Two Rivers is a sextet of jazz and Middle Eastern musicians that has made innovative strides in in using the maqam modal system to transform the jazz idiom. Deeply rooted in musical forms of Iraq and nearby regions, the music still speaks the language of swing, improvisation and group interaction, and the resultant sound is distinct from other contemporary cross-cultural musical fusions.
This ensemble began in 2006, when ElSaffar composed Two Rivers, a suite of compositions combining elements of the Iraqi Maqam tradition with Jazz. This was among the first works in the jazz tradition to explore the microtonality of Maqam on such an in-depth level. The 2007 release, Two Rivers (Pi), received much acclaim, and Allmusic.com called it “as impressive a debut as we’ve had in America in the 21st century.” In the following years, ElSaffar continued to extend his compositional palette, creating a microtonal harmonic and melodic language that combines the pitch-flexibility of Middle Eastern music with jazz harmony. He composed another work, Inana, that has further expanded the sonic possibilities of jazz. The 2011 release of Inana received 4.5 stars from Allmusic and Downbeat, and was named #1 Jazz Album of 2011 in Time Out Chicago.
The Two Rivers Ensemble includes Nasheet Waits, one of the most dynamic drummers in jazz who is best known as a mainstay in Jason Moran’s Bandwagon; bassist Carlo DeRosa, whose CD Brain Dance was released earlier this year to considerable acclaim; Tareq Abboushi on buzuq (long-necked lute) whose CD, Mumtastic, contains his own blend of jazz and Arabic forms; multi-instrumentalist and virtuoso Zafer Tawil, who is one of the most in-demand Arab musician in New York; and tenor saxophonist Ole Mathisen, who has been active on the New York scene for almost 20 years in a wide assortment of contexts including Persian, Indian and Latin music, and is one of few musicians to have mastered microtonal playing on the saxophone.
After five years of extensive performing and touring, the Two Rivers Ensemble has developed an instinctive ease with ElSaffar’s highly complex music, enabling the band to play with a creativity that transcends pure technical challenge in a style that is rooted in tradition, while creating an entirely new aesthetic.
Two Rivers invokes the Tigris and the Euphrates, whose floods were forces of creation and destruction in the world’s first cities. It recalls Iraq’s history, glorious and tragic, and mourns the blood and ink streams that coursed through Baghdad after it was ransacked in 1258, ending its golden age. Two Rivers resounds with the joy inside the pain of the Iraqi heart. It evokes soldiers and tanks pummeling over the world’s most ancient and holy lands—lawlessness in the land of Hammurabi. Two Rivers flows from the two streams of blood—Iraqi and American—that run through my body. It is the struggle for existence, the illusion of otherness, and finding balance: between separateness and unity, unity and diversity, self and other, borders and openness, chaos and order, harmony and dissonance, equal and non-tempered scales, “jazz” and maqam. It is the music of this land…all in one stream.”
~ From the liner notes of Two Rivers (2007)