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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Trumpet player, santur player, composer and singer Amir ElSaffar has been creating a unique combination of jazz and traditional Iraqui maqam with his band, Two Rivers, for over ten years. While ElSaffar has played at The Jazz Gallery several times over the years, Two Rivers will make their Gallery debut on Thursday, with Ole Mathisen (tenor saxophone), Tareq Abboushi (buzuq), Zafer Tawil (oud), Carlo DeRosa (bass), and Tomas Fujiwara (drums). We spoke with ElSaffar about maqam, jazz, and his experiences playing music in and of the Middle East; here are excerpts from that conversation.

The Jazz Gallery: How would you describe your musical background?

Amir ElSaffar: There’s a lot to that question. My main training as a trumpet player was in classical music and in jazz music; I was playing both simultaneously throughout my teens, and I studied classical trumpet in school and played in the Civic Orchestra in Chicago, which was a great training orchestra for the Chicago Symphony. I was very much also interested in improvisation and jazz, and blues, and rhythm and blues, and I played in many different bands in Chicago, my hometown coming from different styles. Basically any situation that the trumpet could be a part of, I was playing in.

Then I  moved to New York, and I started to specialize more in finding my own voice, and my own way of jazz improvisation. Eventually that led me to Arabic music, and to maqam music, and then I went to Iraq in 2002 and spent most of that year learning a tradition called the maqam. Just before the war started, I left Iraq and traveled all over the Middle East and Europe, studying with different teachers, learning Iraqi music and Arabic music in general, understanding the modal music of the Middle East. After another five or six years I started to come up with ways of combining jazz and maqam and different musical languages.

TJG: What about jazz and maqam made you feel that they worked together?

AE: I was commissioned to write something, and I wasn’t really sure that they made sense together at the beginning. It felt like two very different words, and I had to find the link between the two. Once I started writing, it began to make sense, and I started to understand how these two musical systems are actually very much related, and coming from one root, one source. I started to later understand Coltrane’s music in terms of, not that he was consciously drawing on maqam music, but there is a sensibility that’s common. Some of Miles’s music as well, his modal music. Duke Ellington was drawing on Middle Eastern influences, Don Cherry, Dave Brubeck, of course, there’s a lot of examples in jazz history, and kind of a fascination and a connection with music of the Middle East. But I think I went a step deeper, in terms of really understanding what Middle Eastern music was about, and then finding ways of combining. I should say deeper on the Middle Eastern side, not necessarily deeper on the jazz side, but yeah.

TJG: How do you see the two as informing each other?

AE: Well, the tonal system of maqam music is based on the Greek modes, which are in fact Babylonian in origin, and it’s the same source, they both draw on the same melodic source; Western music and Western harmony kind of stems from this, and if you go further back, there’s sort of a pentatonic basis that you find in music from Africa as well as east Asia and southeast Asia. So that’s one aspect of it, but there’s also the fact that many of the African slaves that came to the Americas were Muslim. The documentation of musical practices of the slaves, there weren’t many people who were writing down what was going on or documenting activities, but historians are starting to piece it together, ethnomusicologists and anthropologists. It’s now understood that there was a call to prayer, for instance, and there were people reciting Qu’ran, people coming from Africa. So one can surmise that there was maqam, because maqam melodies and these modes are very compatible for Qu’ranic recitation, for call to prayer and other Islamic rituals. So there may have been an historic precedent. Also the instruments that slaves brought and eventually became part of American culture, like the banjo, the tambourine, and other percussion and even string instruments, similar to the violin, also have a basis or connection to the Middle East.


Photo courtesy of the artist.

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Fresh off his work with pianist Aaron Parks in our Mentorship Series, vibraphonist Joel Ross returns to The Jazz Gallery this Saturday for two sets with an expanded version of his Good Vibes band. During his mini tour with Parks, Ross more than held his own and received sparkling praise from All About Jazz, who reviewed the group’s concert in Philadelphia.

On Saturday, Ross will convene a band made up of both his talented peers like drummer Jeremy Dutton, and established veterans like saxophonist Dayna Stephens and pianist Fabian Almazan. If Ross’s performances with Parks are any indication, this cross-generational collaboration will feature a glove-like fit. (more…)

Album art courtesy of Greenleaf Records.

Album art courtesy of Greenleaf Records.

Over the past two decades, alto saxophonist Greg Ward has built himself a strong reputation as a ferocious improviser and thoughtful, multifaceted composer. He’s released acclaimed albums with both his Chicago-based group Fitted Shards and his New York trio Phonic Juggernaut. In 2014, Ward was a Jazz Gallery Residency Commission recipient, creating a multimedia work inspired by the sculptor Preston Jackson.

Ward’s newest project—Touch My Beloved’s Thought—is a taut and impassioned reimagining of Charles Mingus’s seminal 1963 recording, The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady. Ward was commissioned by The Jazz Institute of Chicago to create the work alongside choreography by Onye Ozuzu; the full production was premiered at Millennium Park in Chicago last year. This Friday, July 8th, marks the release of the project in recorded form on Greenleaf Music, and The Jazz Gallery is proud to welcome Ward and his ensemble 10 Tongues to our stage that evening. We caught up with Ward this week by phone to hear about how he put his own stamp on this Mingus masterpiece, as well as his experiences working with dance.

