It’s been nine years and some change since the Wexner Center brought Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble to Columbus but no one I knew at that show, least of all your correspondent here, has forgotten that set. His return to the Lincoln Theatre on Wednesday, October 10 at 8pm (tickets here) is a must-see for any lover of modern music; sweetening the pot, ElSaffar’s group includes maqam singer Hamid Al-Saadi. More info about the performance including videos is below.
In my old personal blog, I wrote that Two Rivers Ensemble (which still includes members who blew me away at the time like drummer Nasheet Waits and multi-instrumentalist Zafer Tawil), “Created a music seared in the heat of feeling but excavated from layers of knowledge and understanding.”
The next year I saw him at Manhattan’s Le Poisson Rouge in a quartet with Hafez Modirzadeh, Alex Cline, and Mark Dresser, and wrote, “[The] compositions seemed incredibly interested in a locus where the natural ranges of all four instruments coincided, creating an opportunity for these gorgeous whirlpool drones you could barely see your way out of…El-Saffar’s was a little spikier, thick with sharp thorns and beautiful melodies not showing up or resolving where your ear’s expecting them to, but once you got it it was like you’d run a mile for the first time, that full-chest gladness and exhilaration.” That sense of exhilaration and care for where instruments intersect but a willingness to push through to the other side of a comfort zone carries over into ElSaffar’s new Two Rivers material.
In a fantastic recent interview with JazzSpeaks, ElSaffar discussed the maqam tradition. “Iraqi Maqam is one style, one genre, one form within the Maqam tradition. In Iraq, the word ‘maqam’ actually means ‘a composition,’ so by extrapolating on a mode and taking it through all its possibilities, all of the extensions of that mode, in Iraq the Maqams become crystallized as compositions, as forms, that are meant to be performed in somewhat the same manner each time. One can make certain choices within that form, but they become much more specific…So you have a group of seven notes: It’s not a scale, really, it’s a collection of pitches, each exerting a gravity on the next. Those relationships are powerful. They can be microtonal as well: The E can be half-flat, the F can be half-sharp, there are many gradations of pitch on a continuum.”
A 2005 interview with the New York Times referenced ElSaffar’s training period in London with Hamid Al-Saadi, said to be the only living maqam singer who knows the entire repertoire. “Mr. ElSaffar would record his lesson with Mr. al-Saadi and then rehearse for hours from the recording, singing and playing santur on his own…’Amir,’ his teacher, Mr. al-Saadi, said in a telephone interview, ‘is preserving the true essence of this music.’”
Columbus is lucky enough to hear these riveting interpretations of this spiritual tradition of music played by not only some of America’s best players but including the man who taught one of our great composers and trumpeters the foundation of this music. This is not to be missed.