Amir ElSaffar straddles two worlds | Bleader

Amir ElSaffar straddles two worlds

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Oak Park-bred trumpeter and santoor maestro Amir ElSaffar plays at 7 PM tonight at the Chicago Cultural Center and again tomorrow evening at the Old Town School of Folk Music with the Algerian pianist Maurice El Medioni, a fact I wasn’t aware of when I was putting together the Reader’s guide to the World Music Festival. ElSaffar grew up studying jazz, but he's also had extensive classical training and studied with a variety of maqam masters in Baghdad and in Europe.

His first album under his own name, Two Rivers (Pi Recordings), will be released next week, and it’s a staggering accomplishment that subtly erases the lines between his two chosen disciplines. Maqam is both the system of modes and the name for a stately form of Arabic music. Like jazz, it draws heavily upon improvisation, but the structure and repertoire of maqam is tightly controlled. Some of the album’s pieces are straight-up maqam, moving with rigorous grace and precision, while others masterfully meld it with postbop fundamentals. The fusion pieces present ElSaffar in a dazzling front line with saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa--they met while they were both living in Chicago--with propulsive, beat-spreading drumming by the great Nasheet Waits.

While plenty of horn players have tapped into Middle Eastern modalities since John Coltrane became fascinated with Eastern sounds in the late 60s, it's rare to hear it done with such conviction and authority. I imagine this chance to hear him collaborate with El Medioni, a Jewish Algerian expat who lives in France and plays a mixture of French chanson, Afro-Cuban son, and rai, is pretty rare--I wouldn't miss it.

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