Song Of The Day

Iraqi Jazz Gets 'The Blues'

Monday's Pick

  • Song: "The Blues in E Half-Flat"
  • Artist: Amir ElSaffar
  • CD: Two Rivers
  • Genre: Jazz
Amir ElSaffar 300

hide captionIraqi-American trumpeter Amir ElSaffar helps break jazz out of a claustrophobic sphere of influence.

courtesy of Amir ElSaffar

Jazz musicians have always juxtaposed Western and non-Western elements. At times, it seemed like an aesthetic choice — say, John Coltrane working with Ravi Shankar. At others, cross-cultural improvisation held the key to survival of the enterprise, as with the novelty appeal of early Afro-Latin music. It's hard to tell whether Iraqi-American trumpeter Amir ElSaffar is inspired more by the opportunity presented by his heritage or by the necessity for jazz to break out of a claustrophobic sphere of influence. But listening to his gorgeous, invigorating, and accessible Two Rivers suite, which melds modern improvisation with the Iraqi maqam tradition, theoretical considerations become an afterthought.

Without a musicology degree, it can be difficult to precisely explain what's going on in the finale, "The Blues in E Half-Flat." But since any technical explanation threatens to become unwieldy, try this: It grooves hard, it's possible to follow the 12-bar blues form on it, and it sounds fantastic. The groove comes courtesy of virtuoso drummer Nasheet Waits and pounding bassist Carlo DeRosa. The blues-form bit is a neat trick of ElSaffar's wherein he chooses a set of pitches — microtonal ones, at that — compatible with an Iraqi scale mode. As for sounding fantastic, it's a testament to the ability of well-trained musicians to adapt to specific challenges, regardless of cultural weight.

Say the words "Iraqi-jazz hybrid" — or any sort of "ethno-jazz," for that matter — and it conjures a sort of watered-down background music for eccentrics. But the beauty of these "Blues" is that they require no legitimizing cultural authenticity. Tareq Abboushi's buzuq sounds like a distorted acoustic guitar, plenty powerful for improvising unfamiliar yet instinctively fitting textures. And the dialogue between ElSaffar and alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa — one of today's most consistently interesting instrumentalists — brings the fire of '60s free jazz without sacrificing the pulsating rhythmic undercurrent. Like the best jazz, this music celebrates the ability of great musicians to imagine unfamiliar territory, and navigate it in a way that makes for both intuitive understanding and compelling listening.

Listen to yesterday's 'Song of the Day.'

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Two Rivers

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  • Album: Two Rivers
  • Artist: Amir Elsaffar
  • Label: Pi Recordings
  • Released: 2007
 

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Song Of The Day