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Amir ElSaffar: Alchemy
Half Iraqi, half American, Amir ElSaffar spent his youth in Chicago, Illonois. Having picked up a trumpet at a young age, ElSaffar obtained a bachelor degree in classical music from DePaul University and plays fluently in jazz, classical and Middle Eastern idioms.
Shortly after his graduation, the young trumpeter travelled to Iraq where he studied a 400 year old Iraqi Maqam discipline which, although closely interlaced with Middle Eastern music, maintains a degree of variability that gives it a unique sound. During this time, ELSaffar applied the principles of microtonal playing to his trumpet; a feat rarely heard. Alongside this, the young musician picked up the Santur; a native Iraqi dulcimer - similar to a Qanun - although played with mallets as opposed to plectrums.
Now primarily based in New York, ELSaffar recently spent a year in Cairo, where he continued to learn more about Middle Eastern music and interact with Egyptian musicians.
His latest musical venture is the newly released, Alchemy; an album written for a jazz quintet consisting of a piano, double bass, drums, saxophone and trumpet. The music of Alchemy calls on the musicians to play in scales, lavished with microtones. This is a particularly tricky practice that requires the performers to sharpen their ears in order to execute the challenge with conviction.
Alchemy sees a union of some of the greatest musicians based in New York. On piano we hear the venturesome 29 year-old Brit, John Escreet, who is hailed as being one of the technically versed and creative pianists on the modern jazz scene. The rhythm section is comprised of double bassist, Francois Moutin, and drummer, Dan Weiss; both of whom have touched on world music whilst previously working with Indian saxophonist, Rudresh Mahanthappa. Lead sideman, meanwhile, is Norwegian born saxophonist, Ole Mathisen, who is highly proficient in microtonal playing and is a fine compliment to ElSaffars trumpet.
The first three tracks on Alchemy are collectively termed the 'Ishtarum Suite'; named after an Ancient Mesopotamian tablet that utilised the proportions of a seven pointed star. This tablet was later used to create a tuning system that came to form the basis for Greek, modal tonality. The compositions are long and meandering. Upon listening to these opening tracks, 'Ishtarum', 'Nid Qabiltum' and 'Embubum – Ishtarum – Pitum', ones ears are exposed to a musical environment rarely - if ever - heard. The contrast can even be heard in comparison to the other tracks on the album.
The following four tracks are deemed the 'Alchemy Suite', and are composed in Amir ElSaffar's personal microtonal harmony. 'Balad' - meaning country - is the slowest and most spacious track, evoking a sense of grandness and worth, even with the occasional dissonant notes. 'Five Phases' is an energetic, modal piece that highlights the horns as they harmoniously play traditional Middle Eastern melodies, on top of the rhythm sections' energetic back drop. The quarter tones are flawlessly executed, and sound particularly sweet in contrast with Escreet's dense improvisations that remain faithful to his Western influence. Culminating the fast paced track, Saffar leaves the listener with a touching, mellow, midrange trumpet solo.
Alchemy is a prime example of fine musicianship, coupled with a strong pioneering spirit; Amir ElSaffar has once again proved that his artistry is ever improving and is always capable bringing something fresh to the ear. Never cliché or pastiche, Alchemy is an album that will stay in our jazz playlists for years.
It is next to impossible to define the sound of the Dirty Projectors. As soon as one tries to put their finger on any sort of genre or sound, it will have already transformed itself - either sonically or lyrically – into something else entirely.
For David Longstreth, the songwriting genius behind
the Dirty Projectors, combining filthy lyrical imagery, Mariah Carey vocals, a
classical brass section, indie rock ethics, minimal techno, Wizard of Oz duets,
and hip-hop beats, is a seemingly effortless task.
Over the past decade, Longstreth has released over ten LPs and EPs, all which prove that his band is everything that Dave Matthews Band and the Magnetic Fields try to be – witty, daring, intelligent, honest, weird; in other words, different. Swing Lo Magellan, maintains that tradition, though in a somewhat more welcomed and accessible way.
However, Swing Lo is still bizarrely weird.
While for the first time the majority of songs are built around verse/chorus
song structures - and it feels as if Longstreth has tried to keep his
experimentation bound to structure - every song still sounds like a musical
experiment in itself.
The Dirty Projectors are a band of six who are more or less based in Brooklyn, New York. However, in ten years the band has easily gone through twenty members, and a rotating cast – Longstreth aside – simply seems to be part of the essence of this band.
It’s difficult to define what each band member specifically does because there’s no formula, and so individual roles often change with each song. There is a huge variety of sounds – clapping, duets, guitar riffs, eastern and western beats, digital effects – captured and produced using both hi-fi and lo-fi means. Dirty Projectors have collaborated with both Icelandic singer Björk, and new wave hero David Byrne of the Talking Heads, which hints at the diversity of their styles and tastes.
The off kilter, catchy pop track ‘About to Die,’
evokes a weird, sort of dyslexic Maroon 5-type groove, whilst Longstreth
lyrically ponders: “How can I hope to seize the tablet of values and redact it?
Foolish, I know, but I’m about to die”, that is, unless he’s “already dead”.
The opening track ‘Offspring are Blank,’ plays with the idea of species propagation, of fertile parents giving birth to blank children. However, it’s delivered over hip-hop beats, r&b vocals and pop-punk rock choruses.
There are also beautiful, guitar pop songs, such as title track ‘Swing Lo Magellan,’ which combines acoustic guitar, beautiful playful imagery, and a sense of wonder and adventure. But even with this simple song, the production sneakily bombards the listener with two tracks simultaneously. If listened to with headphones, one finds that that the right speaker is delivering an acoustic, beat-less ballad, and the left speaker is a bluesy, drum and bass groove; when combined, the magic is delivered.
However, just when one begins to grasp what this
album is all about, the punkish, dark, Pink Floyd-ish track ‘Maybe that was It’
comes as an exploration of what it would lyrically and sonically sound like to
come off LSD – confused and disoriented.
It is almost futile picking tracks off of this
record, as they’re all beautiful and unique in their own way. The current
single is ‘Gun Has No Trigger,’ but whatever the listener’s taste, there is
definitely something, somewhere on this record for everybody.
The name Swing Lo Magellan is a likely reference to renowned explorer Ferdinand Magellan’s daring voyage under South America, where he ‘swang lo’, becoming the first person to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. In a way, that is exactly what it sounds like Longstreth is doing with this album: creating groundbreaking connections where most believed they would and could never be made. Swing Lo Longstreth, Swing Lo.