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Concert Review: Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble and the Dave Brubek Quartet with Simon Shaheen at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, 8/5/09
August 6, 2009 ·
In their New York debut, Iraqi-American trumpeter/composer Amir ElSaffar’s seventeen-piece Middle Eastern jazz orchestra Two Rivers Ensemble were nothing short of transcendent. Since music in the Middle East goes back so many millennia, most attempts at melding jazz with music from the region have come out of the jazz arena. This particular ensemble comes at it from the opposite direction, layering a feast of tonalities from both hemispheres with the occasional jazzy flourish over a slinky, Levantine-style snakecharmer groove, at times evoking Mingus in their most darkly lush moments. The music was as hypnotic as it was otherworldly beautiful. ElSaffar began the show on santoor (a hammered zither that sounds almost identical to a kanun) before moving to trumpet and eventually vocals. The full orchestra, with trumpet, santoor, alto and baritone saxes, ney flute, trombone, guitar, upright bass, drums, percussion, vibraphone, kamancheh (spike fiddle), oud, lute and piano would come together as they reached a swell, but frequently there would be just a couple or small handful of musicians playing off each other intricately over the beat.
The first of their long pieces, which could be something of a suite, was a stately rollercoaster ride of dynamics, moving up and then down again with solos from bari sax and trumpet with starkly beautiful piano accents, fading down to the bass solo that would eventually start the next composition. That one had an even more otherworldly feel, caught somewhere in limbo between major and minor but resolving to neither, lit up by a gorgeous oud solo played against the beat and another by the guitarist, moving from the Levant to gently incisive, staccato blues. Guest vocalist Gaida – a pioneer and a star in her own right – contributed heartfelt, shimmering vocalese on a couple of the latter pieces, the last – a fanfare and the night’s most overtly jazzy number – in tandem with ElSaffar. Considering how fascinating the solo spots were, it would hardly be fair to single out only a few of the players, but it was also impossible to keep up with ElSaffar’s band intros at the end to figure out who was playing what. Of those, Michael Ibrahim’s straightforward ney flute and practically macabre zurna (Turkish oboe) playing, Vijay Iyer’s wirewalking piano work and ElSaffar’s own microtonal trumpet were especially captivating. ElSaffar also has an intriguing project, Salaam, with his sister Dena – their auspicious new album comes out August 11, watch this space for a review. And just for the record, this is the culture that Dick Cheney, in his insatiable greed for oil, wanted to destroy.
Dave Brubeck is 89, so he can do whatever he wants. Yet the jazz piano icon remains as deviously shapeshifting and fascinating as ever. He and his quartet had just been in Washington where there’d been an Ellington festival going on, and since Duke is Brubeck’s hero they took a stab at Take the A Train and reinvented it with characteristic passion and nuance. As usual, they messed with the time signature – a couple of particularly poignant 6/8 passages led by the piano – when bassist Michael Moore wasn’t pushing it along with a growling, hypnotic power, or when alto player Bobby Militello wasn’t giving it a warm, sailing vibe. After they’d run through the head the last time, Brubeck added a cleverly playful little fugue between the left and right hands. Brubeck has always been more about substance and innovation than flash, so if he’s lost some speed, it hardly makes a difference: the swing, the ideas, the timing and the voicings are as vital as ever.
Swanee River got a similar treatment, shifting subtly from poignancy to exuberance, Militello leading the charge. It’s a Raggy Waltz was similarly, warmly expansive, Brubeck pulling out the hooks and then reassembling them, drawing in his bandmates when everything was back together. This group has been a Lincoln Center Out of Doors institution for over a decade, and among their notable concerts are a handful of collaborations with the extraordinary Armenian oud player George Mgrdichian. It was no surprise, then to see the equally extraordinary oudist/violinist/composer Simon Shaheen join them for a couple of numbers. He played oud on the first, a murky, atmospheric tune that didn’t really come together, and it didn’t help that Militello stepped all over him before finally realizing that he’d overswung, finally taking a seat after all that exertion. They closed with a spirited Take Five, Shaheen adding subtle textures and harmonies on violin in tandem with the sax. How they manage to keep that one fresh after all these decades is testament to both the song and the quality of the crew that played it last night. 08/06/09 >> go there