New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: tim moore percussion

Transcendent, Exhilarating, Haunting Iraqi Sounds at Roulette

For the past couple of years, impresarios Robert and Helene Browning have been booking a transcendentally good series of shows at Roulette, featuring artists from across the Middle East, Asia and North Africa. Those performances ought to be good: Robert Browning Associates have been doing this for over forty years, so they’ve built a vast talent base to draw from. While this season’s series of concerts is as wildly diverse as usual, the central theme this year is music from across the Arabic-speaking world. Saturday night’s show by impassioned Iraqi crooner Hamid Al-Saadi with Safaafir – this continent’s only classical Iraqi maqam ensemble – was as epic, and entrancing, and hauntingly relevant as any concert in New York this year.

They’d played at Lincoln Center this past March, and then a couple of times afterward, but this was a welcome opportunity to cut really cut loose. The Lincoln Center show featured songs that were somewhat shorter – ok, less than twenty or thirty minutes long – and seemed heavier on the more humorous material. But music from the Arabic-speaking diaspora is deep. In one haunting, dynamically rising and falling interlude at this show, Al-Saadi addressed the fleeting hope for relationship bliss, then the healing power of maqam riffage, then later the ever-present need to defeat occupying forces. You would expect no less from a socially aware narrative from Iraq from a century ago.

Al-Saadi’s voice is raw, often bristling with overtones: he holds back nothing. It was also in much better shape than at the Lincoln Center gig. Throughout this show, he’d either open a song with a big, resonant, potently melismatic crescendo, or he’d tease the audience (and his bandmates) to where he’d cut loose in the middle of a song.

Pretty much everybody else in the band sang along, or in a call-and-response. Bandleader Amir ElSaffar and his sister Dena – the world’s most talented brother-sister team – gave Al-Saadi an alternately slinky and pouncing groove. Tim Moore’s dynamic, slyly shapeshifting dumbek beat fueled the concert’s peaks, when George Ziadeh’s oud, Amir’s pointillistic santoor or Dena’s otherworldly, rain-drenched joza fiddle were going full steam. Solos tended to be tantalizingly short.

The concert followed a roller-coaster trajectory, punctuated by several breathtaking vocal peaks. The ensemble began rather enigmatically, then broodingly and expressively worked their way up from enigmatic modes that roughly corresponded to the western whole-tone scale, to a fiery couple of concluding numbers seething with chromatics, microtones and a desire to rid the world of invaders, whether Ottoman or British. The pair of women on backup vocals added layers of depth to an already lavish and searing blend of sounds.

The Brownings’ concert series at Roulette continues this Dec 7 at 8 PM with legendary Javanese bandleader I. M. Harjito directing Gamelan Kusuma Laras in a program of rippling, hypnotic traditional bell orchestra sounds; general admission is $30.

A Vicarious Western Appreciation of an Epic Iraqi Musical Tradition

Amir ElSaffar may be best known for his epically haunting, slowly crescendoing, highly improvisational big band music, but the roots of that paradigm-shifting sound can be found in his smaller group, Safaafir. The Chicago-born trumpeter/multi-instrumentalist went to Iraq to connect with his heritage, where he met singer Hamid Al-Saadi, who would mentor him in the centuries-old Iraqi maqam tradition. Last night at Lincoln Center, Safaafir backed Al-Saadi in a towering, majestic, sold-out performance whose unease and ecstasy transcended linguistic limitations.

“It wasn’t so quiet in the dressing room,” the bandleader joked as the group tuned up. “Thank you for being so respectful.” He began the show playing the rippling santoor, his sister Dena on viola, George Ziadeh on oud, Tim Moore on percussion and a trio of backup singers.

Throughout the night, the melodies fell somewhere in between the traditional western scale and the bracing microtones of Arabic music, sometimes evoking an eerie major-on-minor ambience. There’s also a frequent trancelike quality to this music, evident from the pensive, insistent, straightforward pulse of the night’s opening instrumental intro. Then they launched into a syncopated antiphon, Al-Saadi leading the band in a stark, dramatic call and response. Moments like this are all the more tantalizing when you don’t speak the language: what was it about this music that sent it underground during the Saddam Hussein regime?

Dena ElSaffar delivered jauntily dancing lines, goosebump-inducing microtonal trills and alternately spare and lush washes of sound in contrast with her brother’s slowly rising, rippling crescendos. Ziadeh’s solos and exchanges with the other musicians tended to be more brooding. Al-Saadi would add aching, tremoloing ornamentation, especially as the songs would slowly coalesce out of an improvisation. Often the songs would begin rather somberly and then lighten as the rhythm came in.

There also wasn’t any traditional western verse/chorus dichotomy, the group reliant on each others’ cues as well as Al-Saadi’s carefully modulated dynamic shifts. Sharp-fanged chromatics gave way to sunnier grooves as the songs went along: a drinking tune, an ode to a beautiful woman, Sufi devotional melodies and a song about two speculators bickering over who was to blame for their mutual losses. Plus ca change. It was also extraordinarily catchy: from Egypt to points further east, music that relies on melody rather than harmony tends to be that way.  The night’s most rapturously haunting, gorgeous number was a slowly swaying anthem in a mode close to the Arabic hijaz. The most easygoing were what could have been an acoustic version of an electronic habibi pop hit, and a triumphant anthem over a rat-a-tat groove on which Dena ElSaffar played jowza fiddle.

In an era where artists from predominantly Muslim countries are demonized, it’s encouraging to see the nation’s flagship cultural institution going against the grain. Lincoln Center’s Jordana Leigh, who emceed, spoke of how her organization is home to “Programming really designed to represent New York City, an international city of diversity and immigrants – we celebrate all of that on our stage.” Meera Dugal – during her Lincoln Center tenure – programmed the show in conjunction with the Artistic Freedom Initiative, who to date have provided free legal representation along with help with resettlement and work permits to over 200 international artists at risk.

The next free concert at Lincoln Center’s Broadway atrium space just north of 62nd St. is April 4 at 7:30 PM with popular, rustic Americana songwriter Leyla McCalla – who shifts between oldtimey string band music, blues and Haitian sounds. Early arrival is always a good idea here.

And Al-Saadi and Safaafir are at Pioneer Works on April 8 at 7 PM for $10 in advance.

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.

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.