Oak Park native Amir ElSaffar moves beyond cross-cultural hybrids with Rivers of Sound
CHICAGO READER: Oak Park native Amir ElSaffar moves beyond cross-cultural hybrids with Rivers of Sound
BY PETER MARGASAK
"Oak Park native Amir ElSaffar has built his career pursuing a rigorous curiosity and commitment to art, and one of his greatest accomplishments is his ravishing hybrid of postbop and traditional Iraqi maqam. His recent Two Rivers project succeeded in part because ElSaffar, an Iraqi-American, is devoted to both disciplines: he studied jazz trumpet in Chicago and maqam—playing santoor and singing—with masters of the austere form in Baghdad. In 2008 he presented the earliest incarnation of what would develop into Rivers of Sound, but it’s only in the last few years that this second project has truly reached fruition. Last year’s stunning Not Two (New Amsterdam) takes its title from wisdom a Zen Buddhist teacher of ElSaffar’s shared with him about facing dualities. Featuring an international cast of like-minded improvisers and traditionalists, it goes well beyond any sort of typical hybrid. While there’s no missing elements of maqam, free jazz, Turkish melody, Indian raga and more, the 80-minute suite’s achievement is building an epic journey that makes each ingredient far less meaningful than the sweeping whole. I’ve heard lots of terrible music that attempts to bring a world of sounds together, but ElSaffar succeeds because he builds beauty from commonalities that have existed for centuries. In the Chicago debut of his suite he leads an excellent 15-member band (most of whom played on the record) including vibist Jason Adasiewicz, pianist John Escreet, guitarist Miles Okazaki, reedists Ole Mathisen, Aakash Mittal, and JD Parran, and his sister, Dena ElSaffar, on violin, viola, and joza."