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Tag: middle eastern jazz

A Rich, Multi-Layered, Epic New Middle Eastern-Flavored Album From Amir Elsaffar

Amir Elsaffar’s Rivers Of Sound Orchestra play oceanic, tidally shifting soundscapes that blend otherworldly, microtonal Middle Eastern modes, lushly immersive big band jazz improvisation and what could be called symphonic ambient music. Elsaffar has made a name for himself as an extraordinary multi-instrumentalist and composer who has done as much to create a new style of music based on the magical maqams from across the Middle East as anyone alive. His latest epically ambitious, absolutely gorgeous new album The Other Shore is streaming at Bandcamp. Thematically, this is more majestically improvisational than his other large-ensemble work, although he weaves several themes and variations into it. Subtle, occasionally cynical humor typically takes the place of the politically-fueled anger that would often surface on albums like his 2015 Crisis record.

The album’s opening number, Dhuha is a diptych. The seventeen-piece ensemble begin with dense, nebulous, rising and falling tones, with pianist John Escreet, drummer Nasheet Waits, percussionist Tim Moore and mridamgam player Rajna Swaminathan adding stately accents behind Elsaffar’s broodingly chromatic, resonant trumpet. Cellist Naseem Alatrash takes a stark microtonal solo, handing off to Elsaffar’s sister Dena’s bracingly textured joza fiddle as the group rise from a brisk stroll to a churning groove. Echo effects and dramatic vocalese from Elsaffar give way to a thicket of pointillisms from vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, oudists George Ziadeh and Zafer Tawil, and buzuq player Tareq Abboushi. Then the eagle rises again. That’s just the first thirteen minutes of the record, and it sets the stage for what’s in store.

Elsaffar’s soaring, wordless vocals fuel the upward drive in Transformations from a circling, steady stroll. Mohamed Saleh’s oboe shadows a restrained but ebullient trumpet solo, then comes to the forefront as a seemingly tongue-in-cheek Kashmiri groove develops. Saxophonists Ole Mathisen and Fabrizio Cassol work a triumphant triangulation before an elegant descent to the ouds and Miles Okazaki’s spare guitar.

The album’s most orchestral track, Reaching Upward begins with a stately, moody string theme that Elsaffar brightens with a deviously martial trumpet theme which suddenly goes 180 degrees from there. Knowing how Elsaffar works, is he going to take the hypnotic, spiky, circling theme that Okazaki and the percussionists develop and send it spinning into the maelstrom? Not quite. We get a web of concentric circles and an elusive, bracing maqam theme, Elsaffar accompanying himself with rippling santoor. A blazing sax solo backs off for a good facsimile of the Grateful Dead, which morphs into a shivery trumpet theme and eventually falls away for a calm series of waves and a gamelanesque outro. Who else is creating music this wildly and fearlessly diverse?

Ashaa is only slightly less of an epic, and the point where it becomes clear that Escreet is playing a piano in a Middle Eastern tuning. Bassist Carlo DeRosa holds the suspense until the bandleader enters into a regal trumpet passage….and then the band hit a steady, anthemic, tantalizingly chromatic clave theme that goes in a dusky Ethiopian direction. It’s arguably the album’s most wickedly catchy interlude. Syncopated quasi Isaac Hayes psychedelic soul and variations recede for a percolating DeRosa solo, then it’s back to the long road to Addis Ababa.

A bright stairstepping theme introduces the bandleader’s edgy, machinegunning santoor in the next number, Concentric. After that, Lightning Flash has a bit of a cloudburst, a calm, then a spare, biting Abboushi buzuq solo finally replaced by a steady, mechanically pulsing theme that could be Darcy James Argue.

March is all about victory, an Andalucian-tinged update on a famous Ravel tune, with a tantalizingly sizzling violin solo, a sober oud duel mingling with the vibes, the horns ushering in a rapidfire, stabbing Saleh oboe break. Elsaffar wafts uneasily through his most poignantly resonant solo of the night in the final number, Medmi. As usual with Elsaffar, this is a lock for one of the best albums of the year.

