Album review: Amir ElSaffar's 'Alchemy' connects cultures

Jazz is built on exploring tradition, but nobody goes deeper with the idea than Iraqi American trumpeter Amir ElSaffar. Long recognized for tapping a Middle Eastern melodic structure called the maqam, ElSaffar works with the Sumerian/Babylonian modes that evolved into the Western tonal system and the building blocks of modal jazz.

It's easy to get buried in talk of alternate tunings, micro-tones and music theory, but it's a credit to ElSaffar and his nimble band that the music never sounds academic. "Athar Kurd" swings atop a jagged melody from pianist John Escreet countered by an acrobatic drive from drummer Dan Weiss, and "Five Phases" (drawn from ElSaffar's "Alchemy Suite," which dizzyingly features the trumpeter's own tuning system) spirals around fluid, serpentine harmonies from ElSaffar and saxophonist Ole Mathisen.

For all its cross-cultural ties, the album's roots also lie with Duke Ellington, who memorably drew from Middle Eastern music with 1967's "Far East Suite." ElSaffar's expansion of that idea reveals something new, but it's telling how rich and inviting the music remains. Ultimately it's a sound that renders our world a much smaller place, and it's that much richer for it.

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Amir ElSaffar

"Alchemy"

3 1/2 out of 4 stars

(Pi Recordings)

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