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Tag: Naseem Alatrash

Jason Yeager Reinvents Pan-American Classics as Protest Jazz on His Searingly Relevant New Album

Pianist Jason Yeager couldn’t have timed the release of his latest album New Songs of Resistance – streaming at Bandcamp – any better. With Bolivian President Evo Morales driven from office by a right-wing coup and Nicaragua’s Sandinistas under increasing fire from corporate-aligned fascists, Yeager’s mix of original protest jazz and classic nuevas canciones from 1970s Latin America are more relevant than ever. He’s playing the album release show on Dec 19 at 8:30 PM at the Cell Theatre; cover is $15.

The album’s most stunning track is Yeager’s grimly modal, savagely kinetic setting of Somos Cinco Mil, the final poem written by iconic songwriter Victor Jara in the Santiago stadium in the hours before he and thousands of other members of the Chilean intelligentsia were murdered by Augusto Pinochet’s death squad following the 1973 CIA-sponsored coup. Vocalist Erini sings this defiant but eerily prophetic anthem with a plaintive calm against cellist Naseem Alatrash’s slashing, Egyptian-tinged accents and the bandleader’s crushing chords.

The group open the album with an elegantly pulsing take of Violeta Parra’s Gracias a la Vida, Erini’s expressive delivery over Matthew Stubbs’ clarinet and bass clarinet, Cosimo Boni’s trumpet, Milena Casado’s flugelhorn, Yeager’s spare piano and the understated rhythm section of bassist Fernando Huergo and drummer Mark Walker.

Farayi Malek delivers Yeager’s cynical broadside The Facts over a sardonically ominous pseudo-march – a frequent and potently effective trope here – bringing to mind the fiery intensity of Todd Marcus‘ similarly political work, especially when the bass clarinet kicks in. Yeager introduces another Jara song, Aqui Me Quedo with a pensively unsettled solo intro, Erini’s vocals rising defiantly over  sweeping orchestration.

Mother Earth, a Yeager original, has strong Monk echoes along with more suspiciously straightforward strutting and,a long, insistent trumpet crescendo. Singer Farayu Malek’s matter-of-fact recitation of Yeager’s scathing, spot-on lyrics to In Search of Truth addresses a host of problems – eco-apocalypse, the corporate-driven race toward slavery and dehumanization – over an increasingly agitated backdrop. Then Yeager opens Leon Geico’s Cinco Siglos Igual with a brooding, Rachmaninovian noir interlude, Erini’s expressive, ripely wounded vocals bringing to mind Camila Meza, Casado picking up the pace against the band’s lustre.

The rest of the record includes three originals and a Brazilian song. Protest, a menacing, stabbing little march, leads into the album’s creepiest, most carnivalesque number, Reckoning: with a tune and a Malek vocal this coldly dismissive, who says revenge songs need lyrics? Yeager’s final instrumental interlude follows, macabre and suspenseful. The album ends on an upbeat note with a loose-limbed take of Brazilian songwriter Chico Buarque’s Apesar de Voce, sung with dusky resolve by Mirella Costa. Yeager’s relentless, usually understated intensity, starkly evocative compositions and imaginative reworking of a smartly assembled mix of classic songs make this one of the best albums of 2019 in any style of music.

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.

Visionary Trumpeter Amir ElSaffar Explores Indian Themes at a Familiar Lincoln Center Haunt

Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble played the most epic, richly ironic show of 2017. Deep in the wicked heart of the financial district, completely unprepared for a frequent drizzle that threatened to explode overhead, they swept through a vast, oceanic suite largely based on Arabic modes in the shadow of a building festooned with the most hated name in the English language. That the visionary trumpeter/santoorist/singer’s mighty, heavily improvisational orchestra would be able to pull off such a darkly majestic, ultimately triumphant feat under such circumstances is reason for great optimism.

