Perhaps it’s a stretch to make this comparison, but the rich textures created by Amir ElSaffar’s 17-piece Rivers of Sound Orchestra recall the expansive sound assembled by Gil Evans and Miles Davis on Sketches of Spain. Composition and improvisation play equal roles on The Other Shore, to the point where the line between the two becomes irrelevant and the performance itself becomes all the more absorbing. Calling the group an orchestra is appropriate since the overall effect of their music feels symphonic.
Of course, the source material is vastly different here from that of the Davis/Evans masterpiece. Iraqi-American trumpeter ElSaffar has become skilled at combining jazz improvisation with Arabic maqam modes through several albums with smaller groups and one previous Rivers of Sound release. The Other Shore features saxophones (tenor, alto, and bass), clarinet, double-reeds, and vibraphone sharing space with ouds, mridangam, and buzuq. In addition to his rich trumpet tone, ElSaffar also sings in Arabic vocalese and solos on the santur, the Iraqi hammered dulcimer. The combination of Western and Middle Eastern instruments creates a wider spectrum of harmonies, heard best in the opening of “Transformations,” when the melody incorporates microtonal pitches.
Several tracks are like suites within themselves, lasting between 13 and 16 minutes, and moving through rubato openings, pregnant pauses, and ostinatos that groove no matter how the rhythm is divided. One of the best examples of the latter comes on “March,” where the rhythm section holds things down as virtually every other player floats to the surface to color the sound. When ElSaffar says that he wants to expand beyond ideas of culture and make a “musical model that embraces a multitude of musical expressions,” this track is clearly what he means—and he has succeeded.