One of the World’s Mightiest Latin Jazz Orchestras Gets Back to Business at Birdland

When a bunch of oligarchs and their puppets in politics tried to take over the world in 2020, musicians were left out in the cold. In the liner notes to his new album Virtual Birdland, pianist Arturo O’Farrill, longtime leader of the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra takes care to mention how people who play music for a living are no less essential than any other workers. Empowered by that knowledge, he kept the band going through a long series of webcasts, possibly the most labor-intensive of all the innumerable online collaborations of the past sixteen months or so. The great news is that the big band’s home base, Birdland, is open again, and the group have resumed the Sunday night residency they were banished from in March of last year. Showtime these days is 7 PM. If you feel like celebrating, it couldn’t hurt to reserve a spot now since these shows are very likely to sell out. Cover is $20; your best deal is a seat at the bar.

Considering that individual parts on the record – streaming at Spotify – were recorded remotely in innumerable different sonic environments, the fact that it sounds as contiguous as it does reflects the herculean work of the engineers involved.

Big trombone fanfares interweave with lushly swirling reeds over a bubbling Punjabi-inflected groove in the cuisine-inspired opening number, Gulab Jamon. O’Farrill takes a cascading, brightly neoromantic solo with Bam Bam Rodriguez’s bass growling minimalistically behind him while the rhythm straightens into an emphatic clave. Tenor saxophonist Jasper Dutz summons a return to a web of triumphant counterpoint and a devious false ending.

Guest Malika Zarra sings her composition Pouvoir, a slinky, brassy Moroccan-flavored tune with solos from trombonist Mariel Bildstein and conguero Keisel Jimenez. This band have always slayed with Arabic and Jewish themes, underscored by their version of trombonist Rafi Malkiel’s brooding Desert, its uneasily undulating chromatics giving way to a serpentine solo by the composer and then a muted, soulful one from lead trumpeter Seneca Black.

With its nocturnal, Dizzy Gillespie-style suspense and bluster, Larry Willis’ Nightfall makes a great segue, trumpeter Rachel Therrien and tenor saxophonist Ivan Renta cutting loose hauntingly between the orchestra’s chromatic gusts. The bandleader spirals elegantly; Jimenez goes deep down the well as the storm hovers.

Guest guitarist Ghazi Faisal Al-Mulaifi sings his methodical, bittersweet ballad Ana Mashoof, adding a starry solo in tandem with O’Farrill before Alejandro Aviles spins in on soprano sax. Alto saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera soars and weaves through a tightly turbulent take of his Samba For Carmen, echoed by O’Farrill’s trumpeter son Adam.

Alafia, by Letieres Leite – the Brazilian Arturo O’Farrill – gets a jubilant, percussion-fueled workout, part elegantly orchestral candomble theme, part feral frevo brass-band romp with a tantalizingly brief, smoky Larry Bustamante baritone sax solo.

O’Farrill first performed Rafael Solano’s En La Oscuridad with his big band legend father Chico O’Farrill alongside the great tenor saxophonist Mario Rivera, so playing this suave, balmy ballad again with Renta, a Rivera protege, brings the song full circle.

They close the album with a couple of salutes to transgression, something the world is rising to embrace like never before. The epic take of Papo Vazquez’s relentlessly anthemic Cimarron first features calm triumph from trombonist Abdulrahman Amer, Aviles turning up the heat on alto, then percussionist Carly Maldonado fueling a charge out. The final number is a towering, cinematic take of Tito Puente’s Para Los Rumberos: Renta, Malkiel, Maldonado, Jimenez and drummer Vince Cherico all get to cut loose. How beautiful it is that we can hear musicians of this caliber take material like this to the next level onstage again.

And if you’re around the East Village on the 29th, O’Farrill is leading a much smaller group at St. Marks Park at 2nd Ave. and 10th St. at half past noon.

Neotolia Take Haunting Turkish Sounds to New Places

Neotolia’s album Neotolian Song – streaming at Spotify – made the best albums of 2017 page here – and is long overdue for a more comprehensive look. No time like the present to catch up on great albums you might have missed over the years, right? It’s a distinctive mix of broodingly diverse Turkish themes for jazz orchestration; piano, oud, guitar, vocals and rhythm section, spiced with flute and haunting Chinese erhu fiddle.

