Amir ElSaffar Rivers of Sound - Not Two

Label/Year: New Amsterdam, 2017

Lineup includes – Amir ElSaffar: trumpet; Ole Mathisen: saxophone; JD Parran: saxophone; Mohamed Saleh: oboe; Miles Okazaki: guitar; Craig Taborn: piano; George Ziadeh: oud; Jason Adasiewicz: vibraphone; Tareq Abboushi: buzuq; Carlo DeRosa: bass; Nasheet Waits: drums; etc.

// this review was originally published on LondonJazz News on May 15 //

The musical capacities of Amir ElSaffar deserved wide recognition in 2007 when his acclaimed debut album entitled Two Rivers was released on Pi Recordings. Born in Chicago to an Iraqi father and an American mother, ElSaffar, a trumpeter, vocalist, composer, and bandleader, has been an enthusiastic emissary of a fusion style that blends Iraqi maqam music and contemporary jazz. His aptitude to merge both styles as an organic whole was strengthened after learning from maqam music masters in Baghdad, as well as collaborating with jazz forward-thinkers like Cecil Taylor, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Oliver Lake, and Vijay Iyer.

ElSaffar’s new double-disc album, Not Now, released on Amsterdam Records, features a closely-knit 17-piece ensemble that comprises both Western and Middle Eastern musicians of remarkable technical caliber.

The disc one opens in a surreptitious way with “Iftitah”, where layers of sound are gradually stacked up, creating mystery at first, and then gaining majestic contours with the horn section. The finale displays the saxophone players embarking on a striking collective improvisation over a racing, swinging pulse commanded by bassist Carlo DeRosa and drummer Nasheet Waits. It took me to another dimension in a rare moment of exalted ostentation. Too bad it didn't last longer!

Exotic perfumes are exhaled from “Jourjina Over Three”, which overflows with serpentine microtonal melodies delivered in unison, and “Penny Explosion”, an enchanting piece that initially dances at 3/4, but eventually shifts in tempo, still maintaining the festive tonalities.

Plaintive and hypnotic, the slow-paced “Ya Ibni, Ya Ibni (My Son, My Son)” is a burst of sentiment. It features an intensely harmonious and glowingly spiritual piano solo by Craig Taborn, who resorts to thoughtful polyphonies to impress. The latter also designs the final setting, together with vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, and guitarist Miles Okazaki in a juxtaposition of provocative ostinatos.

Opening the disc two, “Layl (Night)” is a levitating prayer immersed in Byzantine scales and sinuous phrases played in unison, while “Hijaz 21/8” and “Shards of Memory/B Half-Flat Fantasy” invite us to dance with their modal incursions and chromaticism. On the former, amidst several other improvisations, we can hear ElSaffar’s dissertations on trumpet, while the latter finds the perfect poise between Arabic sounds and chants, sectional classical formulas, jazz infusions, and mesmeric rhythms. Everything leads to a massive collective improvisation.

I've found soul in ElSaffar’s compositions and responsiveness in his arrangements. It’s perceptible that these tunes never close doors to exploration and new possibilities. Regardless the great individual moments, the main force of Not Two comes from the collective whose members, unselfishly and victoriously, walk in the same direction.

          Grade  A

          Grade A

Favorite Tracks:
01 (CD1) – Iftitah ► 04 (CD1) – Ya Ibni, Ya Ibni ► 03 (CD2) – Shards of Memory