New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: salaam band

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.

The 30 Best NYC Concerts of 2013

Of all the year-end lists here, which also include the year’s best songs and best albums, the best New York concerts list is usually the most fun to pull together. For one, it’s the most individual. The Bushwick indie rock clique may go to all the same shows together because they’re terrified of giving anyone the impression that they can think for themselves, but among the 99%, everybody has their own unique bunch of favorites from the past year.

This is also the easiest list to assemble. Every year, there are thousands of songs and hundreds of albums to sift through; the number of shows is thankfully a lot more manageable.

But this year, tragedy struck. The night of January 19, arguably the best New York rock show of 2013 featured a headline act whose core members would be murdered only a few months later. Lush art-rock/dance-rock band the Yellow Dogs topped the bill at the now-shuttered Public Assembly as part of a phenomenal lineup which began with female-fronted dreampop band Butter the Children, then reggae/soul band Osekre & the Lucky Bastards and the Brooklyn What playing a scorching, intense album release show for their latest one, Hot Wine. The Brooklyn What would go on to share another bill with the Iranian expats before a disgruntled ex-bandmate ambushed the group in their sleep in south Williamsburg in mid-November.

Otherwise, the game plan for this page was to list twenty shows. In the process of whittling the number down, it became obvious that there was no way to fairly choose any less than thirty. This city may be mired in a crushing economic depression, but somehow New York musicians rose above it and made 2013 a year to remember. The 29 other best shows of the year, from this perspective anyway, in chronological order:

Changing Modes at Spike Hill, 1/19/13. It was cool to be able to sneak away from the Brooklyn What/Yellow Dogs extravaganza around the corner to see this slashingly lyrical, female-fronted, keyboard-driven art-rock/new wave rock crew. They were missing one of their three singers, but the music was still killer.

Molly Ruth at Zirzamin, 1/27/13. From November of 2012 through this past July, when the club closed suddenly, this blog booked a lot of shows at the basement space on Houston Street. Given a supportive venue and unlimited access to New York’s best talent, what an amazing time that was! Molly Ruth’s fearless charisma and wickedly acerbic, assaultive punk-blues songs made for one of the best nights there.

Richard Thompson at Joe’s Pub, 2/5/13. Absolutely no plans to see this, tickets being as ridiculously overpriced as they were. Publicist sends an eleventh-hour email: wanna go? Sure! The veteran rocker who might be the greatest guitarist of all time – and maybe the greatest rock songwriter of all time – was at the top of his game, leading a power trio.

Jerome O’Brien and Beninghove’s Hangmen at Zirzamin, 2/18/13. This wasn’t one of the nights booked by this blog, but it could have been: the former frontman of literate punk/R&B rockers the Dog Show airing out old classics and deviously witty new material, solo acoustic on 12-string guitar, followed by saxophonist/composer Bryan Beninghove’s careening, menacing, psychedelic noir surf/crime jazz band.

The Polyse Project and Shofar at the Lincoln Center Atrium, 2/21/13. The two Polish groups made their US debut playing obscure, haunting folk tunes from the pre-Holocaust Polish-Jewish badlands along with equally haunting, lingering jazz reinventions of some of those themes.

Trio Tritticali at Zirzamin, 2/24/13. Of all the shows booked by this blog at this venue, this was the most fun. Not only did the eclectic string trio play a sizzling mix of original indie classical, tango and Middle Eastern material, they also served as house band. Lorraine Leckie, Walter Ego and a bunch of other A-list songwriters got the benefit of a brilliant string section behind them.

Black Sea Hotel and Lorraine Leckie at Zirzamin, 3/3/13. The three women of the otherworldly Balkan a-cappella group and the Canadian gothic songstress might not seem like the ideal segue, but they built a dark ambience that Leckie and her band set ablaze.

Daphne Lee Martin at the Way Station, 3/6/13. The torchy, deviously literate songwriter and her killer band aired out songs from Martin’s excellent new album, refusing to let a horrible sound mix and a loud bar crowd that wouldn’t listen distract them from their sultry, sometimes luridly swinging intensity.

