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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.

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Amir ElSaffar’s Rivers of Sound Release the Most Rapturously Epic Album of 2017

Trumpeter/santoorist Amir ElSaffar’s epic, rapturous new double vinyl album Not Two, with his large ensemble Rivers of Sound, is a new kind of music. It sounds more composed than improvisational; the reverse is probably true. While the lp – soon to be streaming at New Amsterdam Records – embodies elements of western classical music, free jazz, Iraqi maqams and other styles from both the Middle East and the American jazz tradition, it’s not meant to be cross-cultural. Pan-global is more like it. Haunting, dark and incessantly turbulent, it reflects our time as much as it rivets the listener. The performances shift tectonically, dynamics slowly surging and then falling away. ElSaffar and the ensemble are playing the album release show outdoors at 28 Liberty St. at William in the financial district (irony probably intended) at 6 PM tomorrow night, June 16 as the highlight of this year’s River to River Festival.

The personnel on the album come out of as many traditions as the music, and more. The core of the band comprises ElSaffar’s sister Dena, a first-rate composer herself, who plays viola and oud, joined by multi-instrumentalists Zafer Tawil and Georges Ziadeh, tenor saxophonist Ole Mathisen, oboeist/horn player Mohamed Saleh, multi-reedman JD Parran, vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, guitarist Miles Okazaki, cellist Naseem Alatrash, saxophonist Fabrizio Cassol, buzuq player Tareq Abboushi, bassist Carlo DeRosa, percussionist Tim Moore and drummer Nasheet Waits.

That the album was recorded in a single marathon sixteen-hour session, live to analog tape, makes this achievement all the more impressive. The album’s first track, Iftah capsulizes the scope and sweep of ElSaffar’s vision. It slowly coalesces with shivery rhythmic variations on a majestic three-note theme the group slowly expanding on a vast ocean of ripples and rustles both near and distant, drums and cymbals introducing ElSaffar’s towering fanfare. But this is not a celebratory one: it’s a call to beware, or at least to be wary. Ole Mathisen’s meticulously nuanced voice-over-the-prairie sax signals another tectonic shift outward, ripples and rings against brassy echo effects. The result is as psychedelic as any rock music ever written, but deeper. A scampering train interlude with sputtery horns then gives way to the main theme as it slowly winds down.

The second track, Jourjina Over Three follows a lively, spiky groove that rises to an energetic, microtonal Iraqi melody and then takes a sunny drive toward Afrobeat on the wings of a good-natured Abboushi solo, the whole orchestra moving further into the shadows with a shivery intensity as the rhythm falls out.

The groove of Penny Explosion alludes to qawwali, while the melody references India in several places, the stringed instruments taking it more enigmatically into Middle Eastern grandeur that then veers toward what could be a mashup of Afrobeat and the most symphonic, psychedelic side of the Beatles. A Mingus-like urban bustle develops from there, the bandleader leading the charge mutedly from the back.

Saleh’s mournful oboe over a somber dumbek groove opens Ya Ibni, Ya Ibni (My Son, My Son), plaintively echoed by Mathisen and then the bandleader over a stark, stygian backdrop. Adasiewicz then channels a glimmer, like Bryan & the Aardvarks at their most celestial. How the group unravels it into an eerie abyss of belltones is artful to the extreme.

Layl (Night) is just as slow, more majestic, and looks further south toward Cairo, with its slinky, anticipatory electricity, a mighty, darkly suspenseful title theme. The composer’s impassioned, flamenco-inflected vocals and santoor rivulets drive the group to an elegantly stormy peak. Live, this is a real showstopper.

More belltones and a bristling Andalucian-tinged melody mingle over an implied clave as Hijaz 21 gets underway, the strings building acerbically to a stingingly incisive viola solo, trumpet combining with vibraphone for a Gil Evans-like lustre over a clip-clop rhythm.

The next-to-last number is the titanic diptych Shards of Memory/B Half Flat Fantasy, with galloping variations on earlier themes. Its intricately intertwining voices, vertiginous polythythms, conversational pairings and echo effects bring to mind ornately multitracked 70s art-rock bands like Nektar as much as, say, Darcy James Argue or Mohammed Abdel Wahab. The cartoonish pavane that ends it seems very sarcastic.

Bayat Declamation, the album’s most traditional maqam piece and arguably its most austerely beautiful track, makes a richly uneasy coda. Other than saying that this is the most paradigm-shifting album of the year, it’s hard to rate it alongside everything else that’s come over the transom this year because most of that is tame by comparison. There’s no yardstick for measuring this: you need astronomical units. If you’re made it this far you definitely owe it to yourself to immerse yourself in it and make it out to the show tomorrow night.

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.

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.