The Squid's Ear Magazine

ElSaffar, Amir Two Rivers Ensemble: Crisis (Pi Recordings)

NY trumpeter Amir ElSaffar's Two Rivers Ensemble, exploring the juncture between jazz and music of the Middle East through sophisticated and lyrically stunning music, here focusing on revolution, civil war, and sectarian violence; a culture's struggle for survival.

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product information:

UPC: 808713005929

Label: Pi Recordings
Catalog ID: PI 59
Squidco Product Code: 20401

Format: CD
Condition: New
Released: 2015
Country: USA
Packaging: Digipack
Recorded at Avatar Studios in New York, New York on janurary 11th and 12th, 2015 by Katsuhiko Naito.


Amir ElSaffar-trumpet, vocal, santour

Ole Mathisen-tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone

Nasheet Waits-drums

Carlo DeRosa-bass

Tareq Abboushi-Buzuq

Zafer Tawil-Oud, percussion

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Descriptions, Reviews, &c.

"Crisis chronicles the continuing development of trumpeter Amir ElSaffar's critically acclaimed Two Rivers Ensemble, a band purpose-built to explore the juncture between jazz and music of the Middle East, in particular the Iraqi maqam. The new work is his reflection on a region in turmoil and strife: revolution, civil war, sectarian violence; a culture's struggle for survival. It sets aside some of the more exploratory work that he has done in recent years to focus on music that is passionate and visceral, a cry from the heart. Crisis was commissioned by the Newport Jazz Festival, where at its 2013 premiere, it made a clear emotional connection to the audience, receiving a rousing standing ovation after just the first piece. Driving and to the point, ElSaffar’s music is beyond categorization – not jazz, world music or any facile fusion thereof – but a world unto its own.

Born and raised just outside of Chicago, ElSaffar’s early musical education included performances with jazz and blues bands throughout the city. He also had a foray with the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, where he worked with conductors such as Pierre Boulez, Daniel Barenboim, and Mstislav Rostropovich. Today, his music finds root in the Iraqi maqam, the music of his father’s homeland. But unlike many who dabble in a musical tradition only to give their music a superficial sheen of exoticism, ElSaffar’s commitment to Iraqi and Arabic culture runs deep: He has traveled the world to study with many of the world’s great maqam masters, including Hamid AlSaadi, the world’s leading authority on Iraqi maqam, who called ElSaffar “… one of the finest santour players and maqam singers in the world. I am proud of his dedication and continued commitment to discovering the secrets to this music.” ElSaffar is 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. He is also the director of the Middle Eastern ensemble at Columbia University.

Crisis is ElSaffar’s fifth release on Pi Recordings and the third, following Two Rivers (2007) and Inana (2011) to feature the Two Rivers Ensemble. The new album is comprised largely of the “Crisis Suite,” which was composed in 2013, after he spent a year living in Egypt, where he witnessed the Arab Spring protests first-hand, and Lebanon, where he worked with Syrian musicians who were living through that country’s harrowing civil war. The suite follows a narrative arc: a commentary on the recent history of Iraq and the Middle East. Often based on the melodic modes of the maqam and folkloric rhythms, the music eschews some of the abstract quality of some of ElSaffar’s prior work and focuses instead on the passionate and ecstatic. His virtuoso trumpet playing is firmly rooted in the jazz tradition, yet at the same time he’s capable of playing a taqsim (melodic improvisation) in an authentic Arab style, with a sound that is reminiscent of the nay (reed flute) along with the melisma and ornamentation of maqam singing. He has a unique approach to playing microtonally: Using a standard, three-valve trumpet, ElSaffar has created new techniques that enable intonation that are characteristic to Arabic music. His sound is rich with overtones and burred texture: in one moment, bright and pushing to the sonic edge of the instrument and at another, a hushed whisper. His idiomatic maqam vocals sound at once prayer-like and an appeal for understanding and compassion, and his santour is full of tremolos and a long echo that is evocative of an ancient past.

Helping ElSaffar bring his singular musical concept to life are Nasheet Waits on drums, who drives the ensemble with a flexible sense of time combined with deep swing; bassist Carlo DeRosa, who exhibits a mastery of quartertones and rock solid groove; the adroit playing of Tareq Abboushi on buzuq (long-necked lute) and Zafer Tawil on oud and percussion who, in addition to taking masterful solos, work together to fill the role of a chordal instrument, providing a rich, chattering bed of rhythmic counterpoint. Ole Mathisen, – a master of microtonal playing on the saxophone – contributes beautifully controlled and technically dazzling playing, and serves as the perfect foil to ElSaffar on the front line. After eight years together, the ensemble has developed a profound empathy and an intuitive ease with this highly complex music, enabling the band to play with a creativity that transcends its pure technical challenges.