Frontwoman Nazan Nihal intones an imploring Turkish lyric over menacing, Lynchian minor/major changes from pianist Utar Artun in the album’s opening track, Bir Barmis Bir Yokmu, up to a big crescendo interrupted by a bracingly spiraling Jussi Reijonen oud solo. They end it on a raptly mysterious note. What a way to kick off the record.

The Thrill of the Chase is completely different, beginning a funhouse-mirror take on a Yoruban chant, Reijonen’s circling, hypnotic oud contrasting with Artun’s stern jazz chords, a thumping, tumbling drum solo and a raspy improvisational interlude where everything disintegrates.

Reijonen switches to guitar for the elegantly swaying, syncopated anti-terrorism ballad Degismek Cesaret Ister, the flute reaching upward as Nihal leads the fiery, insistent vocal harmonies up to the chorus. The title track begins as a rather opaque jazz ballad, then Artun brings back the crepuscular Lynchian changes, a springboard for an uneasy intertwine of Tao He’s stark erhu and Yazhi Guo’s trilling flute.

The group follow the increasingly angst-fueled piano-and-vocal ballad Manastir Terkes with a suspiciously deadpan tropical jazz take on Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turca – it’s nothing like the wry Brubeck version. Artun’s piano glitters broodingly and then reaches for Rachmaninovian majesty in contrast with a plaintive erhu solo in Gel Kuruttum, then they back away for Nihal’s tender, achingly chromatic vocal.

Pendulum is a moodily existentialist violin-driven jazz waltz, the lone tune here in English. Nihal returns to Turkish for the lilting ballad Lydianic, with a deliciously dusky Bruno Råberg bass solo that Reijonen follows with a surreal ebow guitar interlude. They close the album with Depmen Benim Gamli Yasli Gonlume, an energetically pulsing, syncopated, Egyptian-tinged anthem, Reijonen swooping and diving microtonally on fretless guitar over Artun’s eerie close harmonies.

Ensemble Fanaa Bring Their Magical, Mysterious Middle Eastern Grooves to Prospect Park

It was a pleasantly cool Wednesday night in the late summer of 2016. The evening had gotten off to a disappointing start with an album release event in the dingy basement room at the Rockwood, where a talented tunesmith’s pickup band pretty much phoned in what could have been an electrifying set. As it turned out, the electricity that night would happen a little later in another basement room, at Rye Bar on the south side of Williamsburg, where Ensemble Fanaa played two rapt, mysterious, genuinely transcendent sets of Middle Eastern-flavored jazz.

This blog had given a big thumbs-up to their debut performance at Barbes earlier that year. This show was arguably even better. Tenor saxophonist Daro Behroozi spun a web of otherworldly microtones, slithery chromatic melody, hypnotic resonance and the occasional ferocious burst as drummer Dan Kurfirst switched between his kit and a boomy dumbek for intricate polyrhythms as well as slinky snakecharmer grooves. Bassist John Murchison held the center, often playing subtle, sometimes haunting variations on a pedal line. If memory serves right – this was a long time ago – he switched to the magical, incisive Moroccan sintir bass lute for a handful of trance-inducing, gnawa-inspired numbers.

Game plan at the time was to write up this show to plug whatever the trio’s next gig was. But they were all busy in other bands at the time, and if they actually played somewhere else within the next couple of months, it was so far under the radar that this blog missed it. The good news is that Ensemble Fanaa are doing an outdoor gig on April 20 at 5:30 PM in Prospect Park, close to the 11th St. entrance off 7th Ave. Considering that this band’s music is on the serious side: haunting, and rapturous, and mystical, nobody in the group seems like a weedhead. But if that’s your thing, there is no other 4/20 show that can match this one for psychedelic ambience. And it that’s not your thing, this still promises to be the best concert of the month.

