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Amir ElSaffar Two Rivers Ensemble: Inana

Troy Collins By

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Born in Chicago to an American mother and Iraqi father, trumpeter Amir ElSaffar put his promising jazz career on hold in 2002 to study traditional Iraqi maqam abroad. His 2007 debut, Two Rivers (Pi Recordings), bore the fruit of his international studies, successfully fusing venerable aspects of the Iraqi classical vocal tradition with advanced improvisation techniques culled from American jazz. Pushing the cross-cultural envelope even further, Radif Suite (Pi Recordings), his 2010 collaboration with Iranian-American tenor saxophonist Hafez Modirzadeh, combined Iraqi maqam and traditional Persian dastagah with avant-garde jazz, expanding the innovative possibilities of creative improvised music on an international level.

Named after the ancient Mesopotamian goddess of carnal love and warfare, Inana blends the ceremonial intensity of maqam with the polyphonic melodies, contrapuntal harmonies and syncopated polyrhythms associated with sophisticated jazz structures. More fully realized than many similar ethnic fusions, ElSaffar's incorporation of maqam's microtones, flexible pitches and meter-less bar lines yields a highly personalized language that reaches well beyond the confines of Western pedagogy for inspiration.

Brimming with complex formal underpinnings, the esoteric nature of ElSaffar's concept embellishes, rather than constrains, his engaging compositions' rich mosaic of sound. The majestic opener, "Dumuzi's Dream" and spellbinding travelogue "Journey to the Underworld" convey the narrative drama of Inana's death and re-birth myth—realized through impassioned instrumental interludes that transpose fantastical tales of revenge and escape into exhilarating aural panoramas. The goddess' contradictory nature is sonically represented in the celebratory portrait, "Venus, the Evening Star," by ascending and descending modes separated by a quarter-tone, while the abstruse march cadences of "Lady of Heaven" use the same modes in the form of lush chords to convey her legendary beauty.

The ensemble infuses ElSaffar's dynamic writing with a kaleidoscopic palette; Tareq Abboushi and Zafer Tawil elicit scintillating textures from buzuq, oud and assorted percussion, accentuating the hypnotic modal vamps and bracing bop tempos of bassist Carlo De Rosa and drummer Nasheet Waits. New tenor and soprano saxophonist Ole Mathisen's blistering chromatic flights evoke former member Rudresh Mahanthappa's virtuosic precision and Modirzadeh's microtonal nuance, making a perfect foil for the leader's unbound lyricism. In addition to using alternate fingerings and embouchure controls to extend his horn's expressive range, ElSaffar augments his multifaceted trumpet playing with haunting vocal refrains and shimmering excursions on santoor (hammered dulcimer).

Although the fusion of Eastern and Western musical concepts can be traced back to postwar experiments with modality, numerous strides have since been made towards finding the common ground between such seemingly disparate traditions. Gracefully poised between two worlds, Inana builds upon ElSaffar's previous accomplishments, establishing an impressive precedent for the creative possibilities of a new global jazz aesthetic.

Track Listing: Dumuzi's Dream; Venus, the Evening Star; Inana's Dance (I, II, III); Inana's Dance (IV); Lady of Heaven; Infinite Variety; Journey to the Underworld; Venus, the Morning Star; Al-Badia.

Personnel: Amir ElSaffar: trumpet, vocal, santoor; Ole Mathisen: tenor and soprano saxophone; Zafer Tawil: oud, percussion; Tareq Abboushi: buzuq; Carlo DeRosa: bass; Nasheet Waits: drums.

Title: Inana | Year Released: 2011 | Record Label: Pi Recordings

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