A 2013 winner of the prestigious Doris Duke Performing Artist Award. ElSaffar continues to grow as an artist. He has worked extensively in Europe over the past two years, collaborating with diverse musicians such as the Belgian group Aka Moon, Swedish composer C.C. Hennix, and a Berlin-based microtonal brass quintet. Last year, La Fondation Royaumont in France commissioned ElSaffar for a piece for string quartet plus voice and santour, which premiered at the Festival d'Avignon, one of the world's largest theater festivals, and Festival d'Aix, an opera festival. They have since commissioned him for three more works that will be performed at festivals throughout France over the next three years. In April, 2015 ElSaffar assembled an unprecedented ensemble of 17 musicians to realize a new work, “Rivers of Sound,” that made its premiere at Lincoln Center in New York City.

Asked to describe his intentions when writing Crisis, ElSaffar wrote: “Out of the ashes emerges a sound. Overtones, harmonizing, becoming many. Intangible threads of humanity, too delicate to be broken or destroyed, emanating from a shared, infinite past that is our present....” The resulting music is by turns tumultuous and tender, both a lament for something lost and a quest for transcendental beauty."-Pi Recordings

Artist Biographies

"Nasheet Waits, drummer/music educator, is a New York native. His interest in playing the drums was encouraged by his father, legendary percussionist, Frederick Waits. Over the course of his career, Freddie Waits played with such legendary artists as Ella Fitzgerald, Sonny Rollins, Max Roach, McCoy Tyner, and countless others.

Nasheet's college education began at Morehouse in Atlanta, GA, where he majored in Psychology and History. Deciding that music would be his main focus, he continued his college studies in New York at Long Island University, where he graduated with honors, receiving his Bachelor of Arts in Music. While attending Long Island University, Waits studied privately with renowned percussionist, Michael Carvin. Carvin's tutelage provided a vast foundation upon which Waits added influences from his father, as well as mentor Max Roach. It was Max that first gave Nasheet's formidable talent international spotlight, hiring him as a member of the famed percussion ensemble M'BOOM. One highlight of Nasheet's tenure with M'BOOM was the live concert performance of M'BOOM with special guests Tony Williams and Ginger Baker.

Nasheet's talent came to the attention of reedman Antonio Hart, who asked Waits to originate the percussion chair of his first quintet. Waits remained a standing member of Antonio's various ensembles, recording three albums and touring nationally and internationally in noted venues, jazz festivals, as well as live television and radio performances. Nasheet remained a member of Antonio's group through 1998.

Most recently Nasheet has been a member of Andrew Hill's various bands, Jason Moran's Bandwagon, and Fred Hersch's trio. As an originating member of pianist Jason Moran's Bandwagon, Jason, bassist Tarus Mateen, and Nasheet have been deemed, "the most exciting rhythm section in jazz" by JazzTimes, The 2001 recording "Black Stars" with the Bandwagon, featuring Sam Rivers was named the "Best CD of 2001" in (Jazz Times, Jan 2002) and "The New York Times".Nasheet's recording and performing discography is a veritable who's who in Jazz, boasting stints with jazz notables such as Geri Allen, Mario Bauza, Hamiett Bluiett, Abraham Burton, Ron Carter, Marc Cary, Steve Coleman, Stanley Cowell, Orrin Evans, Stefon Harris, Andrew Hill, Bill Lee, Jackie McLean, The Mingus Big Band, The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, Greg Osby, Joshua Redman, Vanessa Rubin, Antoine Roney, Wallace Roney, Jacky Terrason, Bunky Green, and Mark Turner. Waits has recorded and toured extensively in Africa, Europe, Japan, Canada, South America and the United Stat

Amidst his performing, recording and touring activity, Nasheet teaches private lessons to youth and adults, stressing a personal approach to the drums and music. He has been heralded for his musicality and creativity by such virtuosos as Ed Thigpen, Max Roach, Andrew Hill, and Stanley Cowell . True to his personal philosophy of the necessity to balance Tradition and Modernism, Waits collaborates and performs regularly with a wide range of artists. He remains dedicated to exploring his role and creative path in music."

-Nasheet Waits Website (

Have a better biography or biography source? Please Contact Us so that we can update this biography.

Track Listing:

1. Introduction - From The Ashes 4:54

2. The Great Dictator 8:51

3. Taqsim Saba 3:17

4. El-Sha'ab (The People) 8:18

5. Love Poem 7:05

6. Flyover Iraq 9:45

7. Tipping Point 13:40

8. Aneed (Weeping), Continued 3:37

9. Love Poem (Complete) 7:09

Related Categories of Interest:

Improvised Music
NY Downtown & Jazz/Improv
Sextet Recordings
Melodic and Lyrical Jazz
Pi Records
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