Chicago Tribune’s Howard Reich reviews release show

September 21st, 2015

Chicago Tribune
September 20th, 2015
by Howard Reich

What do Amir ElSaffar and Josh Berman have in common? Remarkable shows at Constellation.

The jazz visionary Sun Ra used to proclaim that “space is the place.”

Over the weekend, Constellation was the place, with two innovative musicians leading unusual bands there, the artists offering jazz visions of their own. Like Sun Ra, both launched their careers in Chicago, and both are extending the meanings of the music.

Trumpeter Amir ElSaffar has been at the forefront of merging music of his Iraqi heritage in particular, and the Arabic world in general, with the syntax of jazz. He has taken that effort to new heights with “Crisis” (Pi Recordings), his latest album with his long-running Two Rivers Ensemble. “Crisis” stands as one of the most beautiful and evocative jazz recordings of the year, though one hesitates to pigeonhole it in any single idiom — even one as malleable as jazz.

For Middle Eastern scales, ancient poetry, unconventional rhythms and other currents course through this music, as ElSaffar and the Two Rivers Ensemble proved on Saturday evening before a capacity audience. The crowd had converged on Constellation, on North Western Avenue, as part of World Music Festival Chicago, ElSaffar’s contribution surely epitomizing the global reach of the festival and of jazz itself.

As its title suggests, ElSaffar’s “Crisis Suite” addresses the ongoing turbulence of the Middle East, albeit in subtle and abstract ways. Even if you didn’t know that ElSaffar conceived this music as a kind of commentary on a part of the world where he traces his roots, there was no mistaking the geographical origins of ElSaffar’s concepts, nor the jazz techniques with which he developed them.

To hear his imploring vocal chants, sighs and laments on trumpet and shimmering colors and decidedly non-Western harmonies on santur (a kind of hammered dulcimer) was to realize the value of the source material he brings to jazz composition and improvisation. When ElSaffar shared unison lines with saxophonist Ole Mathisen, listeners heard a front line of tremendous ferocity and technical skill, but also Middle Eastern phrase-making seamlessly shaped by a jazz sensibility (and vice versa). Add to this Nasheet Waits’ volatile accompaniment on drums and a swirl of sound from Arabic and American instrumentation, and you had a sophisticated expression of a singular music.

On Friday night, Chicago cornetist Josh Berman produced decidedly more intimate sounds at Constellation, leading a trio in music from his austerely alluring new album, “A Dance and a Hop” (Delmark Records).

The title is open to interpretation, but it certainly describes the nature of Berman’s phrase-making, the musician crafting lines that bobbed and weaved and darted about, never settling in one place for very long. This was true at all tempos and dynamic levels, though for the most part Berman and his similarly nimble colleagues — drummer Frank Rosaly and bassist Jason Roebke — never rushed or shouted or otherwise overstated their case. Instead, they conjured an uncommonly delicate and transparent ensemble sound, with Berman consistently at its forefront.

One had to marvel at the sheer amount of melodic invention Berman produced, showing a remarkable capacity for continuously creating lines that twist and turn in unexpected directions. Whether he was articulating mercurial motifs in “Hang Ups” or leaving ample space between softly stated gestures in “Blues,” Berman never lacked for ideas. That his musical vocabulary danced around traditional notions of harmony and tonality only heightened one’s admiration for the creativity of this work.

Listeners with conservative musical tastes might have been unnerved by Berman’s unconventional approach to melody making, and those with a penchant for the outer edges of the jazz avant-garde might have found the proceedings a bit genteel. But listen closely to this trio’s playing, and you had to be disarmed by the self-styled poetry of Berman’s solos and the dexterity and intuitiveness of Roebke’s and Rosaly’s responses.

Throughout, Berman left himself quite exposed in this music, his colleagues providing texture and support but leaving the heavy lifting to him. That he sustained interest with such straightforward, linear playing said a great deal about the eloquence of his musical vocabulary.

Original Review