Amir ElSaffar


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 facile sheen of exoticism, ElSaffar’s commitment to Iraqi and Arabic culture runs deep: He has travelled the world to study with many of the world’s great maqam masters and is now a foremost practitioner – as a singer and santour player – of the Iraqi maqam. He 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.

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 Arabic style, with a sound that is reminiscent of the nay (reed flute) and 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.

David Gilmour at Borris

David Gilmour at Borris

It isn’t every day that one of a celebrated quartet of musical geniuses takes time out at one of the country’s youngest festivals, held in one of Leinster’s smallest villages, to give a public masterclass in the genesis of song writing for which the admission price for a day ticket was less than E20.

But the Festival of Writing & Ideas in Borris, now in its fourth year, has never been a run of the mill event: it annually draws some of the world’s most celebrated thinkers, philosophers, film makers and writers to the three day event hosted at Borris House, in the shadow of the Blackstairs Mountains: Roy Foster; Antony Beevor; Michael Cunningham; Neil Jordan; AC Grayling; Ian McEwan and Anne Enright, etc, in 2015 alone.

The cream came to the surface early this year, however, with the decision by Pink Floyd guitarist and songwriter David Gilmour to share the stage on Saturday morning in the ballroom, before, naturally, a capacity audience, with his wife, novelist Polly Samson.

Gilmour, to the surprise of the music world, also used the small Borris stage to reveal that his next solo album, due in September to coincide with his first solo tour in a decade, will be called Rattle That Lock.

Pink Floyd, at its most popular and creative peak in the 1970s, bookended by The Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall, an unprecedented period of creativity which includes Wish You Were Here, owed much of its synergy to the mercurial relationship between Gilmour and Roger Waters, which gradually imploded.

Without Waters, Pink Floyd was expected to fold in the 1980s, but Gilmour, Nick Mason and the late Richard Wright continued: The Endless River, their last album as a trio, (and their first in 20 years since The Division Bell) was released to critical acclaim in 2014, becoming the most pre-ordered album of all time on Amazon UK.

Of the 18 tracks on The Endless River, Louder Than Words alone has lyrics, composed by Gilmour and Samson, and their collaboration as lyricists was the subject of much of the discussion in the Lost for Words exchange at Borris, chaired by novelist Andrew O’Hagan.

“I like singing, I like the sound of the human voice,” admitted Gilmour, a regular attendee at the Borris festival, though he hasn’t performed there. “There is no conscious knowledge in me of what I am writing about. I am looking for an emotion to transmit into music.” He illustrated the point by humming along to High Hopes, which he co-wrote with Samson and which appears on Live in Gdansk.

With the occasional reference to working with Waters (“Roger was a brilliant writer of lyrics and working together was brilliant, but things run its course and that one did.”), Gilmour was happiest discussing his past, present and future compositions with Samson. “Now I think I am working with a lyricist who is better than Roger.” Samson’s contribution to Pink Floyd first effloresced when she contributed to many of the lyrics for The Division Bell.

Their most celebrated collaboration is, to date, Louder Than Words, which concludes Pink Floyd’s last and final album. “Pink Floyd sifted through the music we had recorded and most of it is on The Endless River,” concedes Gilmour. “When Polly wrote the words, she didn’t have the music, so she didn’t know precisely which music she was writing for.”

Pink Floyd aficionados among the bookish audience were delighted when Gilmour engaged his acoustic guitar to play snippets from his forthcoming album, like The Girl in the Yellow Dress, with a jazz undercurrent, featuring Jools Holland.

“Songs tend to burst out of their own volition,” said Gilmour, who also strummed and sung the first verse of his song, Smile, remarking that he is in the habit of “jotting down little moments, which can be ten seconds long, and I file them away.”

One such epiphany occurred in France, when Gilmour waited patiently on a platform, his hand in the air hoisting his iPhone, to record the rhythmical chimes of a tannoy in a train station: the result isBoots on the Ground, which is also on the Phil Manzanera produced Rattle That Lock, an album likened by Samson as thematically akin to carpe diem. ‘Seize every moment and don’t be afraid to hold back.’

Buoyed by the audience’s enthusiastic reception for the new material, with many never having seen Gilmour with a guitar in hand before, he graciously and patiently signed every item of Pink Floyd merchandise proffered before him under the Carlow sun outside the suitably palatial Borris House.