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Amir ElSaffar Navigates Uncharted Blue Notes On 'Alchemy'

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Trumpeter Amir ElSaffar grew up near Chicago, playing jazz trumpet. In the early 2000s, while in his mid-20s, he began investigating the music of his Iraqi heritage, studying in Baghdad and with expatriate musicians in Europe. Then he began combining the two.

ElSaffar's new album Alchemy is a step forward in defining and refining his concept. A couple of his earlier albums featured what struck me as an uneasy mix of jazz and traditional Iraqi instruments. It was as if the trumpeter were still digesting his influences.

Alchemy was written for a straight jazz quintet. But ElSaffar brings all he knows about Iraqi rhythm patterns of strong, weak and silent beats, and about the maqamat — traditional scales built on narrow intervals, and the melodic patterns that go with them. A maqam colors a performance the way the blues scale tints the blues. The extra challenge is that the notes may lie between the ones for which trumpet and saxophone are designed; the players have to improvise on those scales. Among hip New Yorkers, Dan Weiss is the go-to drummer for integrating complex global rhythms into limber jazz time. He and bassist Francois Moutin warmed up for this stuff playing Rudresh Mahanthappa's cross-cultural music.

Negotiating those Iraqi microtones led Amir ElSaffar to also try on a quarter-tone scale of 24 notes to the octave; it's a way to reconcile or split the difference between Western and Eastern tuning systems. This leads him to some colorful harmonies — some newly charted blue notes.

In "Quartal," in particular, ElSaffar and tenor saxophonist Ole Mathisen play those quarter tones so precisely, they make a freshly tuned piano sound exotic. Eastern scales pose special problems for pianists stuck with the same old 12 notes, but John Escreet compensates using dissonant harmony and the power of suggestion. His solos often reflect the sound of the Iraqi santur. That's a zither played with small hammers, which is basically what a piano is.

There are echoes of John Coltrane's so-called sheets of sound in Escreet's scale-based approach, just as Amir ElSaffar's compositions may reference Miles Davis' modal jazz or the oblique melodies of Wayne Shorter and Andrew Hill. The Iraqi strain is a new twist, but cultural hybrids have been jazz's bread and butter since W.C. Handy dropped a tango into his "St. Louis Blues." Sun Ra's Egyptian-inspired modal pieces of the 1950s also paved the way for the work of Ra's Egyptian admirer Salah Ragab. Every idea becomes new again in time.

The music on Amir ElSaffar's Alchemy doesn't always sound lived-in; the players appear a little cautious at times. A two-week tour might easily cure that. Meantime, there are many global musical systems jazz hasn't absorbed yet, though everything gradually draws closer together. And jazz tradition keeps stretching to incorporate what musicians bring to it.

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