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Amir ElSaffar Rivers of Sound: Not Two (New Amsterdam)

Mike Shanley's review of album by Amir ElSaffar and Rivers of Sound

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Cover of Amir ElSaffar album "Not Two"
Cover of Amir ElSaffar album “Not Two”

Cecil Taylor’s occasionally raucous large ensembles might not evoke a confluence of diverse musics flowing into a bigger concept. But trumpeter Amir ElSaffar cites his time in Taylor’s big band as one inspiration for Rivers of Sound. This 17-piece orchestra combines the sonorities of Western instruments (trumpet, reeds, English horn, cello, violin, vibraphone) with oud, buzuq and santur. The pulse comes from a combination of piano, bass, trap kit, mridangam, dumbek and frame drums. ElSaffar, whose enthralling work has combined Iraqi maqam and jazz improvisation in his Two Rivers sextet, gave himself a more formidable task with a sprawling group, but the results are strong.

The strength of the music lies in a goal ElSaffar mentions in Not Two’s booklet. Rivers of Sound doesn’t function as a way to bridge the far-flung cultures that “belong” to different people. Instead maqam, polyphony, polyrhythms, melisma and groove all flow together so that “overtones react, as we come close to a universal human sound,” he explains. This results in moments where Jason Adasiewicz’s vibes or ElSaffar’s trumpet add vital notes on top of Iraqi strings that sound dissonant to ears tuned to the West’s 12 notes. But what might sound jarring initially becomes beautiful with exposure.

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