The music on Crisis, the third album from the conceptually driven, multitalented Iraqi-American trumpeter Amir ElSaffar and his Two Rivers Ensemble, was commissioned for and debuted at the Newport Jazz Festival two summers ago. Its viscerally haunting mix of jazz and Middle Eastern music earned a standing ovation that afternoon. Now the studio album, recorded earlier this year, is among the most notable releases of 2015.
ElSaffar’s ensemble-Ole Mathisen, tenor and soprano saxophones; Nasheet Waits, drums; Carlo DeRosa, bass; Tareq Abboushi, buzuq (a long-necked lute); Zafer Tawil, oud and percussion; the leader on santur (a hammered dulcimer) and vocals in addition to trumpet-is first rate. But it is ElSaffar’s composing for the seven-part Crisis Suite, a commentary on recent Iraqi and Middle Eastern history, that shines brightest here. Waits’ drums open “Introduction-From the Ashes,” which builds to ElSaffar’s evocative maqam vocalization of lines by the great Ottoman poet Abdul Ghafar al-Akhras. This bleeds into “The Great Dictator,” whose militaristic swagger is successively interrupted by Abboushi’s pensive buzuq and Mathisen’s frenzied tenor. Then ElSaffar’s unaccompanied trumpet lamentation “Taqsim Saba” sets up what follows: “El-Sha’ab (The People)” starts with bass and drums, as if cautiously emerging from a nightmare, becoming folkloric and increasingly hopeful as it builds to ElSaffar’s Miles-ian trumpet solo. The slow, exquisite “Love Poem” features an abridged poem by the 13th-century Sufi mystic Ibn Arabi; in copious compositional notes, the piece is aptly described as conveying “beauty, vulnerability, tenderness, longing.” “Flyover Iraq” includes Chicago-style horns piloting a Turkish/Ottoman melody above energetic strings, concluding with a bass solo as “the foundation crumbles.”
The suite-closing “Tipping Point,” circling back with references to “The Great Dictator” and “Flyover Iraq,” is a 13:40-minute highlight, complex and appropriately climactic. The epilogue “Aneen (Weeping), Continued” references ElSaffar’s 2007 Two Rivers Suite and the 1258 fall of Baghdad, and an unabridged version of “Love Poem” concludes this exceptional album.