and often caressing the walls at Lincoln Center Friday night were less radical than they were a natural, spontaneous new invention. The premise: to mash up two often haunting, otherworldly traditions, Arabic maqam and Indian ragas, into a sometimes serene, sometimes turbulent, ultimately transcendent new element. Fresh off European tour, trumpeter/santoorist/singer Amir ElSaffar joined forces with violinist Arun Ramamurthy and another five of the world’s leading creative musicians in Indian classical music and beyond, for a dynamic, characteristically epic performance. As far as single-band concerts in New York in 2017 are concerned, this might have been the best of them all.

There’s far less of a stylistic gap between Arabic music and its counterparts from the Hindustani subcontinent than some might assume. Both traditions are highly improvisational and rely on overtones outside the western scale. Among many other things, this performance underscored how closely the most chromatic Indian modes resemble those of the Middle East, and how resonantly hypnotic Middle Eastern music can be.

“We’re going to experience Indian music in a radical new way!” grinned Lincoln Center’s Meera Dugal.  Ramamurthy enthused about how this show was an attempt to connect the “parallel lives” and shifting modes of Middle Eastern maqam with the Indian tradition’s slow upward trajectories, along with a heavy dose of improvisation.

The five-part suite hit a counterintuitive peak during the night’s first really lighthearted moment, a lively raga-based number fueled by tabla player Shiva Ghoshal’s increasingly animated beats. But even that grew overcast and wary to match the nebulous, distantly ominous sensibility that had pervaded the evening up to that point. Then sitarist Abhik Mukherjee took a gracefully bounding solo that was just short of imploring – and then Ramamurthy jumped in. This was too good to not be a part of. Everybody wanted a piece of it.. Bansuri flutist Jay Gandhi, cellist Naseem Alatrash and finally the bandleader himself followed, building a bracing, acerbic mist with his trumpet..

As a composer, ElSaffar’s genius is how translucent and irresistibly catchy his themes are: he is to this era what Miles Davis was to the late 50s. Likewise, Ramamurthy is taking carnatic  themes to places no one ever imagined – like this. From the allusively angst-fueled opening theme and variations that rose on an ashen tide of sound, to the concluding number – built around a familiar riff that the Grateful Dead famously appropriated – these elegant, often wounded melodies lingered long after the show. Yet ElSaffar’s most electrifying moments here were not on trumpet, but on vocals and then santoor, methodically and incisively rippling and pinging, once in exquisitely pointillistic tandem with kanun player Firas Zreik. Perhaps the most haunting, stunning solo of all was Alatrash’s somber, intense pavane right after the first movement finally coalesced. 

And the audience was treated to a fullscale spectacle that went beyond the music. Mukherjee opened the show with a brief creation-myth narration that set the stage for the night’s looming, enveloping introductory sonic cocoon. Meanwhile, intricate, tectonically shifting projections by Nitin Mukul played on the screen over the stage. Depending on the music, or the individual tableau – a mudpuddle, planes in the clouds, mandala-like images – he’d slowly pour water into each slide for a kaleidoscopically dissolving effect. And midway through the set, ElSaffar read a passage from Rumi about how after humans are long gone from this planet, invisible instruments will still be playing. For that we can only hope.

Much as it’s going to be hard to top this, that’s the game plan for Lincoln Center’s new series Outside India, a collaboration with the Brooklyn Raga Massive and the India Center Foundation, which seeks to radicalize and transform the Indian classical tradition for all sorts of innovations. Future artists who will be joined by Massive members here include adventurous Afro-Cuban drummer Román Diaz on Nov 10, and Malian singer Awa Sangho on Feb 9.

Meanwhile, the Brooklyn Raga Massive return to their weekly 8:30 PM Wednesday residency this month at Art Cafe, 884 Pacific St.  (at Washington Ave) in Ft. Greene. There’s a special guest every week, followed by a raga jam. Cover is $15; the closest train is the 2 to Bergen St.

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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.