While this monumental suite, Not Two, references an Indian vernacular on occasion, that isn’t a major part of the work. However, ElSaffar has an auspicious concert coming up this Friday, September 8 at 7:30 PM at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St., where he’ll be leading a septet much deeper into Indian-inspired themes. Fans of the most deliciously rippling sounds imaginable should be aware that this band will feature both the Egyptian kanun and the Iraqi santoor. The show is free, and ElSaffar’s previous performance here sold out: it can’t hurt to get here early.

Another great irony is that this mid-June performance of Not Two featured lots of pairings between instruments. ElSaffar’s title reflects how few questions can be answered in black-and-white terms, and how manichaean thinking gets us in trouble every time. This is a profoundly uneasy, symphonic work with several themes: the two that jumped out the most at this show were a cynical fanfare of sorts and a swaying, anthemic Egyptian-influenced melody and seemingly endless variations.

The most poignant and plaintive duet was between ElSaffar, who played both santoor and trumpet, and his similarly talented sister Dena (leader of brilliant Indiana Middle Eastern band Salaam) on viola. Playing a spinet piano retuned to astringent microtones, Aruan Ortiz calmly found his footing, then lept a couple of octaves and circled animatedly while vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, at the opposite edge of the stage, maintained a warier, more lingering presence.

As the suite rose and fell, Ole Mathisen’s desolate microtonal tenor sax and Mohamed Saleh’s oboe emerged and then receded into the mist. Three of the night’s most adrenalizing solos were pure postbop jazz: ElSaffar’s cyclotronic Miles-at-gale-force trumpet swirls, baritone saxophonist Josh Sinton’s artfully crescendong development of a moody circular theme, and finally alto saxophonist Aakash Mittal’s rapidfire, surgically slashing foreshadowing of the coda. Many of the rest of the players got time in the spotlight, ranging from cautious and ominous to an intensity that bordered on frantic, no surprise in an era of deportations and travel bans. For this distinguished cast, which also comprised cellist Naseem Alatrash, oudists/percussionists Zafer Tawil and Georges Ziadeh, multi-reedman JD Parran, guitarist Miles Okazaki, buzuq player Tareq Abboushi, bassist Carlo DeRosa, percussionist Tim Moore and drummer Nasheet Waits, it was the show of a lifetime.

ElSaffar has a similarly stellar lineup for the September 8 show: Alatrash on cello plus Firas Zreik on kanun; Arun Ramamurthy on violin; Abhik Mukherjee on sitar; Jay Gandhi on bansuri flute, and Shiva Ghoshal on tabla. What’s more, this show is the first in Lincoln Center’s new series Outside India, a collaboration with the Brooklyn Raga Massive and the India Center Foundation. The game plan is to “disrupt the hierarchical nature of many Indian music collaborations and position Indian classical music as a space for inclusion and conversation in an innovative and radical new way.” Artists who will be joined by Massive members at future concerts include adventurous Afro-Cuban drummer Román Diaz on Nov 10, and Malian singer Awa Sangho on Feb 9.

Amir Elsaffar’s Rivers Of Sound: An Imaginative Sonic Landscape

by Aakash Mittal

Rivers of Sound offers a captivating glimpse into Amir Elsaffar’s artistic journey and contributes a distinct sonic perspective to the body of creative music. Within the piece Elsaffar molds a soundscape out of colorful improvisation, shifting momentum, and inventive orchestration. The score is brought to life by a core ensemble of seventeen improvisers playing an array of instruments that include bass saxophone, mridangam, and ney flute. The music has a sense of spontaneity as Elsaffar assesses the sounds of the moment, cues in solos, and orchestrates new densities on stage. Rather than experiencing a work frozen in time by strict notation, the audience journeys with Elsaffar as he listens and makes intuitive decisions about the music. The result is an unforgettable event where the listener is able to traverse the imagination of this dynamic composer.