A Mesmerizing, Paradigm-Shifting, Intimate New Album From Hafez Modirzadeh

Hafez Modirzadeh’s 2012 album Post-Chromodal Out! isn’t just one of the greatest jazz albums ever made: it’s one of the most paradigm-shifting albums ever made in any style of music. After decades of blending classical Persian modes with jazz, the tenor saxophonist employed several microtonal piano tunings for a session packed with riveting, otherworldly sounds. It’s probably the best album Vijay Iyer ever played on. It’s the dream record Erik Satie never wrote, that Thelonious Monk and Abdolhasan Saba never got to make. It also sounds like absolutely nothing else ever recorded…except for this.

With his latest release, Facets – streaming at Bandcamp – Modirzadeh switches out the pyrotechnics for a mesmerizing, intimate series of duets and solo pieces. He chose three completely different pianists as partners: Craig Taborn, Kris Davis and Tyshawn Sorey. The first comes out of the Knitting Factory school of the late 80s, the second is known for her lyricism but also has recently branched out into both more electronic and avant garde sounds. In the jazz world, Sorey has built a strong career as a drummer, but in the last few years he’s turned to solid, purposeful new classical composition.

Here, Modirzadeh employs a piano tuning where eight of the keys in the scale are retuned microtonally. Most of these pieces are on the short side; several of them are miniatures. While he gave each pianist a score prior prior to the recording sessions, none of them had played the music in this tuning before. The overtones are to die for: there’s as much sound in between the notes as there is when the hammers hit the strings. Davis is the most expansive pianist here, relishing the opportunity to discover new harmonic universes. True to form, Sorey is all about atmosphere and focus. Taborn, who opens and closes the album solo, is clearly learning on the job and takes his time, ceding centerstage to the ringleader here for some of his most invocative passages.

The first pianist Modirzadeh engages with is Sorey, for a blend of gentle, soulful, rhythmic sax over a solemn, lingering minimalism with just a few hints of microtonality. It fits his style perfectly.

The first duet with Davis, on the same composition, comes across as a more picturesque dawn tableau, Modirzadeh wafting and in one place sounding what could be a muezzin’s call as the pianist calmly but playfully works rising righthand against a still, low resonant figure. Their miniature after that is more concise and over too soon, although that could be said for everything on the album: who would ever want such rapturous music to end? Time stands still when you hear this.

Her methodical gestures, thoughtful syncopation and symphonically vast dynamic shifts on the album’s ninth track, a solo piece, are as otherworldly as they are fun: good luck trying not to crack a smile when she hits that ridiculous dance theme. And she finds regal solemnity but also moments of puckish mirth in a solo piece later on.

She also gets to take Monk through a funhouse mirror, with a coy restraint, in Modirzadeh’s minimalist microtonal mashup of Pannonica and Ask Me Now. The saxophonist does each as a duet with Taborn, the former a cautious hint of a stroll, the latter with spare yet inviting and increasingly surreal wee-hours ambience

With Sorey, Modirzadeh develops a warm, increasingly hypnotic nocturne; playfully expands and contracts around a clustering, jumping riff; and ushers in the album’s most mystical nocturne. The contrast between low crush and high belltones in Sorey’s first solo improvisation is spine-tingling. Later, he parses a Satie-esque fugue.

To compare this album to anything else released this year is unfair: jazz is more microtonal than most people realize, but Modirzadeh is still galaxies ahead of anybody else. That being said, it would take Ellington and Mohammed Abdel Wahab coming back from the dead to knock this one off the top of the best jazz albums of 2021 list.

Summoning the Witches with Ayelet Rose Gottlieb

We just went through a wild month of eclipses, so what could be more appropriate than an album of 13 Lunar Meditations Summoning the Witches? That’s the title of singer Ayelet Rose Gottlieb’s new moon-themed album, streaming at Bandcamp. The concept is counterintuitive: where you might typically expect calm, nocturnal, possibly mysterious themes, this is a generally playful, upbeat record.

As usual, Gottlieb’s songs here span a vast number of styles, from jazz, to art-rock, to sounds of the Middle East and the avant garde. The lyrics are in many different languages as well. With a joyous surrealism, she finds moon imagery in unexpected public places in the first number, Lotte and the Moon, set to Aram Bajakian’s hypnotically loopy, pointillistic guitar backdrop with a deviously scrambling Ivan Bamford drum solo midway through. It reminds of Carol Lipnik at her most exuberant.

