amir elsaffar rivers of sound at liberty plaza, nyc, jun 16

  • photography by Clara Pereira / text by Filipe Freitas

Trumpeter, composer, and bandleader Amir ElSaffar is widely known for his effortless aptitude to merge Iraqi classical maqam music and contemporary jazz.
On Friday, June 16, he has joined his 17-piece Rivers of Sound ensemble for a public album-release concert that took place at Liberty Plaza, lower Manhattan, as part of the River to River Festival.

ElSaffar, who also sings beautifully and plays several other instruments, just released Not Two, a double album comprising eight impeccably arranged pieces, on New Amsterdam Records.

A couple musicians that participated in the album’s recording session had to be replaced, but most of them were there, including saxophonist Ole Mathisen, guitarist Miles Okazaki, oud player George Ziadeh, vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, violinist Dena ElSaffar (Amir's sister), cellist Naseem Alatrash, buzuq player Tareq Abboushi, bassist Carlo De Rosa, and drummer Nasheet Waits. The Cuban pianist Aruan Ortiz sat in for Craig Taborn, while Josh Sinton blew the baritone saxophone and bass clarinet instead of JD Parran. Alto saxophonist Aakash Mittal was another addition.

The collective delivered hypnotic microtonal textures within well-defined structures, employing amazing rhythms and sinuous Arabic movements with a sparkling jazz vibe. A few attendees participated in the inspiring musical setting by dancing, celebrating this multi-cultural aggregation with genuine pleasure.

Amir’s vocalized lament, having a Middle Eastern ostinato in the background, was brought forth on “Shards of Memory/B Half Flat Fantasy”, while “Hijaz 21/8”, exulting with percussive deliverance, featured haunting improvisations by Okazaki, Dena, the bandleader, and Adasiewicz, who wrapped up with energy and musicality.

After the proper introduction of the musicians, the band closed with “Bayat Declamation”, also the closing track of the album. According to Amir, this was the third time they played in New York, and February will bring another performance in the city.