Tift Merritt and Simone Dinnerstein at Merkin Concert Hall, 3/21/13. The Americana chanteuse and classical pianist began their duo show with the lights off and kept them low throughout a deliciously nocturnal mix of chamber pop and art-rock.

Drina Seay at Zirzamin, 3/24/13. One of the great voices in Americana brought her sophisticated countrypolitan band for a mix of noir blues, honkytonk and more rocking songs.

Serena Jost at Joe’s Pub, 4/9/13. The cellist and art-rock songwriter brought her brilliant band and burned through songs from her equally brilliant new album A Bird Will Sing.

Brazda and Big Lazy at Barbes, 4/12/13. Eclectic singer Shelley Thomas’ edgy Balkan group followed by the first live show in six years by NYC’s most thrilling noir instrumental band.

The Sweet Bitters at Zirzamin, 4/21/13. A rare, impromptu NYC show by A-list tunesmith Sharon Goldman and Nina Schmir’s folk-pop duo plus cellist Martha Colby, mixing otherworldly harmonies, edgy lyrics and a triumphant good-to-be-back vibe.

Eva Salina at the American Folk Art Museum, 5/3/13. One of the most intense, original voices in Balkan music, in a riveting, rare solo show: just vocals and accordion.

Bryan & the Aardvarks at Subculture, 5/14/13. The glimmering, nocturnal, vibraphone-driven Americana jazz sextet put on one of the most lushly evocative, richly noir shows of the year.

Emel Mathlouthi at the Alliance Française, 5/22/13. Even without her full band – who were absent due to visa issues – the Tunisian Siouxsie Sioux played a subtle yet ferociously intense mix of Middle Eastern art-rock and Arabic liberation anthems.

A Conspiracy of Beards at Drom, 5/24/13. The mighty all-male San Francisco choir sang their own imaginative large-scale arrangements of Leonard Cohen classics that were haunting and intense but  just as often playful and funny.

Eilen Jewell at City Winery, 7/9/13. The Queen of the Minor Key with her amazing band featuring lead guitarist Jerry Miller, one of the most sizzling players in Americana.

The Go-Go’s at Coney Island, 8/1/13. Who would have thought that the original, breakthrough all-female new wave band would still be together (with a new bassist) thirty-three years after they started…and that they’d sound more rambunctious than ever?

El Gusto at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, 8/3/13. While we’re on the topic of old bands, this bunch of virtuoso Algerian chaabi musicians were making their US debut fifty-three years after they’d broken up, in 1960. And they picked up right where they left off.

The Larch at Bowery Electric, 8/8/13. Playing mostly new, unrecorded material, Brooklyn’s finest psychedelic new wave outfit were at the top of their sardonically lyrical, guitar-fueled game.

Rosin Coven and Amanda Palmer at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, 8/9/13. AFP was as fearless and charismatic and fun to watch as you could possibly want, but the story here was the opening act, whose wild, canivalesque art-rock upstaged the headliners.

Kotorino at Joe’s Pub, 8/29/13. Speaking of carnivalesque, this Brooklyn circus-rock outfit keeps getting larger and more menacing, this time out playing the album release show for their excellent second album Better Than This.

Till By Turning playing bassoonist Katherine Young’s Four-Chambered Heart at First Presbyterian Church in downtown Brooklyn, 9/6/13. This isn’t a classical music blog, but Young – who has made a name for herself in jazz improvisation as well as chamber music – established herself as one of the most individualistic and powerful composers in town with this chilling suite, inspired by Olivier Messiaen’s prison camp epic, Quartet for the End of Time.

Matthew Grimm at Rodeo Bar, 9/13/13. The former and occasionally current Hangdogs frontman – who’s sort of the Stephen Colbert of heartland rock – played a mix of wryly hilarious and white-knuckle intense Americana rock and powerpop numbers from his latest album Songs in the Key of Your Face.