The second number, Yare’ah is a spare, bouncy Israeli tune spiced with Eylem Basaldi’s spiky pizzicato violin, Bajakian’s guitar and the rhythm section: that’s Stéphane Diamantakiou on bass. Mond – “moon” in German – is a surreal cut-and-paste mashup of a blippy indie classical chorale and a spoken word piece contemplating the passing of generations.

The astrologically-themed Venus and the Moon has a balletesque pulse, a tango-inflected melody and a tiptoeing bass solo. Moon Story has sailing violin and vocalese balanced by punchy bass and starkly jangly guitar.

Wafting, Middle Eastern flavored violin takes centerstage behind Gottlieb’s spoken word and wordless vocals in Patience, a spacy soundscape. Yasmoon’s Moon, the most haunting and vividly nocturnal piece here, is also a showcase for plaintive violin and Bajakian’s acerbically rhythmic, oud-like phrasing. Dissipating Discus, the free jazz freakout afterward, is irresistibly funny: hang with it until the punchline.

A Spanish-language bass-and-vocal bendiction kicks off the album’s strongest track, Moon Over Gaza, a stark, politically-themed, guitar-fueled noir swing tune. The group follow Tsuki, the most ambient tableau on the record, with its longest and most darkly orchestral epic, Traveler Woman. Gottlieb winds it up with Desert Moon, an only slightly less expansive, slinky, latin-tinged anthem. Ages come and go, but the moon remains for us to dance in its light.

Darkly Glistening, Blissfully Tuneful Improvisation From Pianist Cat Toren’s Human Kind

Pianist Cat Toren’s new album Scintillating Beauty – streaming at Bandcamp – references a Martin Luther King quote about what the world would be like if we were able to conquer racism and achieve true equality. But the title is just as apt a description of the music. Toren has always been one of the most reliably melodic improvisers in the New York creative music scene, and her group Human Kind achieve a similarly high standard of tunefulness here. Jazz these days seldom sounds so effortlessly symphonic.

The epic opening cut is Radiance in Veils, sax player Xavier del Castillo introducing a balmy, Indian-tinged nocturnal theme immediately echoed by oudist Yoshie Fruchter, bassist Jake Leckie and drummer Matt Honor as Toren glistens and ripples spaciously in the upper registers behind them. The bandleader glides into Middle Eastern-tinged chromatics and then pounces hard as the bass and drums develop an elegant syncopation, del Castillo and Fruchter weaving a similar gravitas. Shuddering sax and torrential piano fuel a couple of big crescendos, Toren and Leckie team up for a tersely dancing passage and Fruchter pulls uneasily away from a broodingly emphatic center. The great Lebanese-born pianist Tarek Yamani comes to mind.

The lush, rapturous Middle Eastern ambience continues in Garment of Destiny, from the flourishes of Toren’s solo intro, through Fruchter’s hypnotic oud solo over reflecting-pool piano chords. Del Castillo adds nocturnal ambience and then agitation matching the murk rising behind him.

Ignus Fatuus is a moody midtempo swing number, Toren doing a more allusively chromatic take on Errol Garner, del Castillo taking his most jaggedly intense, spine-tingling solo here. Toren switches to funeral-parlor organ to open the closing diptych, Rising Phoenix, Fruchter leading the band into a reflective calm spiced with Toren’s many bells and rattles. Her switch to the piano signals an increasingly bustling return from dreamland, del Castillo a confidently bluesy light in the darkness. The second part has a bittersweet, rather stern soul-infused sway, Honor and the rest of the band finally seizing the chance to cut loose. In Toren’s view, we all make it to the mountaintop. This is one of the best and most memorable jazz albums of the year.