The Jazz Gallery: When was the first time you heard The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady?

Greg Ward: It was before we decided to do this project, in October of 2014. Drummer Mike Reed was asked to do it originally and he told me about it, so I decided to check out the record.

TJG: That’s interesting, because when I was going through school, Black Saint was one of those records that I felt you had to know.

GW: Yeah [laughs]. I’m someone who likes to listen to something over and over and over and over, because I feel that the better I become as a musician, the more I find in the intricacies of amazing music. That keeps me from listening to a lot of things. I feel very behind myself as a listener!

TJG: What really struck you when you heard the album for the first time?

GW: The orchestration was the first thing that hit me because it was so lush. You have like contrabass trombone, and just a really rich sounding band filling it out. I just noticed immediately that this wasn’t your typical head chart kind of piece. There weren’t necessarily tunes. It had a narrative, a longer form. That struck me immediately. As the piece unfolded, I was really struck how it featured alto sax. Initially, when I thought that Mike Reed was going to do something with this project and I play with him so much, I was like, “All right! I gotta be in there!”

TJG: When you took over the project, how did you decide on doing your own freer interpretation of the piece, rather than a transcription, or something that hews closer to the original performance?

GW: I felt like some of special moments on the recording were a bit by chance, or via overdubs. Some of the material clearly feels like mistakes. If you listen really closely, you can hear Mingus counting off the band and then stopping them, and then a couple of seconds later hear them start again. I don’t think you can really pull that off through a transcription or straight arrangement. So I thought what would be more effective and could really move people was to do something of my own, using some of the themes or just the orchestrational feel as jumping-off points.

TJG: I feel it can be a real psychological challenge to make one’s own version of a legendary piece. Did you feel pressure to live up to the original and how did that affect how you worked out the project?

GW: I wanted to do my research because I didn’t have the benefit of this being a monumental work in my upbringing in music. I read liner notes, I read different things on the internet, I watched the Mingus documentary [Triumph of the Underdog], just all these things to get inside  of what was happening during the recording. It was very important to me that I not mess this up. When I read that this piece is hailed as one of the great orchestrational triumphs in all of jazz, I was like, “Oh no!” It was something that I really took seriously. It was important to me that the people who love that record felt fulfilled and that I could look back on it and say that I did the best I could on it. I hold myself to a high standard in that regard. A lot of people who’ve seen the live show or heard the record feel the inspiration from The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady, and Mingus’s life and work in general. I’m happy about that.


Liberte-Anne Lymberiou, Steven Feifke, and Chuck Iwanusa. Photos courtesy of the artists.

Liberte-Anne Lymberiou, Steven Feifke, and Chuck Iwanusa. Photos courtesy of the artists.

This Thursday, July 7th, The Jazz Gallery is proud to present the latest iteration of our large ensemble Jazz Composers’ Workshop, curated by Miho Hazama. This time, the concert will feature works by three composers of diverse backgrounds—Liberté-Anne Lymberiou, Steven Feifke, and Chuck Iwanusa.

Lymberiou hails from Montreal and came to New York to study jazz composition at CCNY with Mike Holober. She founded her own big band in 2013, which performs regularly throughout the city. Check out Lymberiou and the Liberte big band perform the forceful and episodic “Fists Up, Fight Back!” live at the Iridium below.

While Steven Feifke’s semifinal appearance in the 2011 Thelonious Monk piano competition can vouch for his instrumental chops, he has a true knack for arranging, working regularly with his septet and big band. Feifke has a particular way with standards, giving well-worn tunes like “My Favorite Things” a slick and thoroughly-modern sheen.

Chuck Iwanusa is the elder statesman of this group—he’s been an active bassist, composer, and educator since the 1970s. He honed his arranging chops as a copyist for the Stan Kenton alumni band, and has taught at the New School and Mott Community College in Flint, Michigan, as well as serving as president and executive director of the IAJE. Now a full-time resident of New York and a recent participating in the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop, we are sure to hear more of Iwanusa’s work in the future. (more…)

Album art courtesy of Sunnyside Records.

Album art courtesy of Sunnyside Records.

Back in February 2014, trumpeter Adam O’Farrill was asked to be part of a triple-bill at Shapeshifter Lab in Brooklyn. O’Farrill had an idea for a big project inspired by Nathanael West’s darkly comic novel Miss Lonelyhearts, but realized he didn’t have enough time to really write and rehearse such a detailed and ambitious project. Instead, he called up some of his closest musical associates—saxophonist Chad Lefkowitz-Brown, bassist Walter Stinson, and drummer Zack O’Farrill—to work out those musical ideas in a more collaborative and improvisatory way. The gig went well and the quartet started playing more and more, both in New York and farther afield.

Now two years on, Stranger Days has just released its eponymous debut album on Sunnyside. Writing in the New York Times, Nate Chinen notes that on the album, the group sounds “…self-secure and disencumbered… establish[ing] both a firm identity and a willful urge to stretch and adapt.” This Wednesday, July 6th, The Jazz Gallery is proud to welcome Mr. O’Farrill and Stranger Days to our stage to celebrate the release of their album. Before coming out to see the band’s preternatural interplay in person, check out a few tracks from the new record below.