Musical reckonings with jazz and history or culture and religion are often – to put it mildly – fraught, especially when they incorporate text. They can come across as maudlin, gauzily New Age, or excessively portentous. While it’s common enough to find successful examples of idiomatic bricolage (think of Rabih Abou-Khalil’s great body of work, for example), it’s less common to find a record like Amir ElSaffar’s, where the leader (on trumpet, santoor, and vocals) aims to find not only the link between traditional Iraqi musics (maqams) and jazz, but also the link between the Tigris and the Euphrates, the Iraqi “golden age” of the 13th century and the blasted present.
He’s joined in this boundary hopping by alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa (no stranger to heady concepts), violinist Zafer Tawil (also on oud and dumbek), percussionist Tareq Abboushi (buzuq and frame drum), bassist Carlo DeRosa, and drummer Nasheet Waits. ElSaffar generally integrates the two streams of music rather well, with most tracks unfolding during long introductions that feature impassioned, ululating vocals and flourishes on oud and frame drum. Over time, these cede gently into somewhat more conventional jazz improvisational forms (always modified, though, transformed by what has preceded them). Throughout, there’s something of the spiky rhythmic energy that defines Mahanthappa’s records, a complexity that doesn’t feel antic as much as it feels dense.
As a trumpeter, ElSaffar is compelling, with a tart tone, slightly frayed at the edges, and a real instinct for space and gaps in his phrasing. He likes to take jabs in the upper register, and then follow up with spooling, descending lines. This makes for a nice contrast with the mercurial Mahanthappa. The tone of the music is often quite dark, with long melismatic lines wafting sorrowfully on “Diaspora (Maqam Lami),” for example. But after the long journey of “Menba’ (Maqam Bayat) / Jourjina,” I defy you to resist the post-Ornette bounce of “Hemayoun,” with Mahanthappa and ElSaffar going all “Cherryco” on top of oud and frame drum. And Waits … is there any context where he doesn’t sound killer?
The album’s a bit too long at 70-plus minutes, and the flow trickles out somewhat towards the end, but it’s generally really fine stuff.