Edgy, Slinky, Lusciously Allusive Middle Eastern Jazz From Enrique Haneine

Drummer Enrique Haneine writes an ambitious, individualistic and often very captivating blend of succinct riffage, Middle Eastern-inspired themes and grooves. The lineup on his album Unlayered – streaming at Bandcamp – reflects that individualism, a three-horn frontline over a steady, bouncing rhythm section, facilitating lushnesss but more often than not a series of cleverly interpolated individual voices. Which means there’s a lot to sink your ears into here. The obvious comparison is the (otherwise pretty incomparable) Brooklyn chordless trio Ensemble Fanaa. If you love jazz and Middle Eastern music, this will push all your buttons.

The hypnotic opening track, Behind the Missing Whisper has a tasty, mysterious slink and artful, conspiratorially triangulated harmonies between Catherine Sikora’s tenor sax, Thomas Heberer’s trumpet and Christof Knoche’s bass clarinet over the undulating pulse from Haneine and bassist Jay Anderson.

The band put on the Ritz with a vampy mashup of Steve Coleman, salsa jazz and circular indie classical in the album’s second number, Luculent Jiggle (these titles seem generated by Google Translate in 404 mode), with trumpet, sax, bass clarinet and bass alluding to the Middle East in turn, but never quite going there.

A staggered, suspiciously deadpan quasi-funk drive propels Thriving Ring, Sikora taking an allusively chromatic solo. Queen of the Underground makes a good segue, a circling, bouncy, syncopated groove and an enigmatic trumpet loop underscoring brooding sax and bass clarinet solos, down to a steadily strolling bass interlude

Dance of Endless Encounter is a pulsing, Egyptian-tinged number with a lusciously modal sax solo, more straightforward trumpet and a priceless moment where the bass clarinet…well…disappears, because the rest of the band decide to jump back in! Likewise, Seldom Disguise has a subtly crescendoing, serpentine groove, building to a biting, rather cynical three-way conversation between the horns

The Sweetest Finding is built around enigmatic variarions on a sober but emphatic chromatic theme, with a droll, completely deadpan bustle and triumphant chaos. Likewise, the deadpan humor in Illustrious Bickering: some people want to bring this optimistically Middle Eastern-spiced theme to its logical conclusion, but there are diversions, a sax battle with the rhythm section and an irresistibly cartoonish coda: an Israeli wall parable, maybe?

The band revert to staggered, staccato synopcation in Oust No More, a vehicle for fiery extended-technique solos for the horns. There are hints of qawwali in the subtle but direct exchanges of voices in What of What We Are: Heberer finally goes for the grit that’s been waiting to bust loose here. The slow Ellingtonian lustre of Once, Knoche’s Lebanese blues at the center, comes as a shock until you realize the band have been building up to this understatedly gorgeous payoff all along. A stealth contender for best jazz album of 2020

Mahsa Vahdat Releases a Profoundly Multi-Layered Album For Our Time

Why did the lockdowers outlaw live music? For the same reasons the Taliban in Afghanistan and the slave traders in the Caribbean did. The arts are subversive by definition: they encourage people to question their situations, and the lockdowners won’t settle for anything less than total obedience to their most egregious and ridiculous whims. In that sense, Iranian singer Mahsa Vahdat’s new album Enlighten the Night – streaming at Spotify – is subversive. Using the words of both iconic Persian poets as well as contemporary lyricists, she celebrates freedom and hope for the future in the face of increasingly grim odds. If there was ever an album for our time, this is it. And what a great title!

Vahdat is joined by a familiar supporting cast of pianist Tord Gustavsen, bass player Gjermund Silset and drummer Kenneth Ekornes, playing arrangements by Atabak Elyasi. They open with The Act of Freedom, a spare, steadily shuffling, bittersweetly minor-key celebration of self-determintion (that’s a very prosaic summary of Mohammad Ebrahim Jafari’s lyric).

Vahdat’s clear, wounded voice channels desolation and longing over graceful solo bass in the album’s second track, Where Is the Home of the Wind, with a lyric by Forough Farrokhzad which could be about a lost love or a lost world – or both. She channels a more muted, haunting resignation, matched by Gustavsen’s haunting, quasi-bolero sparseness in Farewell, a setting of a well-known desert tableau by Saadi.

