AMIR EL SAFFAR: Two Rivers CD (Pi Recordings) – I must confess that I had never previously heard of Iraqi-American Amir El Saffar nor of any of the members of his solid ensemble. As the material on the appropriately titled ???Two Rivers??? (referring, literally, to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, but also, symbolically, to the combination of two different musical traditions in the music on this CD) reveals, he???s a talented multi-instrumentalist, composer, and bandleader. Not only has El Saffar received extensive training in classical and jazz music in the United States, but he has also traveled to Iraq and immersed himself in a traditional form of the Iraqi music, the maqam.
Your introduction to maqam begins with the opening track ???Menba??? (Maqam Bayat) / Jourjina???, a showcase for El Saffar on trumpet, voice, and the beautiful and hypnotic santoor, which is an Iraqi hammered-dulcimer. While a few other cuts, most notably, the album???s other lengthy piece ???Blood and Ink (Maqam Awshar) / Aneen (Maqam Mukhalif)??? also focus mainly on the traditional sounds of maqam, the majority of the compositions on this disc are an excellent synthesis of the instrumentation (like the buzuq, dumbek, and oud) and stylistic elements of the maqam form and those of modern jazz. The resultant music is what one might expect/hope for: an organic, flowing, Middle Eastern-influenced style of ethno-jazz, which is best exemplified by tracks such as ???Flood (Maqam Hijaz Kar)???, ???Diaspora (Maqam Lami)???, and ???Khosh Reng (Maqam Awj)???, in which El Saffar and Mahanthappa engage in a fiery exchange of short solos. Genre-blurring, innovative, and well-executed, ???Two Rivers???, for the most part, hits all the right notes! DL