Amir ElSaffar on the Other Shore


EL SAFFAR: Dhuha. Transformation. Reaching Upward. Ashaa. Concentric. Lightning Flash. March. Medmi / Rivers of Sound: Amir ElSaffar, tpt/santur/voc; Fabrizio Cassol, a-sax; Ole Mathisen, t-sax/s-sax; JD Parran, bs-sax/cl; Mohamed Saleh, ob/E-hn; Dena El Saffar, vln/joza; Naseem Alatrash, cel; Tareq Abboushi, buzuq; George Ziadeh, oud; Zafer Tawil, oud/nay; Jason Adasiewicz, vib; Miles Okazaki, gtr; John Escreet, pno; Carlo De Rosa, bs; Tim Moore, dumbek/naqqarat/frame dm; Rajna Swaminathan, mridangam; Nasheet Waits, dm / Outnote Records OTN640 (a division of Outhere), also available for free streaming on Bandcamp

Starting in the late 1980s and into the ‘90s, Lebanese oud player Rabih Abou-Khalil turned out a number of albums in which he fused traditional Lebanese music with American jazz, but although some of the recordings had some very well-known American jazzers on them, they received scant notice in the U.S. jazz press. Today, only his Arabian Waltz is well known, and that only because Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project played it frequently.

But this album, written and produced by Iranian expatriate trumpeter Amir ElSaffar, has gotten a lot of press even though most of the musicians here are not well known. Why? Because ElSaffar moved to New York, and what is done in this country always takes precedence over anything done in Europe or the Middle East.

Nonetheless, ElSaffar’s accomplishments are very real and extremely fascinating. One thing I found interesting was that he was working from the opposite idea of Abou-Khalil, who simply wanted to create a fusion of Middle Eastern harmonies and rhythms with jazz. In the liner notes, ElSaffar said that he simply wanted to hear what it would sound like to combine traditional Eastern instruments with traditional Western ones like the trumpet, various saxophones, violin, cello, oboe and English horn as well as vibes, guitar and piano. He certainly found out. The miracle is not that you sometimes hear slight harmonic clashes, since Eastern instruments use a completely different tuning, but how often they fit together.

Also, whereas Abou-Khalil used some American jazz tunes like the Juan Tizol-Duke Ellington Caravan, all of ElSaffar’s pieces are originals based on Eastern modes. Several pieces stay in one chord for long stretches of time, sometimes throughout the entire piece, and this can sound challenging to our Western ears, but he was also able to create that hypnotic sound that is a hallmark of Middle Eastern music.


Amir ElSaffar

With that being said, the opening of Transformations has a funky sort of beat and uses a repeated lick which you think is going to be the melody line but turns out to be the accompaniment to a simpler, repeated lick played by the brass. ElSaffar does a great deal of chanting on these pieces, too, which recalls the sound of a Muezzin calling the faithful to prayer. Another interesting facet is that, when the Western instruments do solo, they tend to make their instruments sound more Eastern than they normally would. Although the improvised solos are effective, none of the soloists are really standouts as jazz improvisers; the focus here is on the ensemble, with the solo lines emerging from the whole and falling back again. At just about the midpoint, 5:20, the music and rhythm suddenly shift a bit more in the direction of jazz, and one hears a clarinet solo that is remarkably related to klezmer.

Reaching Upward opens with one of the loveliest and most memorable melodies I’ve heard on a jazz recording in ages, a waltz melody that, although based in E-flat, moves through several keys in its middle section. This part of the piece is played primarily by the Western instruments; although a kalimba isn’t listed as an instrument in this orchestra, one that sounds very much like it introduces the Eastern portion of the tune which eventually becomes the dominant theme used. ElSaffar also introduces some interesting counterpoint which also dominates in the development section. So much of this music is through-composed that, at times, its relationship to jazz is tenuous, yet the music remains quite fascinating. At the 11:44 mark, the tempo increases as the rhythm changes once again, and now we are using only one chord beneath ElSaffar’s trumpet solo. Eventually, the rhythm falls apart as we hear a slow one-to-the beat behind a floating sea of instruments.

Ashaa has a somewhat dramatic opening in which one of the stringed instruments plays a vibrating undercurrent on one chord while the various instruments come in; the key then changes as the brass-sax lick is repeated after transposition; then we finally get a very Western-sounding beat as various instruments quietly improvise around it. Here, however, we shift from a strictly Eastern sound to a Western one at the halfway mark.

Indeed, the entire album is a continual collection of surprises, perhaps none quite so surprising as the energetic, bitonal opening motif of Lightning Flash, although it is here that the slight clash of pitch between the Eastern and Western instruments is most clearly heard. After a break, however, we move into one of the most Western jazz portions of the CD, a vibes solo underscored by brushes on the drums and a bass playing what almost sounds like a continuous, open-ended rhythm as an oud is heard soloing above all this. Later on in this track, the bass instruments play a repeated, tonal lick while the brass plays a bitonal, developing figure over it.

One can hear this recording as a sort of multi-cultural musical caravan, working its way across a burning desert playing laid-back but “hot” music over the burning sands. (How’s that for a cool poetic metaphor, hey?) But any way you hear it, this is superbly one of the most interesting, challenging yet enjoyable jazz fusion records ever made. A good time was had by all.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz


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