Vahdat’s aching melismas flutter over stately piano in Precious Cup, a reflection on impermanence and the first of a handful of Omar Khayyam settings. The second, The Roses and the Meadow follows a similar theme more somberly. The most fleeting – and arguably optimistic – of all is If I Were God. Light electroacoustic touches come to the foreground in Lovelorn, which is basically 180 degrees the opposite.

Bootarab – a Rumi poem celebrating enlightened leaders, party musicians and much more – has a balletesque bounce and oud voicings from the piano along with a touch of jazz. The album’s title track, with an allusive Jafari lyric about a triumphantly prowling bird of prey, has otherworldly kamancheh leaps and bounds from guest Shervin Mohajer.

Vahdat’s distantly imploring nuance matches the subtle hope for solidarity in Nima Youshij’s poem The Moon Beams, one of the album’s most Arabic-tinged track. The glimmer of hope in Ney Davoud – the album’s most skeletally epic track and a lost-love lament – is much the same. Gustavsen’s use of close harmonies to mimic the microtones of classical Persian modes is masterful, as is Silset’s crepuscular bowing.

The Dawn, with a lyric by Ahmad Shamloo, is the album’s most grimly metaphorical moment. Vahdat imbues the closing lyric, Simin Behbehani’s calmly defiant I Will Build You Again, My Country with guarded optimism over Ekornes’ clip-clop beat and Mohajer’s plaintive kamancheh. She couldn’t have picked a better moment to release this austere, inspiring record. You will see this on the best albums of 2020 page in December if such a page can exist.

Rapturous, Haunting, Moroccan-Inspired Sounds From Ensemble Fanaa

One of the best albums to come out of New York in the last couple of years is Ensemble Fanaa’s often magical, mysterious debut, streaming at Bandcamp. The trio of alto saxophonist/bass clarinetist Daro Behroozi, bassist/sintir player John Murchison and drummer Dan Kurfirst conjure up a sometimes hypnotic, sometimes stark interweave inspired by Moroccan gnawa music.

The opening track, Creation doesn’t seem to engage with North African traditions, but it’s a fun piece of music. Behroozi opens it, solo on bass clarinet, with a snort of overtones; slowly the trio work their way up from stillness. Kurfirst rattles the cage for contrast. Behroozi and Murchison – on bass – size up the space, peering through the cymbal mist, then they bring it full circle with a cheery, syncopated hook.

Murchison picks up his sintir (the band call it a gimbri; either way, it’s the Moroccan three-string bass lute whose distinctive, lightly boomy sound defines gnawa music) for Traces, Part 1, running a steady, catchy riff while Behroozi’s sax floats spaciously overhead. The trio reprise it later on the record, slowly building to a lithely circling, raptly catchy gnawa theme with Behroozi back on bass clarinet.

The trio keep the gnawa catchiness going, rising with a whisper to the surprise rhythmic shifts of Imram, Behroozi’s trilling microtones building a goosebump-inducing intensity. Murchison introduces the loose-limbed groove of Water Song, Behroozi’s spacious, gorgeously desolate sustained lines and increasingly searing microtonal melismas overhead. It’s the album’s most stunning track.

Kurfirst’s marvelous, misterioso, muted thump and rattle anchors Sujood, Murchison’s bass echoing that, Behroozi pouncing and spiraling with an otherworldly intensity.

From a spare, exploratory bass intro, the trio develop a spacious, brooding lattice spiced with the occasional biting chromatic riff in Now What, the album’s most improvisational number. They close with Yobati – Breath, the album’s most energetic track, shifting from a cheery bounce of an intro to a serpentine, undulating, uneasily keening gnawa theme. 

Ensemble Fanaa are still around, individually; all three members maintained busy schedules with other projects in jazz, African and Middle Eastern music until the lockdown. Fortuitously, Kurfirst has a handful of gigs coming up at the cube at Astor Place, staged by Concerts From Cars. Tonight, July 2 at 7 PM he jams with Ras Moche Burnett on sax, then on July 5, also at 7 he’s back with multi-reedman and trumpeter Daniel Carter, Rodney “Godfather Don” Chapman on sax and other artists tba. And then on July 8 at 7 Kurfirst and Carter return to the cube with fearless, politically woke trumpeter Matt Lavelle and supporting cast tba.