Two Rivers is jazz master Amir ElSaffar's debut album as a leader; he is a well-seasoned musician in both the jazz world and the classical one. He has performed as a member of pianist Vijay Iyer's celebrated group, and with Cecil Taylor's, he has also played on the front line with the brilliant -- if less widely known -- alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa's group (who returns the favor here). But ElSaffar is also a gifted and well-studied classical musician who has worked with conductor Daniel Barenboim, among others. None of this prepares the listener for Two Rivers. ElSaffar is an American-born artist: his father is a native Iraqi; his mother an American. After studying jazz and classical music and playing with numerous ensembles in the United States and Europe, ElSaffar went to Iraq to study maqam music. Maqam is the urban classical vocal tradition in Iraq. According to the extensive notation on ElSaffar's website, it is found in "...Baghdad, Mosul, Kirkuk, and Basra, the maqam repertoire draws upon musical styles of the many populations in Iraq, such as the Bedouins, rural Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen, as well as neighboring Persians, Turks...." It has two distinct flavors, a more spiritual tenet for Qur'anic recitation, and a more secular one, performed in coffeehouses, gyms, and even by street vendors advertising their wares. The term for the singer or reciter is quarri or in the plural, qurra', which denotes its essentially spiritual nature. It is a complex music; a modal one upon which compositions, rhythms, and improvisations are based. It has a hundred different melodies at its core. At the heart of maqam is the theme, known as the ruhiyya or spiritual essence.
What this has to do with jazz is everything. ElSaffar and his group -- Mahanthappa on alto saxophone; Zaafer Tawil on violin, oud, and dumbek; Tareq Abboushi on buzuq and frame drum; Carlo DeRosa on bass; Nasheet Waits on drums (ElSaffar plays trumpet, sings, and plays the santoor) -- play a suite based on various ruhiyya. ElSaffar's compositions are not mere exotic fusion, but wholly developed for jazz from the maqam. This is no mean feat. Here, in this thematic structure (the title refers to the rivers of creation and civilization themselves, the Tigris and Euphrates) this group offers a wildly original and deeply reverential music that is at once devastatingly beautiful, extremely human, and aspires to the divine. Here the formal structure of the maqam is the take-off and turning point, and what happens in between as these gifted players begin to articulate these themes based on an interpolation of rhythm, mode, harmony, tonality, and drone, is not only magical and emotionally rich, it is among the bravest music on the scene. In the late '50s, jazz bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik, an American-born bassist of Sudanese descent, recorded for Prestige, RCA, and Stratus, a music in which he used the scales, rhythms, and the oud as expansion points for jazz. His wove a fabric that others had experimented with -- Yusef Lateef most successfully -- but that he incorporated wholesale. Many players followed his lead, and some, such as Rabih Abou-Khalil, have used Middle Eastern traditional music and instruments and woven these into the jazz tradition. ElSaffar goes as far in our day as Abdul-Malik did in his; he makes few compromises.
This is a jazz record carefully assembled, expertly articulated and executed, that brings to the many American jazz fans a complete exposure to an ancient tradition, one that is seamlessly woven into the fabric of improvisation. The music is both inside and outside, accessible, difficult, and sometimes strange, but it is always beautiful, filled with rich, varied, individual voices in solos. ElSaffar's trumpet playing is superb; it ranges from the delicate and lonesome to the fiery and ecstatic. His singing calls for the poems and recitations of the ruhiyya and brings them to the listener unadorned, so, for those of us who do not speak a particular language or dialect, we can appreciate their feeling and integration as part of the composition and suite. The use of rhythm here is also ingenious: it's varied, subtle, and most of all, circular, allowing a place for the listener inside its movement. Talking about individual compositions here would be useless. This is a single work to be taken as a whole; it goes beyond the understanding initially, but it is highly sensual and seductive, and meets the place inside the human heart where desire beyond the body pulls at what is at least unspeakable in words, and further, at what is perhaps unknowable. This is as impressive a debut as we've had in America in the 21st century.