New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: Rajna Swaminathan

Amir ElSaffar Refines His Majestic, Transcendent New Middle Eastern Jazz at NYU

Why would anyone want to see the same band play the same piece more than once? For starters, there are always plenty of surprises when Amir ElSaffar’s Rivers of Sound make their way through Not Two, the visionary multi-instrumentalist/composer’s 2017 suite. From this perspective, was a third time a charm? On one hand, it’s hard to imagine a more transcendent performance of this lavish, titanic work than the album release show in the financial district last June, where they played the whole massive thing. On the other, their show last night at NYU’s Skirball Center was plenty rapturous…and uproariously fun.

Much of the suite is absolutely harrowing, but ElSaffar has a devastating, deadpan wit, and this time out he was in a particularly good mood. A Chicagoan by birth, he was clearly psyched to bring the band back, “Fishtailing all the way,” from a deep-freeze midwestern tour.

What they play is a new kind of music, based on Middle Eastern maqam modes and microtonal scales, but with majestic, sometimes ominous, often stormy group crescendos which draw on the bandleader’s time in Cecil Taylor’s improvisational big band. Although Not Two – whose title speaks to the pitfalls of manichaean thinking – is a fully composed score, ElSaffar will shift gears and call on any number of soloists depending where the seventeen-piece orchestra is going in the moment.

By comparison to the suite’s live debut at Lincoln Center in April of 2015 and then the epic album release show, this one was shorter and seemed more concise. Although much of it is brooding, even shattering, the whole group seemed to be stoked to be off the road and back on their home turf. Maybe as a consequence, solos all around seemed more animated as well – with the exception of tenor saxophonist Ole Mathisen’s two long, methodically suspenseful upward tangents while the band coalesced in a somber grey mist behind him.

The crowd gave their most breathless applause for cellist Naseem Alatrash, whose elegaic, mournfully circling solo early in the suite refused to cave in to any kind of easy resolution. Likewise, he and ElSaffar’s violist sister Dena – leader of the similarly paradigm-shifting, somewhat smaller ensemble Salaam – held the audience rapt with their poignant dialogue a little later on.

Percussionist Tim Moore anchored the suite’s most haunting segment, Ya Ibni, Ya Ibni (My Son, My Son) with a chillingly echoing, funereal thump on frame drum as the group slowly swelled in an invocation of longing and loss. On the other side of the emotional equation, it turned out that the title of Penny Explosion looks back to ElSaffar’s childhood, when he and his sister would fill a jar with pennies – and then dump them on a tile floor, to max out the reverb.

Mohamed Saleh was charged with delivering a handful of the evening’s most pensively resonant solos, both on oboe and english horn. To his left, JD Parran took over the lows on bass sax and also joined the hazy ambience on clarinet. Alto saxophonist Aakash Mittal took two of the night’s most acerbic, intense, chromatically slashing solos; guitarist Miles Okazaki remained in even more low-key, terse mode.

Vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz reveled in the opportunity to fire off endless volleys of microtones while pianist John Escreet punctuated the rings and ripples with an exploratory precision. Oudists Zafer Tawil and Georges Ziadeh built a devastating rustle, eventually joined by buzuq player Tareq Abboushi and bassist Carlo DeRosa, as the night’s vertigo-inducing final number, Shards of Memory/B Half Flat Fantasy, built steam through several surreal variations on themes from throughout the suite. Drummer Adam Cruz, clearly psyched to get the chance to step in, gave the music a spring-loaded swing. Mridangam player Rajna Swaminathan’s stygian bubble was a river of sound all its own, underground.  Driving the highest peaks and most poignant lulls, the composer began with stately ripples on his santoor, rose eventually to blisteringly aching volleys on trumpet and also sang in an impassioned, microtonal baritone.

At the end, they flipped the script with a vaudevillian encore that had everybody laughing out loud: comic relief wasn’t such a bad idea after the intensity. ElSaffar’s next show with this ensemble is on March 3 at 8 PM at the North Beach Bandshell, 7275 Collins Ave. in Miami Beach; cover is $25/$20 stud/srs.

Advertisements

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.

Karavika Bring Their Gorgeously Dancing Americana-Spiced Indian String Music to Joe’s Pub

Karavika are one of the most interesting, individualistically compelling ensembles in New York. Their new second album Of Earth and Sky – streaming at Bandcamp – blends classical Indian styles with American folk tinges. Like the music of any other culture, Indian music spans the entire emotional spectrum; Karavika’s is on the introspective, hypnotic side, punctuated by purposeful, animated soloing and catchy string riffage. The core of the band is Trina Basu on violin, guitar and vocals, Amali Premawardhana on cello, and Perry Wortman on bass and mandolin, bolstered by Arun Ramamurthy on violin, Roopa Mahadevan on vocals, Jay Gandhi on bansuri, Advait Shah and Sameer Gupta on tabla and Rajna Swaminathan on mrudangam. They’re playing the album release show on August 11 at 7:30 PM at Joe’s Pub. Sarod-percussion duo Camila Celin & Roshni Samlal open the night; general admission is $15.

The album’s opening track, Your Passing Touch builds out of a fluttery bed of strings under spiky mandolin, then hits a catchy, plaintively waltzing groove: you could call it Indian folk noir. A jaunty minor-key blues violin solo is the last thing you’d expect, but it’s tasty and it has bite. A droll false ending sets up a remarkable, parallel mando solo by Wortman. It ends unresolved.

All the Pretty Little Horses begins with a muted, looping pizzicato violin riff anchoring a moody, searching bass solo, then the vocals kick in, a tender lullaby that’s one part Appalachian folk, one part Indian, with a marvelously terse cello solo. The first of two ragas, Raga Behag is probably the shortest raga you’ll ever hear, a plaintive, melismatic violin solo over a steady cello drone that rises a bit as the piece goes on. The Time Is Now sets a warmly nocturnal string melody over alternately scattergun and hypnotically thumping percussion, Premawardhana’s memorably gentle solo setting up a brightly soaring one from Basu.

The second micro-raga, Raga Kalyani blends dancing violin melismatics with gracefully exploratory vocalese. The album’s most epic. anthemic track, peppered with all sorts of cleverly flitting interludes, is Thillana Jaya Ragamalika, Mahadevan’s lilting vocals over a balletesque groove. Young Leaves of the Bodhi Tree is a return to spare, brooding intensity, a quiet showstopper that unfolds with fingerpicked guitar, vocalese harmonies and cello, picking up steam with an emphatically potent bass solo. The final cut is Oh Watch the Stars, a gently triumphant lullaby that perfectly capsulizes Karavika’s vision of a seamless match between the inward-directed but simmering rapture of Indian music and the comfortable rusticity of Americana. Only in New York, folks.