Salaam [2009]

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Salaam is a wonderful blend of seeming contradictions, comprised of Midwestern Americans playing traditional Middle Eastern music. Utilizing compositions that go back hundreds of years in some cases, they also play original music that's perfectly of a piece with the traditional material. They clearly respect the tradition, but they also aren't afraid to use non-traditional instrumentation like piano, trumpet, or electric bass. It's all done seamlessly, and these fresh elements make for an exciting album. Dena and Amir El Saffar have studied Iraqi music extensively and it's this foundation that Salaam builds on. The album opener was written by Dena and echoes the history of these musical forms. But when the track shifts tempo and the piano and trumpet come in, it's clear this is a new take on an old tradition. There's great variety to the approaches they take. They play slowly and beautifully on the 17th century composition "Arazbar Pesrevi," then turn around and get fairly jazzy improvising over a 12/4 Iraqi rhythm (Hakan Toker on piano and Tim Moore on drums really shine here). It's all very well-done, but they might be at their best when they kick up the energy a bit on the dance tunes (again, the drum kit on these tracks is a great addition). Only three of the songs have vocals, so the album really showcases their instrumental talents (multi-instrumental at that!). The album ends on another high note with the viola/trumpet/piano/dumbek rendition of an early 20th century Turkish tune. Excellent.

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