Meera Dugal curated the Brooklyn premiere at Pioneer Works in Red Hook on Ocobert 14. Dugal often partners with artists to construct narratives that advance identity and social inquiry though the medium of sound. This esthetic resonated beautifully with the venue’s mission to harbor new and adventurous music. The room’s high ceilings, brick walls, and modular performance space offers composers a blank canvas for collaboration, experimentation, and creative statement. This form of grassroots partnership between curator, venue, and artist is an important aspect of Elsaffar’s creative process.

Elsaffar’s sound emanates from musical experiences that include performing with Cecil Taylor, studying Baghdadi maqam, and playing in the Chicago jazz scene. Yet Elsaffar never gets bogged down with the “burden of representation” that can befall an artist. Rather, he employs the timbres of instruments such as buzuq, vibraphone,and English horn to engineer imaginative orchestrations. Early on in the piece there was a moment where Zafer Tawil’s oud, JD Parran’s bass saxophone and Naseem Al Atrash’s cello sustained a rich harmony. The buzz of the saxophone reed augmented the viscosity of the oud and cello timbres. A sonic color emerged from the texture that contained both a palpable tension and a beautiful dissonance.

At other times, Elsaffar held the audience’s attention through shifting momentums and layers of rhythmic punctuation. Within minutes of the piece’s opening, drummer Nasheet Waits and bassist Carlo DeRosa ignited a torrent of energy. Shortly after, Parran’s improvisation erupted, the saxophonist’s dense melodic lines resolving to an almost spectral altissimo melody within the rhythm section’s driving pulse. Following this deluge of sound, the texture evaporated and the audience was left with the ethereal resonance of Elsaffar’s own santur and Naseem Alatrash’s cello. Elsaffar’s improvisation began to imply time as he built an infectious rhythm with the modular sound created by mridangam artist Rajna Swaminthan. Then Tawil and pianist Aruan Ortiz joined the musical conversation with their complementary phrasing. The resulting tension was magnetic, compelling the listener to lean in and move with the beat.

Once the groove was established, Amir led the ensemble with melodically intersecting shapes and angles. Tenor saxophonist Ole Mathisen joined oboist Mohammed Saleh and alto saxophonist Fabrizio Cassol in contributing intervallic leaps to the texture; cycling rhythms melted and reformed, continuing for a full ninety minutes.

Tempos ranged from the thrill of a blistering free-fall to the slow purposeful weight of ritualistic footsteps. Throughout the work, a pulsing ebb and flow emerged from the creative design of genuine experience.

In addition to being a composer, Elsaffar performs in a number of ensembles as a trumpet player, santur player, and vocalist. While all of Elsaffar’s projects are dynamic, creative, and deserve mention, Rivers of Sound is significant because it embodies his journey and the community he has built over the past 18 years. Each of the ensemble members hails from a unique time in Elsaffar’s life. Oboe and English horn player Mohammad Saleh started playing with Amir eighteen years ago in the West-East Divan Orchestra, led by conductor Daniel Barenboim, when both musicians were undertaking a deep study of western classical technique. During a sequence of collaborative trips to Europe starting in 2013, Amir began to work with Cassol, who was featured with an electrifying solo of descending shapes and lines at the Pioneer Works concert. Elsaffar began playing with Tawil (who is also featured on percussion) and his fellow oudist George Ziadeh in 2001 in New York City. Mridangam player Rajna Swaminathan and guitarist Miles Okazaki have worked with Elsaffar within Swaminathan’s project Rajas. Elsaffar’s multi-instrumentalist sister, Dena Elsaffar co-leads Salaam, an Iraqi maqam ensemble with Amir, in addition to contributing her lyrical viola improvisations to Rivers of Sound. Each artist in the band has an equally unique relationship to Amir’s story.

Rivers of Sound immersed the Pioneer Works audience within visceral rhythmic layers and transcendent melodies. Nearly two decades of Amir Elsaffar’s artistic experiences, diverse collaborations, and creative thoughts join together to add this luminous musical journey to the canon of creative music.