The latest chapter in trumpeter Amir ElSaffar's continuing investigation into the tonal systems of Middle Eastern cultures within a jazz context, in a quintet with Ole Mathisen (sax), John Escreet (piano), Francois Moutin (bass) & Dan Weiss (drums).
Label: Pi Recordings
Released in: USA
"Alchemy is the latest chapter in trumpeter Amir ElSaffar's continuing investigation into the tonal systems of Middle Eastern cultures within a jazz context. A recent recipient of the prestigious Doris Duke Performing Artist Award, ElSaffar has been residing mostly in Egypt for the last year, further absorbing the musical language of that region. However, unlike his three prior releases on Pi Recordings - Two Rivers (2007) and Inana (2011), which relied heavily on the Iraqi maqam for their structural form and instrumentation; and Radif Suite (2009) with saxophonist Hafez Modirzadeh, which utilized a musical system devised specifically for that group - Alchemy finds ElSaffar writing for a standard jazz quintet with a sound distilled through his highly personal harmonic vocabulary, one that draws on microtonality and the maqam.
The first three tracks of the album, which are based on Sumerian/ Babylonian modes, comprise theIshtarum Suite. These modes were originally found on a tablet dating to 1750 B.C. on which is a seven-pointed star that describes the tuning of a seven-string lyre. From this tablet, one can extrapolate the system of seven modes (later to become the Greek modes) through 12 keys, forming the basis of the Western tonal system. ElSaffar utilizes the theory behind these millennia-old modal systems as inspiration for new melodic, harmonic, and contrapuntal material. The next four tracks are selections from a larger work, the Alchemy Suite, which employs ElSaffar's own tuning system, giving quarter tones a value within jazz harmonic systems. The tracks "Quartal" and "12 Cycles" are perhaps the first examples of jazz works that use microtonal "chord changes." Unlike the work of Hafez Modirzadeh, on whose Post-Chromodal Out! (Pi 2012) ElSaffar also performs, the piano has not been tuned away from equal temperament. However, when surrounded by other instruments playing in microtones, the "normal" pitches of the piano start to sound like they have been retuned, which creates an otherworldly effect not wholly of any musical language or culture.
ElSaffar's quintet is made up of some of the top improvising musicians in New York: John Escreet (piano) is an innovative and adventurous pianist with six albums under his own name; Francois Moutin (bass), who plays with unparalleled chops on his instrument, leads the Moutin Reunion Quartet; and Dan Weiss (drums), who in addition to leading his own trio, plays with Lee Konitz, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Miguel Zenon, Dave Binney and countless others. Tenor saxophonist Ole Mathisen - who is a master of microtonal playing - contributes beautifully controlled and technically dazzling playing, and serves as the perfect foil to ElSaffar on the front line. Together the band tackles this challenging music with creative aplomb.
ElSaffar has spent much of the last two years living in the Middle East in a constant quest for new life and musical experiences. There he has collaborated with musicians such as the iconic Lebanese pianist Ziad Rahbani and Egyptian pianist Fathy Salama - known as the "Godfather of Arab Jazz" - the only Arab to ever receive a Grammy Award for his work on the Youssou N'Dour album, Egypt. In the US, ElSaffar has stood on the forefront of fostering cross-cultural dialogue with the Middle East/Arab world. In addition to being a virtuoso trumpeter - one of a handful of musicians able to play microtones on that instrument - he is an accomplished maqam singer and performer on the Iraqi santour (hammered dulcimer), and leads Safaafir, the foremost Iraqi maqam ensemble in the United States. In 2009, he was a semi-finalist in the International Maqam Competition in Baku, Azerbaijan. He is also the music curator for Alwan for the Arts, the New York-based Middle Eastern cultural center in addition to leading the Alwan Ensemble, which specializes in the performance of Arab Classical music. His composition for the Ensemble, "Zaman," was commissioned by and performed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He was also commissioned to compose a new work for Two Rivers this year by the Newport Jazz Festival. ElSaffar is currently the director of the Middle Eastern Ensemble at Columbia University.
