Amir ElSaffar, a trumpet virtuoso from Chicago, was born to an Iraqi father and an American mother. And that, in a nutshell, tells the story of his remarkable and unique music. From one side comes the great American music, jazz, that burst of possibility and improvisation for which the trumpet is a kind of royal talisman. From the other side comes traditional Iraqi maqam music, encountered by ElSaffar on a trip to the Middle East between 2002 and 2003. And from Chicago’s music tradition, ElSaffar was bequeathed the joyous freedom not to be boxed in by categories.
The result, which has grown ever-more amazing in ElSaffar’s five recordings on the adventurous Pi Records, is a body of work that fuses traditional Iraqi instruments with jazz instrumentation and a set of compositions that explores the points of connection between jazz and Middle Eastern music. The latest of these, Crisis, came out this past summer and deserves a wide audience.
ElSaffar’s ensemble, Two Rivers, fuses a jazz quartet (his trumpet, Ale Mathisen on saxophones, Nasheet Waits’ drums, and Carlo Rossi on bass) with two musicians working with the oud (a fretless stringed instrument that looks a bit like a lute) and the buzuq (another lute-like instrument on which the frets can be adjusted to create microtonal intervals). In addition, the leader plays a santur, which resembles a hammer dulcimer, and he sings very capably. This collision of musical tools and cultures produces remarkable clarity and harmony. For newcomers to ElSaffar’s music, the result is not unlike the successful fusions of jazz and klezmer music that are associated with John Zorn and others. In this music, ElSaffar easily melds microtonal complexity from Iraq with blue notes from jazz, as well as the rhythmic complexities of both cultures.
“Flyover Iraq”, for example, begins with a half-funky bass line in a complex time signature that could come out of a hip 21st-century jazz record but that also bobs and dodges like a piece of world music. Waits’s backbeat-rich entry reinforces the former, but then the entry of oud (and then buzuq) suggests the latter. The unison horn line rolls in a minor mode and, later, the horn punches can’t help but sound Basie-ish. Ultimately, though, the strong horn line gives way to a new, hipper groove over which ElSaffar solos on trumpet, playing flurries of notes that are equal parts Lee Morgan from a ‘60s Blue Note disc, Don Cherry, and Dave Douglas from a John Zorn Masada recording. All of it crackles with pleasure and dancing rhythmic joy.
There are tunes on Crisis that seem more clearly seated in the Iraqi camp. “The Great Dictator” develops an amazing dancing funk at the end beneath the tenor saxophone solo, with Mathisen playing wild modern jazz over an increasingly wild accompaniment, but at the start it sounds very traditional. “El Sha-ab” plays in a similar way, though the more you listen to these songs, the clearer it becomes that the styles ooze into and across each other even when you don’t expect it.
On a couple songs, ElSaffar sings ably and enjoyably. “Introduction: From the Ashes” features singing in the second half, with the drums and bass cut out and only the traditional instruments accompanying. “Love Poem” is a sumptuous ballad that also moves into a section of traditional singing, making a different kind of connection between the two styles. ElSaffar’s main voice throughout, however, is his horn. “Aneed (Weeping)” allows the leader to play with a fragile, mid-tempo beauty on a solo near the top. Similarly, “Taqsim Saba” allows ElSaffar to play gently (and with a mute) to create a delicate, highly vocal tonality.
On this tune in particular, ElSaffar is masterful in a microtonal fashion, playing with great precision notes that simply are not in the Western scale system. Because he is unaccompanied here, the shifts out of normal “key” don’t jar much — you just let your ear follow the melody wherever it wants to go. Natural as can be.
The tonalities that seem to come from maqam music sound minor and mournful, though they are often contrasted on Crisis with rhythms of joy. At other times, however, these jazz-inspired rhythms might more accurately be called “agitated”, and then the name of the recording comes into focus. Shortly after ElSaffar left Iraq in 2003, of course, the U.S. invaded the country, and chaos became the norm. Sadness and agitation go together, then, in this music and elsewhere. The story being told is emotional and complex — two words that very adequately describe this project and the world that inspired it.
In the end, Crisis plays as a compelling history of a man and a region, perhaps, a place in this world where clashes of culture, history, and political need are very common. The artistry in making this story fascinating as music is beautifully on display. Amir ElSaffar’s jazz is like no other.