(New Amsterdam Records. Review by Filipe Freitas)
Amir ElSaffar deserved wide recognition in 2007 when his debut album Two Rivers was released on Pi Recordings to great acclaim. 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 ability to merge both styles into 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 Two, released on New Amsterdam Records, features a closely-knit 17-piece ensemble that comprises both Western and Middle Eastern musicians of remarkable technical calibre.
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. At the tracks’s finale the saxophone players embark 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… too bad it didn’t last longer!
Exotic perfumes are conjured up in 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. Taborn also designs the final setting, together with vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz and guitarist Miles Okazaki in a juxtaposition of provocative ostinatos.
Opening disc two, Layl (Night) sounds like 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. These tunes never close doors to exploration and new possibilities. Despite great individual moments, the main force of Not Two comes from the collective.
Not Two will be released on 16 June in CD, double LP and digital download forms.
LINK: Amir ElSaffar website