Monday, February 06, 2012

CD Review: Amir El Saffar Two Rivers Ensemble - Inana

Amir ElSaffar Two Rivers Ensemble

As bold and intense as Amir ElSaffar's Two Rivers album (Pi, 2007) was, Inana comes across as an even more intense and beautiful work. Born on these shores to an Iraqi father and an American mother, the trumpeter spent five years studying the maqam in the Middle East and Europe. (To show how eclectic he is, this occurred after he received a degree in classical trumpet and moved to New York to play jazz with Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthappa.) The way he blends these studies with a probing style of jazz, which bears hints of AACM and Ornette Coleman, sounds astounding, especially in the way that neither influence gets watered down in the process.

In fact what makes the melodies on this album so effective comes in the way that ElSaffar and tenor/soprano saxophonist Ole Mathisen are able to create microtonal pitches used in maqam while playing Western instruments. While it might sound initially like "flat" notes to uninitiated listeners, the blend of instruments eventually helps you adjust to the sound.

All but the last of the nine tracks on the album make up "The Inana Suite," inspired by a Mesopotamian goddess of carnal love and warfare, who could stir up trouble wherever she went. While that scenario seems like it could invite some free blowing, the music is tightly written and arranged. "Dumuzi's Dream" begins with a bass drone courtesy of Carlo DeRosa that evokes Coleman's "Lonely Woman." ElSaffar and Mathisen state the undulating theme which works almost like a call and response with Tareq Abboushi (buzuq) and Zafer Tawil (oud). Afterward, the first solo comes from the leader, who doubles on santour, an Iraqi hammered dulcimer. The sound of its strings have a unique attack that evokes both banjo and tabla, as it slithers over the groove. Behind it all, Nasheeet Waits keeps the pulse flowing and throughout the album makes sure the music has a strong swing to it. Mathisen's solo here sounds much more Western, but he still comes up with a unexpected pattern of melodies, which do much more than build on the drone.

The suite progresses through the four-part "Inana's Dance" (three of which come together in one track), and move among other places into "Infinite Variety," one of the pieces that doesn't draw directly on the maqam. Build on six different counterpoint melodies, it bears an ancestoral link to the Art Ensemble of Chicago, sounding like a loping march with trumpet and soprano sliding in and out of sync with each other, always answering the other right when things seem off.

The 15-minute "Journey to the Underworld" brings the narrative to a head, going through multiple structures, starting with ElSaffar on vocals, which draw on the microtonal approach of the other pieces. While voices like this sometimes can feel even more jarring to these ears than the bent voices of the horns, ElSaffar's rich vocals have a way of making this setting just as captivating as the rest of the set. "Al-Badia," the album's coda and token non-suite track, has a great harmonic bass line that sets the scene for another blend of Eastern melody with jazz structure, complete with muted trumpet.

Stop me if I've made this point before, but the reason so much world music sounds flat to these ears is due to the way it leaves out the essential edge and passion that makes the music so vital and exciting. Amir ElSaffar has again assembled a group of sympathetic musicians who know how to keep the appropriate sparks flying, and the results are enthralling.

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