Amir ElSaffar: Two Rivers

Amir ElSaffar
Two Rivers
Pi Recordings

The Tigris and Euphrates rivers hold a special place in the history of humanity. They nurtured the world’s first civilizations, providing sustenance for the permanent settlements which clustered around their banks and grew into the mighty cultures of antiquity. Their importance was well understood in those times, and both rivers are featured prominently in the religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The Tigris and Euphrates exist at the beginning of time, and as the stories go, they’ll play a significant role at the end of time as well. It is the strong current of these waters that has given our world its momentum, and though we may be too far along to look back and recognize the source, it’s worth contemplating how all that we are immersed in today springs from those distant rivers.

It is with this sense of reverence and acknowledgement that trumpet player Amir ElSaffar has composed Two Rivers, a suite of songs that pay tribute to the rich musical and cultural traditions that lay upriver, while deftly linking them to more contemporary modes of performing. Born in Chicago to an Iraqi father and an American mother, ElSaffar studied his instrument while absorbing the progressive spirit that typifies the jazz scene of the city. Just prior to the outbreak of the Iraq War, he traveled to Baghdad to learn more about the traditional Iraqi music of maqam, a melodic system whose overall sound is instantly recognizable as Arabic, even if the intensely detailed components are invisible to the untrained ear. Maqam is microtonal, dividing itself into twenty-four distinct notes that include half-flats or half-sharps and significantly expand the musician’s arsenal of expression. While ElSaffar performs the maqam with the classic instruments for which it was intended, he also brings his intimate knowledge of the style to his trumpeting. His band, though rooted in the style of modern free and avant jazz, follows ElSaffar’s lead into the confluence of traditions.

The result is not a dismal fusion of incongruous sounds, nor does the incorporation of exotic flavor come off as a weak affectation. There is no sense of novelty or insincerity, the kind that can often hamper the impact of so-called world music. Instead, the vital and versatile Arabic styles flow cleanly into the open embrace of American free jazz, and the seamlessness with which ElSaffar and his collaborators blend the two allows the listeners to focus on the content and intention of his music, rather than the logistics of it.

The opening track, “Menba’/Jourjina”, sets the mood by immediately plunging the listener into a wafting melody that is shared as a common element among the instruments, yet seems to subtly shift in color and shape as each player grasps hold of it. The track also introduces some of the Arabic instruments employed by the group throughout the album, including ElSaffar’s seventy-string dulcimer, the santoor, a distinctive hand-drum manned by Zafer Tawil known as the dumbek, and the lute-like buzuq played by Tareq Abboushi.

Though the Arabic themes are dominant on “Memba’”, the recognizable hallmarks of jazz fade in and out of the background. They lightly touch upon the maqam melody until the band transitions into the next composition, “Hemayoun”, in which the saxophone, trumpet, bass, and drums seize total control. Rather than shatter the mood, however, they decide to reinforce it by running with the rhythmic meter put forth by the Arabic instruments and shading it with the more familiar Western sounds.

This level of cooperation and interplay between the disparate styles is absolutely necessary, and ElSaffar’s group does an excellent job ensuring that each of the influences effectively connects with the other. Similarly, the cooperation and interplay between the musicians, particularly ElSaffar’s trumpet and the alto saxophone of Rudresh Manhanthappa, propel the album to such excellence. On the climactic “Blood and Ink/Aneen”, which meditates on the havoc wrecked upon Baghdad by Mongol hordes in 1258, the two flail wildly around one other, their instruments crying out and painting a rich portrait of the chaotic din that surely accompanied the event they depict.

To hear these sounds, both old and new, mixing together so comfortably and so powerfully is a tremendous pleasure. Two Rivers goes a long way toward making the music of maqam approachable and comprehensible by putting it in context alongside more familiar jazz instrumentation and structures. The album works like a musical Rosetta stone; it provides not just the means to understand, but a way to explore a deeper, fuller history than before, and most importantly, showcases the impressive talents of the artists involved in bringing this music to life.

RATING 7 / 10