Alchemy-- Amir ElSaffar

Doris Duke Performing Artist Award winner Amir ElSaffar is one of the few trumpeters capable of playing microtones on that instrument, as well as being an accomplished Iraqi maqam singer. The Iraqi-American was born and raised in Chicago, and studied classical trumpet at DePaul University before being attracted by the musical culture of his ancestors in Iraq. His Two River and Inana recordings drew largely from the maqam, a structured melodic modal system, while his last, Radif Suite, used a specially designed musical system. For the remarkable Alchemy CD, however, ElSaffar has written for a standard jazz quintet, while at the same time incorporating Middle eastern tonal systems, with pieces based on ancient Sumerian / Babylonian modes and others employing the leader's own original microtonal tuning scheme. ElSaffar's quintet includes tenor and soprano saxophonist Ole Mathisen, who has mastered the unique fingerings often needed to achieve non-equal tempered pitches. Joining them are bassist Francois Moutin, drummer Dan Weiss, and pianist John Escreet, whose instrument retained its Western equal temperament for this session. The bottom line: this music comes across, surprisingly perhaps, as a superb post bop quintet date that could have been released anywhere from the '60's to the present with great acclaim.

The three-part Ishtarum Suite begins with "Ishtarum" and its exotic sounding theme, which is repeated three times with pauses in-between before subtle variations transpire and Moutin's bass motif signals the start of ElSaffar's absorbing, winding solo, exultant and insistent. Escreet, Moutin, and Weiss supply a variegated platform for him, and the pianist's succeeding improv inventively uses repetitive or narrowly focused figures to moving effect. A unison trumpet-sax finale paraphrases the initial theme with beseeching vigor, only to end with a sigh. For "Nid Qablitum," Moutin's ostinato alternates with the horns' circular motif that serves as the opening theme. A vamp then dissolves into Escreet's absorbing solo that adroitly utilizes the sparse thematic material. A swirling MIddle Eastern interlude by ElSaffar and Mathisen sets up the tenor saxophonist's fascinating exploration that exhibits his impressive microtonal technique. With a theme similar to that from "Nid Qablitum," the lengthy 10:56 "Embubum-Ishtarum-Pitum" allows more ample time for development, with Moutin and Weiss providing a buoyant backdrop for ElSaffar's invigorating modal improv. A reprise precedes an undulating trumpet-sax unison segment again enhanced by a bass ostinato. Escreet's restless venture emerges from this texture, a dizzying combination of staccato and arpeggio devices. Mathisen erupts after another recap, answered by ElSaffar in upper range ecstasy. The succinct sign off serves as a satisfying release.

Four selections from the Alchemy Suite start with the stabbing, sparse theme of "12 Cycles," which illustrates ElSaffar's quarter tone tuning system, with microtonal "chord changes." The trumpeter's solo plays lucidly off these changes, as does Mathisen's on soprano. After the theme is reintroduced, Escreet and ElSaffar interact in delicate counterpoint to wind down the piece. The insinuating "Quartal" is reminiscent in a way of Herbie Hancock's "The Eye of the Hurricane" from his classic Maiden Voyage album, with similar tenor-trumpet voicings. ElSaffar's improv slowly and gratifyingly unwinds from and expands upon its original narrowly focused motifs. Mathisen responds with staggered, guttural exhortations, while Escreet's turn skitters and tumbles dashingly. Moutin and Weiss then converse with refined articulation prior to a to-the-point recapitulation. "Balad" (yes, just one "l") is a mournful, dark-tinged track featuring Escreet and Moutin's ethereal musings and ElSaffar's moderately dissonant phraseology. When trumpet and tenor unite, the melody abruptly flowers in its full majesty as the pianist intensifies his approach to a definitive resolution. "Five Phases" is launched by the counterpoint of piano and bass ostinato, leading to the spirited flourishes of another Middle Eastern-flavored theme. Here ElSaffar's phrasing recalls trumpeter Dave Douglas, and the thematic content bears some similarity to the works of John Zorn for his Masada group. Mathisen's soprano solo aptly fuses technical facility with passionate expressiveness. Escreet's effort is notable for the way its determined left-hand ostinato blends so well with his thrusting right hand perambulations. The concluding section, isolating ElSaffar and Moutin, is contrastedly becalming.

The theme of "Athar Kurd" has the velocity and insistence of one of Miles Davis', circa Miles Smiles. Mathisen's rapid microtonal slurs distinguish his forceful post bop solo, and ElSaffar reacts with a brilliantly constructed, intricately woven journey. Moutin's tranfixing improv displays his admirable technique, and an uplifting reprise precedes Escreet's heady vamp framing Weiss' propulsive workout. The three-minute "Miniature #1" contains a melody with the jagged character of an Ornette Coleman tune as harmonized by Coleman and Don Cherry's trumpet. Weiss' drum solo even captures a bit of Ed Blackwell's unique rhythmic conception. "Ending Piece" has a theme with a boppish undercurrent, repeated several times over Moutin's brooding bass patterns. Escreet's piano goes the direction of Cecil Taylor, with trickling splashes of notes and assertive chordal configurations. ElSaffar enters with fanfares and swirling runs. Mathisen's microtonal attack is devastating, and Moutin follows him with persuasive commitment. Weiss' exemplary drumming on this track is ceaselessly adaptable and/or provoking.

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Scott Albin