The use of microtonality and modal systems are, of course, no strangers to jazz. From the big bands of Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk's re-voicing of chords to mimic micro-tuned intervals, there has long been a desire for musicians to break beyond equal-tempered systems. ElSaffar's work, however, is one of few examples where a distinct nomenclature and exact value is given to non-equal tempered pitches. For horn players in particular, this demands much more than the use of glissandi and pitch bending, or playing sharp or flat; the performers must learn novel fingerings and develop a heightened awareness of pitch in order to properly execute the music. Modal jazz is based on the ancient Greek modes (e.g. George Russell's Lydian Chromatic Concept), which in turn find their basis in the Sumerian/Babylonian modes that ElSaffar uses for inspiration. The compositions on Alchemy carry on the jazz tradition in both these veins.
Alchemy is ElSaffar's paean to the standard jazz form, filtered through his singular vantage. It represents a new phase in his continuing dialogue with his own Iraqi and American heritage, this time through the lens of an ancient modal system that also serves as the foundation of both Western harmony and Eastern modality. While ElSaffar's music is rooted in the oldest known tonal systems, he is constantly searching for sounds unheard and chords yet to be named, all while pushing jazz to unchartered territories."Pi Recordings
• Show Bio for John Escreet
"Over the course of his career, John Escreet has earned a reputation as one of the most active and diverse pianist/composers working in jazz and improvised music. His prolific output is reflected over the course of 7 diverse and critically acclaimed albums - the most recent being The Unknown which partners his working Trio (with John Hébert on bass and Tyshawn Sorey on drums) with the iconic free-jazz saxophonist Evan Parker.
Bursting on to the scene with his 2008 debut album Consequences, Escreet quickly earned a reputation as one of the most exciting new pianist/composers to have emerged in recent years, with Downbeat magazine proclaiming "John Escreet's recent debut Consequences signals the jumpstart of a new voice in jazz." Similar praise followed for his 2010 sophomore release Don't Fight The Inevitable, of which the New York Times' Ben Ratliff said "... on an ambitious second album, the pianist John Escreet seems to be thinking about where jazz can go next. He's using lots of structure and instrumental texture, cruising through different languages, straight-ahead and free and in between; it's like a tour of the last 25 years of serious jazz." 2011 saw two releases - The Age We Live In, and Exception To The Rule, followed by 2013's Sabotage and Celebration, all of which received widespread international critical acclaim. The latest addition to this impressive catalog is 2014's Sound, Space and Structures.
As well as being a leader of prolific output, Escreet is also a much sought-after sideman. He has toured extensively with Antonio Sanchez's Migration band, recording on his 2013 Cam Jazz release New Life. He has also contributed his pianistic skills to the working bands of David Binney, Amir ElSaffar, Tyshawn Sorey, and Jamie Baum among many others.
In 2009, John was a recipient of the prestigious Chamber Music America New Jazz Works Grant, as well as the CMA/ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming in 2011. In 2013, Escreet was commissioned by the Jazz Gallery to write a new work as part of their Residency/Commissions for 2012-2013, for which he wrote an extended work for string quartet and piano trio. 2014 saw John being awarded the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation USArtists International grant to tour with his Quartet, and recently in 2015 he was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy of Music (ARAM), his Alma Mater - awarded to past students who have distinguished themselves in the music profession and made a significant contribution to it in their particular field.
John continues to forge ahead with multiple projects and recordings, ranging from his Trio, to his Quintet (known as The John Escreet Project), to collaborative projects with Los Angeles-based pop duo KNOWER, to the most recent collaboration with British free-jazz icon Evan Parker, as well as his recent forays into writing extended works for strings."-John Escreet Website (http://www.johnescreet.com/about.php)
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Label: Pi Recordings
Catalog ID: Pi 51
Squidco Product Code: 18189
Recorded on May 25th, 2013 at Systems Two, Brooklyn, NY.
Ole Mathisen-tenor saxophone
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1. Ishtarum 7:48
2. Nid Qablitum 5:08
3. Embubum - Ishtarum - Pitum 10:56
4. 12 Cycles 7:07
5. Quartal 6:08
6. Balad 4:44
7. Five Phases 8:08
8. Athar Kurd 9:25
9. Miniature #1 2:59
10. Ending Piece 7:32