Salaam at Alwan for the Arts, 10/26/13. Multi-instrumentalist Dena El Saffar’s eclectic Middle Eastern band burned through a mix of originals and classics from Iran, with special guests from her brother Amir’s equally intense jazz quintet.

Carol Lipnik, Villa Delirium, Big Lazy and Mamie Minch at Barbes, 10/31/13. The queen of Coney Island phantasmagoria with her noir chamber pop band, followed by John Kruth’s gleefully twisted circus rock outfit, NYC’s creepiest crime jazz/noir instrumental band (yeah, they made this list twice – they’re that good) with all-purpose retro Americana siren Minch taking a characteristically lurid turn in front of the mic.

Kayhan Kalhor and Ali Bahrami Fard at the Asia Society, 11/16/13. The Iranian fiddle player and composer joined with the santoor virtuoso for a glimmering, wrenchingly intense suite inspired by the harrowing experiences of their fellow citizens during the Khomeini years.

LJ Murphy & the Accomplices at the Parkside, 11/23/13. This list ends on a high note with this city’s most politically aware, charismatic noir rocker and his scorching, blues-infused band, careening through a mix of old classics and newly reworked material.

Salaam Plays One of 2013’s Best Concerts Downtown Saturday Night

Throughout her band Salaam‘s set this evening at Alwan for the Arts downtown, multi-instrumentalist Dena El Saffar had an expression of pure, unselfconscious delight on her face. Which makes sense, considering how much fun to play her songs must be. A cynic would say that this group is a bunch of Americans playing Middle Eastern music, which is true, although there is a family connection. As she explained it, the bandleader and her jazz trumpeter brother Amir grew up as second-generation Iraqi-Americans in Chicago in the 80s, although their musical lives then revolved around Lutheran hymns and classical music in school and then sneaking into blues clubs at night. “Amir stopped going when he turned 21,” she joked. Since then, they’ve come full circle with their heritage and in the process have built one of the most entertaning Middle Eastern bands on the planet. She began the night on viola, her original instrument, with the ridiculously catchy, irresistibly slinky Mesopotania. The song was nspired, she explained, by her first awestruck sight of the land between the Tigris and Euphrates, which hardly resembled the boring-as-dust account she remembered from middle school. Joining in soaring harmony with soprano saxophonist Ole Mathisen, her brother played trumpet on that one. Then he switched to santoor (the rippling, ringing Iraqi dulcimer) for a bouncy traditional song whose Arabic lyrics went something along the lines of “she went from her father’s house to the neighbor’s house and didn’t stop at mine, I wonder if she’s mad at me.”

A gregarious, nonchalantly charismatic performer, Dena El Saffar seemed to have as much fun telling stories as she did playing music. She explained that she never envisioned herself as someone who’d make a career out of introducing kids to Middle Eastern music. but because she had so much fun the first time she did it, she kept doing it – and now she’s led workshops with thousands of students. But while like her brother, she’s immersed herself in traditional Iraqi music, her influences range far beyond there. Her husband Tim Moore, who played dumbek (goblet drum) with a groove that was as understatedly joyous as it was hypnotic, led the group through a tribute to Lima Sahar (the first woman to compete on the Afghani verison of American Idol, whose rapid rise to fame was derailed by misogynists in her own family) with a hook-driven Bollywood flair. Queen of  Sheba, inspired by some very cool folks at a Louisville Ethiopian restaurant, built to a swirling, dancing Ethiopiques vamp. The title track from the band’s latest album Train to Basra served as a long launching pad for sizzling hard bop as well as plaintive Orientalisms from both trumpet and sax. And Iraqi-American Blues artfully juxtaposed  iconic Muddy Waters riffage with eerie Iraqi chromatics, an illustration of both the emotional similarities between the blues and Middle Eastern music as well as the sometimes hellish experience of being an American of Middle Eastern descent in the years following 9/11.

