The year is almost over. Is the pandemic? We are all poised to return to our former lives, to jump back into the pool of possibilities that life in New York offers. While following the rules and watching the statistics, we are left to wonder if we have learned anything from this, other than how much can be done on a computer (and how much of true living that leaves out). One other aspect worth considering is the evolving nature of the word “global.” It has always been a loaded term, and this seemingly simple concept—we are all connected—comes with an endless array of contradictions and shadings. “Global” can represent homogenization of culture and disparities of wealth just as surely as it can represent interchange and an expansion of human understanding.
As soon as COVID-19 was in one place, it was essentially around the world; globalism at its worst. Nor did the fractured response of the world—countries in competition rather than, obviously, necessarily, in concert—inspire confidence in our ability to pull together as a planet. Climate change is the ultimate challenge in this regard, and the struggle to reach even basic accords is deeply dispiriting.
In the cultural sphere, the global still carries the cachet of possibility. Don’t we naturally draw influences from everything in the world around us, and don’t they necessarily find their way into art? But just as the term “world music” never captured the true nature of this cross-pollination, the term “global” only shows its own limitations, the impossibility of truly encompassing all in a single style or sound. Instead, the idea of globalism is being questioned by some artists who are trying to reduce part of its tremendous power in favor of a more individualized conception of culture.
As the Iraqi-American composer Amir ElSaffar observes in the liner notes for the new recording The Other Shore (Outnote, 2021), from his 17-piece Rivers of Sound ensemble:
My desire is to expand beyond ideas of culture, in the sense of one style of music ‘belonging’ to a particular group of people or a society. Rivers of Sound proposes an alternative musical model by embracing a multitude of musical expressions, by focusing on the interactions between individual musicians. When we begin with an inherent sense of unity and interconnectedness, and think of musicians as individuals, not as representatives of a culture, there is no longer a need to ‘build bridges.’
This sense of music being owned, appreciated, and expressed by all echoes a favorite expression I heard used by the actor Al Pacino: “If you dig it, it’s yours.”
ElSaffar’s is one of four albums released in 2021 that starts from this place of true individuality, proceeding organically from there. His work is based on the form of the maqam, a melodic system heard often in Arabic music, as well as in other contexts. Its microtonal inflections allow for a broad range of expression; in the composer’s words, “the rigidness of forms melts away, allowing something new to emerge.” I once heard Rivers of Sound perform at Pioneer Works, and the power of this fluid, immersive, large-scale group was captivating.
The same rich sonorities and swirl of influences comes through in The Other Shore. ElSaffar’s keening trumpet and vocals rest atop an orchestra that mixes Eastern and Western instrumentation and relies on superior musicianship to locate the through-line in their approach. Not only pitch but time is open-ended. The ensemble tilts in different directions; the opening cut, “Dhuha” shifts from twilight haze into a soaring unison statement of the theme, while the follow-up, “Transformations,” bursts into prismatic blocks of harmonic statement. The combination of strings (including oud, violins, violas, and joza, the Iraqi spike-fiddle) set against the horns (including oboe and saxophones) makes for an endlessly engaging palette. This is a major ensemble that deserves to be widely heard and is starting to get that chance.
The other three albums on this abbreviated list are all performed by trios. With Nocturne, a self-released album by alto saxophonist Aakash Mittal, the artist evokes a trip to a festival in Kolkata. En-route by bus, he says,
I became more and more compressed by the mass of bodies around me until the overwhelming volume of people in the gangway lifted me off of the floor. With one hand holding onto the bus railing, I became suspended by my fellow humans as we traversed a sonic landscape of traffic noise and pooja drumming. The human density, music and noise of my nighttime adventures in Kolkata greatly influenced [this album].
Along with guitarist Miles Okazaki and percussionist Rajna Swaminathan, he creates aural images of a teeming night landscape. It is based on the Hindustani evening ragas he studied while living in India, crossed with the inescapable sounds of the city. Certain themes emerge across the course of the album, often playing along a spectrum from tranquility to mass movement. Collectively, it is a loving distillation of the city that filmmaker Satyajit Ray evoked so powerfully in his Calcutta Trilogy.
Canadian tenor saxophonist Chet Doxas, working with pianist Ethan Iverson and bassist Thomas Morgan, created You Can’t Take It With You (Whirlwind), a witty compendium of tunes that are serious and playful at once. Doxas had performed with Carla Bley and Steve Swallow in their large ensemble, and they advised him to write a composition a month. He draws on diverse sources, especially the unclassifiable Jimmy Guiffre trios that Swallow and Paul Bley once participated in.
With Iverson in particular on this record, he has found a fellow prankster for his musical sleight of hand. Yet for all their time-stops, doubling back, and other trickery, the tunes Doxas writes have heart. The melodies are both plainspoken and unexpected. Even the one-note-riding tribute to Lester Young, “Lodestar,” locates something of the great tenor player’s humanity. (I happen to have a great love for one-note solos, where expression gathers around a single pitch, and seek them out, from Grant Green to Johnny “Guitar” Watson.) Morgan provides a questing, soulful counterpoint in the trio.
Morgan is also an integral part of a trio with drummer Billy Mintz and leader Dahveed Behroozi in Echos (Sunnyside Records). All three are deeply feeling players, and the group sound draws as much from chamber music as jazz. “This music, and the trio itself, is centered on sounds rather than structure,” notes the California-raised Behroozi. “Sound and vibe have become increasingly important to me as a player.” The dreamy compositions are easy to get lost in. Yet rather than being ethereal, they are grounded by the crucial sense of touch each player brings to the music.
Overall, the atmosphere is hushed, deliberate, but Mintz adds a high shimmer and drive to the cut “Tricks.” The album concludes with the aching tenderness underscoring “TDB.” I hope Behroozi is able to play in New York soon; based on this recording, it seems sure that a recital by his trio would be transporting.
From Baghdad to Kolkata, and from Montreal to San Francisco, with all roads often winding up in Brooklyn, the soundscape surges and shifts. Just as the political is personal, the global is individual, especially as embodied and explored by musicians who attain this level of beautifully realized intent.