The Other Shore should be understood together with its predecessor, Not Two (2017), which introduced Amir ElSaffar‘s Rivers of Sound Orchestra as a single, cohesive experience. Both records’ musical and conceptual underpinnings are essentially the same, although each has its particular emphases. Both are organized around the maqam, a series of scales rooted in Arabic and Middle Eastern musical practice. Both are 17-piece orchestras and feature an array of instruments that are conventional to Western and Eastern traditions. Both comprise long, simmering, expansive songs that function as scaffolding for moods and passages to drift into and out of the foreground.
Both, crucially, are inspired by ElSaffar’s philosophy of cross-cultural music. “My idea is to expand ideas of culture,” he writes, “in the sense of one style of music ‘belonging’ to a particular group of people or a society. Rivers of Sound proposes an alternative musical model by embracing a multitude of musical expressions, by focusing on the interactions between individual musicians.” Music critics who hold to ElSaffar’s stated inspiration and purpose – namely, to combine Arabic, Western, and American jazz music traditions – are not wrong to do so. But they also sometimes seem to be timid about appreciating – or maybe unwilling to appreciate the implications of it entirely.
From one point of view, the whole of music and cultural history is one long tapestry of blending and borrowing. To fold together disparate musical traditions in the manner of ElSaffar’s theory and practice – and to announce explicitly that this act of blending is the inspiration and the goal – is bold in an era when the prevailing opinion is that certain styles of expression are owned by their presumed socio-cultural authors and should remain under their supervision. On a conceptual level, Not Two and The Other Shore are arguments against this view.
But ElSaffar’s points are unmoored (to participate in but hopefully not to belabor his preferred system of nautical metaphors) from politics and set adrift on waves of music that build and break in truly unpredictable ways. The cumulative effect produces a kind of force or pressure in which claims of ownership over this or that style, presentation, or part of it, must appear trivial. Felt and experienced as a whole, The Other Shore compels us to consider that creative pursuits and conversations – between artists in a given moment, over long periods, or across cultures – are part of an oceanic whole, and they rise and fall freely in it.
The music on The Other Shore flows and circulates at its own unhurried pace – five of the eight pieces exceed nine minutes, and two of them are 15 minutes. One of the longer pieces, “Transformations”, begins with three minutes of a through-composed cycle on trumpet and piano. It settles into a long groove rich with microtonal accents on satur, oud, and oboe and from ElSaffar’s vocals. A bracing sax improvisation transitions it into another time signature as an almost symphonic theme swells and fades, and a dramatic swirl of instrumentation rises and falls.
How this song gracefully cycles through elements of composition and improvisation is typical of ElSaffar’s Rivers of Sound project. He shepherds the group through Western classical and Middle Eastern modes, jazz modes, including solo, small group, and orchestral formats, and even ambient modes, both tense and tranquil. It is unique and uniquely beautiful.
ElSaffar’s choice of song titles – four of them are “Dhuha” (dawn or sunrise in Arabic), “Transformations”, “Reaching Upward”, and “March” – are straightforward and terse. This approach to authorship is reminiscent of the spiritual jazz pioneers of the 1970s. But ElSaffar shares more than just a style of nomenclature with artists like McCoy Tyner and Alice Coltrane. The Other Shore is also about confronting and moving past musical and cultural barriers. It also holds an ideal for both the listener and the performance artists to aspire towards and join. This puts the whole enterprise in somewhat grand terms, but this album earns it.