Amir El Saffar
In search of the perfect place to watch the big game, our traveling music scribe turns a nifty, post season, post-bop double play
by Lee Abraham
Got lucky last week. All I wanted was a properly chilled Black and Tan. And a big screen TV. You see, the Bronx bombers were trying to beat the American League West Champion Seattle Mariners, and advance to the World Series. Donít get me wrong. Iím a -not- a Yankee fan. No way. Iím a -Met- fan. But obvisouly, thatís not where the getting lucky thing comes in. At least not this year...
Anyway, chasing the ghosts of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Joe Dimaggio through the bohemian grit of New York Cityís East Village, I wandered in search of a local place to watch the ballgame. And I wasnít alone. The big apple was abuzz. Baseball caps and jackets everywhere. If the Yankees won the game, New York would have its first "Subway Series" in over 40 years. Maybe the rest of the country would rather argue over the presidential debates, or start carving this yearís jack-o-lantern, but here in gotham, the possibility of a Yankees vs. Mets World Series was front page news.
Striding purposefully in the crisp night air, my single minded diamond vision was distracted by faint strains of a trumpet drifting toward me from a distance. Standing still, I listened. Determining that the music, an edgy mutation of melodic, post-bop and cool acoustic fusion, came from same direction I was walking, my well worn Reebok cross trainers were once again in motion. One foot involuntarily followed the other as the hornís lilting phrases and passionate tones became more clearly audible. My pace quickened. Suddenly, the search was over.
The music was coming from behind the closed doors of a big-little jazz club called -Detours-. This was obviously the right place. And by all indications, it was the right time as well. Not only was there a cookiní quartet boppiní like -nobodyís bidness- on the small stage, the game was on TV, -and- the Black and Tanís were flowing in abundance. Even better - no cover charge! Situated at the end of the bar closest to the stage, I settled onto the only empty seat in the house.
Didnít matter that I had to do a full Linda Blair 180 degree head swivel to see the game. The jazz combo was on fire. Sparks flew as solos passed from the horn to the piano, then to the bass, and finally to the drums. After laying down his opening statement of melody, tone, and tempo, the trumpet player, and obvious band leader, moved to the side of the stage. Standing there, arms crossed in concentration, head nodding in musical agreement, he listened intently to his band. Every so often an approving smile crossed his chops, a sure sign that whoever was playing at the moment, had hit the equivalent of a musical homerun.
"I prefer the feeling of spontaneity," the trumpet player, Amir El Saffar, told me after the show. "I prefer not knowing whatís going to come out, and have something thatís very interactive. Playing with a rhythm section, youíre engaged in dialogue with them. Youíre not in total control and theyíre not in total control. Thereís some force thatís bigger than any of you."
An unassuming young man in his early twenties, El Saffar has only been in town since the summer. As luck would have it, this show was his New York debut as a band leader. After graduating from Depaul in í99 with a degree in Classical Trumpet Performance, he made the move from his home in Chicago to the big city. "New York is the premier jazz city in the world," says El Saffar. "Itís the only place where you can find a large number of creative individuals that are really dedicating their lives to music and that are trying to do something new. Thereís also an audience for jazz in New York. Not just the jazz musicians that go to the shows, thereís actually people in this town that love to hear jazz."
I asked El Saffar about the tune he was playing when I first walked in. A catchy little mambo that had a unique sound. Turns out it was one of two originals he would play that night. Both so new they were untitled. "Performing originals is essential," he tells me. "I think itís very important for developing a voice. Developing a style of music. What Iím doing now could be considered as coming out of the straight ahead thing, but still itís not that... at the same time, Iím not doing wide open, free stuff, you know, experimental noise music."
"Thereís a lot of possibilities," continued the soft spoken young jazz man. "As far as what I envision, I definitely want to keep the music listenable for a wide range of intelligent audience. I donít want something that only appeals to musicians because of some technical difficulty that weíve mastered, because thatís not interesting to me. I want something that communicates to people on a deeper level. Thereís some experimentation, maybe some sounds that people are not accustomed to, but Iíd like to keep a balance."
Sounds good. After all, balance was the key to the Yankeeís victory that night. They won the game with a combination of timely hitting and solid defense. As you may know, they also went on to clobber my beloved Mets in five, painfully close, hard fought ball games. Sure, there was some luck involved. No surprise. Regardless of whether youíre playing post season baseball, pursuing a career in music, or just looking for a nice place to catch a ballgame, there always is.