As the night went on, Dena El Saffar switched to oud, then violin, then joza (the stark Iraqi fiddle, with its coconut-shell body) for a harrowing version of the rustically mournful Joza Tears. Although Salaam’s music doesn’t typically feature as much of the sometimes long-winded soloing common throughout the Middle East, everybody got a chance to cut loose, even the bassist, whose agile microtones, jazzy variations on the melody and stark, brooding bowing were some of the set’s high points. They wound up the show with an exuberantly anthemic singalong of the classic Iraqi folk song Over the Palm Tree, the elder El Saffar in unselfishingly soulful crooner mode, his sister taking what might have been the most exhilarating solo of the night on viola, building to a fiery series of stun-gun staccato riffs, finally blasting through the last chorus at doublespeed. It’s been a great year for concerts in New York this year, but this was one of the very best.

Salaam’s Train to Basra on the Express Track to Fun

Is there a musical family anywhere in the world as talented as the El Saffars? Big brother Amir, one of the great trumpeters in jazz, shifts the paradigm with his blend of Miles Davis elegance and haunting Middle Eastern themes (his other axe is the santoor, the rippling Middle Eastern dulcimer). Younger sister and brilliant violinist Dena El Saffar leads Salaam, the Indiana-based Middle Eastern instrumental ensemble. She’s bringing them to her brother’s place, Alwan for the Arts downtown, which is to the music of the Arabic diaspora what CBGB was to rock, on Sept 26 at 8 PM. $20 advance tix are still available as of today (you can try the day of the show, but this will probably sell out).

Salaam has yet another new album out, Train to Basra, their eighth and arguably their best. At least it’s their most eclectic. The opening track, Queen of  Sheba sends a shout-out to the Louisville Ethiopian restaurant (yup) where Dena El Saffar forgot her phone (and whose cool staff mailed it back to her!) with a slowly unwinding Ethiopique groove that mingles her own oud with Sam Finley’s incisive guitar and an ecstatic horn section of her brother plus tenor saxophonist Lety ElNaggar. Kashaniya works a slinky, dancing chromatic groove with a suspenseful noir edge, Finley having a great time supplying searing Middle Eastern licks. The title track memorializes her dad’s train ride as a seven-year-old going by himself to meet his family on vacation (in the days before post-9/11 paranoia, LOTS OF KIDS DID THAT ALL THE TIME AND NO ONE EVER GOT KILLED) with a joyously pulsing romp driven by ElNaggar’s ney flute

Iraqi-American Blues wryly works the Muddy Waters Mannish Boy hook into a Middle Eastern vamp fueled by more of Dena’s oud work, a more simpatico stylistic mashup than you might think. As she alludes in the liner notes, if you happen to be an American-born citizen of Iraqi ancestry, you definitely know what it means to have the blues. The most hauntingly cinematic of all the songs here, Lima Sahar commemorates the rapid rise and sudden fall of the Afghani woman who was the first to win her nation’s version of American Idol, only to be driven underground by extremist Muslim misogynists, never to be seen again.

Dena El Saffar switches to the hauntingly austere Iraqi joza fiddle on Joza Tears, a murky, echoing theme with a dubwise feel driven by John Orie Stith’s hypnotic bass. She finds the missing link that connects the Middle East and Mexico with the lushly soaring The Mariachi Stole My Heart, taking one of the album’s most intense solos midway through on violin. After that, there’s a long, celebratory vamp with a misterioso santoor solo, then a multi-percussion solo from her husband Tim Moore (whose diverse beats propel this album), followed by Awakening, an auspicous tribute to the heroes of the Arab Spring that may be the most suspensefully gripping track here, Amir’s conspiratorial trumpet ushering in a triumphantly slinky, classic Egyptian groove. The album winds up with the wryly titled, gorgeously levantine Rast Saffari, Dena multitracking herself as a stately string orchestra, and then Mesopotamia, which manages to blend a hypnotic Jamaican sleng teng riddim with a long, pensive, Iraqi violin solo that hits with an anthemic wallop. It’s still a long way til December, but this just might be the best, funnest album of the year.