AMN Reviews: Amir ElSaffar’s Rivers of Sound Orchestra – The Other Shore (2021; Outhere Music); Gabriel Zucker – Leftover Beats From The Edges Of Time (2021; ESP-Disk’)

One of the unexpected trends over the last dozen or so years is the emergence of the avant-jazz big band. Recordings from Darcy James Argue, Anna Webber and Angela Morris, Anthony Braxton, John Korsrud, Dan Weiss, Fred Ho, and Brian Krock are just a few examples. As we slowly emerge from a pandemic that has made such gatherings difficult, two more efforts can be added to the growing list.

Amir ElSaffar’s Rivers of Sound Orchestra – The Other Shore

This is the second release from the 17-piece Rivers of Sound Orchestra, the first coming in 2017. Veteran trumpeter Amir ElSaffar leads this outfit through a huge new release featuring a melting pot of instrumentation and sounds covering Western jazz, as well as Middle Eastern, Asian, and Northern African music. Represented are oud, buzuq, santur, joza, cello, saxophone, oboe, mrudangam, frame drum, drum set, re-tuned piano, vibraphone, and guitar, played by a number of well-known musicians from New York and beyond.

The focus here is not jazz played with world instruments nor on a jazz band playing non-western music. Instead, the Orchestra blends techniques, timbres, and colors until the result is something novel. Sure, one can hear the thick horns of American jazz as well as the spiraling melodies of Arabic music. But there is no one overriding style or approach. ElSaffar provides structural guidance to the group, so that the rhythms ground each piece. As a result, this is not free jazz in the strictest sense, even if the multi-instrumental improvisations are loose and wailing at times.

But the sheer energy of this recording is infectious. With so much going on throughout, it will certainly be a candidate for repeated listenings.

Gabriel Zucker – Leftover Beats From The Edges Of Time

Sometimes you just need to kick back with some serious music. Pianist and composer Gabriel Zucker’s latest effort is a double album that covers a dramatic span of musical styles, from big band sounds, avant jazz, art song, chamber music, and tripped-out rock. Both experimental and expansive, Leftover Beats From The Edges Of Time also features 17 musicians, though not all appear on every single track. This lineup is stellar, with Adam O’Farrill, Anna Webber,  Yuma Uesaka, Joanna Mattrey, Mariel Roberts, Kate Gentile, and Matteo Liberatore among others.

Perhaps the most stunning aspect is Zucker’s unabashed and continuous use of complexity. Instead of one melody or theme at a time, he often employs two or three, even behind the vocalists. But this all-out approach is tempered and controlled by Zucker’s charts. One clearly gets the sense that this chaos is accomplishing exactly what he wants. In the perpetual changes and disciplined weirdness, one can even hear echoes of Henry Cow and U Totem.

There is so much to unpack over this album’s 90 minutes, that I can say no more than to grab this one as soon as it is out in late September. This is dense, modern orchestral music on steroids. Two thumbs way up.

As a final note, Zucker is a pretty smart guy – he graduated summa cum laude from Yale double majoring in ethics, politics, & economics and music, and he holds a masters degree in applied statistics from Oxford. For the latter, he focused on applications of machine learning to social policy administration.

You can hear the math if you listen carefully.

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