Concert Review: Brief Impressions of Amir Elsaffir’s Two Rivers Ensemble

Venue: The Jazz Standard (NY)
Date: February 21, 2012

Review by Matt Cole

On Tuesday, the 21st of February, my friend Sohrab took me to the Jazz Standard to see the 9:30 set of Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble. ElSaffar is an Iraqi-American musician, proficient on the trumpet and santur (a Middle Eastern analogue to the dulcimer), whose music is a fusion of modern jazz, traditional Iraqi maqam, and a few other odd bits thrown in (as is happily inevitable these days). The band featured Ole Mathisen on tenor sax (he never quite got to his soprano), Tareq Abboushi on the buzuq, Zafer Tawil on oud and percussion, Carlo DeRosa on bass, and Tyshawn Sorey on drums.

The first piece of the evening was quite long; it almost felt like a suite. For the first five or ten minutes, the music felt a little unsettled, as if it wasn’t quite locked in, but I have a feeling that this was more due to my ears adjusting to a new and unfamiliar combination of musics. Certainly for the rest of the evening, the band was extremely tight. Each player got an extended section to take the lead, and the main theme was returned to several times between such flights. ElSaffar started the piece on santour, and switched fairly quickly to trumpet (on which he remained most of the night). The first piece was followed by what seemed to be a brief number, and then two more extended pieces. At some times, the feel of the night’s music was more of modern jazz, at others, maqam dominated, but there was never a time when both sounds weren’t in some way present. Never did it feel like a synthetic product, but rather a conversation between two traditions.

Sorey and DeRosa did a fine job of holding the rhythm down, and were able to take some solos or leads. I was very impressed by one of Mathisen’s solos in which he used circular breathing to keep a rapid string of notes going for what seemed like several minutes (but was probably not quite that long). Abboushi and Tawil wove some interesting layers with their respective stringed instruments, managing to bridge the gap between Iraq and Downtown Manhattan quite effectively.

Toward the end of the night, ElSaffar sang in Arabic, adding a beautiful tenor to the mix. My companion remarked that he would love to have heard more vocals, as they were the highlight of the night for him. I also enjoyed the vocals, but the best part of the night for me was being introduced to a fine musician, a fine ensemble, and a very interesting fusion of two musical traditions, one of which I am familiar with, and one of which I am not. I look forward to seeing how ElSaffar’s musical journey progresses, and how he continues to combine two disparate and beautiful musical languages.