CD Review: Amir ElSaffar and The Two Rivers Ensemble “bring maqami air to Jazz.”

Artist: Amir ElSaffer and the Two Rivers Ensemble
Title: Inana
Label: PI Recordings
Genre: Oriental Jazz/Jazz

Review by Matt Cole

Inana is a new release from Iraqi-American musician Amir ElSaffar and the Two Rivers Ensemble. ElSaffar is one of a number of musicians, notably including Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthappa, who are finding new and creative ways to combine modern jazz with the music of their respective cultural backgrounds. In ElSaffar’s case, the background is Iraqi Maqam, a rich tradition which is considered the most perfect form of maqam. Maqam is highly modal, and mainly melody-oriented; rhythm is fluid and harmony, like in Indian music, is secondary at best.

Two Rivers Ensemble (referring, of course, to the Tigris and Euphrates) is, as may be expected, a very diverse band, with  Ole Mathisen on tenor and soprano saxophone, Zafer Tawil on oud and percussion, Tareq Abboushi on busuz, Carlo DeRosa on bass, and Nasheet Waits on drums. ElSaffer plays trumpet and santur (a 70-string Iraqi instrument whose closest western analogue is the dulcimer).

Inana is largely taken up by “The Inana Suite,” a musical telling of the myth of Inana, the “insatiable and headstrong goddess of fertility, sexual love, and warfare” (a very interesting portfolio, no doubt), who is represented by the Evening and Morning Star (aka the planet Venus). Inana went on to become known as Ishtar, and then Astarte in ancient Babylon, and can also be traced down to Greek Aphrodite and Roman Venus (though by then she had lost the warfare part of her purview). The liner notes of the CD give a brief recap of the myth, which has elements which made their way into the myths of later cultures (notably the Persephone myth in Greek lore).

The suite begins with “Dumuzi’s Dream,” which starts with an active bassline and cymbals, which is then joined by the rest of the band. A Middle Eastern-sounding melody is introduced, which soon becomes a jazzy variant of the same. This is the first of many times when both traditions, jazz and maqam, can be heard, both playing off and melding with each other. Also, we begin to hear the call-and-response between horns and strings which will be found in many places in the suite. ElSaffar then switches to the santour, conversing with the strings over a gentle, swinging, bluesy rhythm. After a sax solo and string tapestry, the band returns to the top, and the section is over.

The second part, “Venus, the Evening Star,” starts with the bass and drums playing a very jazzy, modern rhythm, which nonetheless has a Middle Eastern feel and would fit quite well in either idiom. After the head, we are treated to modern jazzy solos over some very interesting stringwork. As maqam does not emphasize chordal harmony, the strings sound more like a higher-pitched bassline, very modal, and with two instruments going (plus the bass) the net effect seems quite contrapuntal. Also, at this point in the suite, it has become quite apparent that the band members are quite responsive to one another.

Next up in “Inana’s Dance (I, II, III).” Inana’s Dance is actually a term for war, so the initial cheerful tone seems somewhat inappropriate, that is, until one considers the degree of pep and patriotism which often accompany the start of a war. The piece starts with a conversation between jazzy horns and strings; it seems that the horns and strings are in different keys, but it all meshes well, nonetheless. Soon, the tone becomes much more ominous, and then a funky, marchy beat emerges with dark undertones. Some of the sounds evoke images of horses and chariots (fitting for a musical ode to a Sumerian goddess). Finally, the music slows, the horns play, and then silence, followed by one of the strings (I wish I could tell the difference between an oud and a buzuq without watching) playing alone.

“Inana’s Dance (IV)” opens with a fast, odd-metered groove, with the strings and bass interweaving. Soon, an angular horn-line emerges, followed by a saxophone solo, a sax-trumpet dialogue, and then a trumpet solo, all over the fast, ever-shifting groove. The band goes back to the top, and the segment ends.

Next up is “Lady of Heaven,” dominated by a slow, descending horn line which soon becomes quite lyrical. It is almost majestic in spots, as befits a Lady of Heaven.

Then comes “Infinite Variety.” It feels like we enter in media res, right into a 6-part contrapuntal conversation between all 6 instruments. In this movement, Ole Mathison is playing the soprano sax, dancing around the trumpet. The counterpoint continues in the rhythm section and strings, as ElSaffar takes a very active trumpet solo. This section also contains some of the best examples of the band’s outstanding interaction and communication, which is a large part of what enables them to weave together two disparate traditions into a greater whole.

Now we arrive at the “Journey to the Underworld,” almost a suite in and of itself. It starts with pulsating strings, and then ElSaffar enters with solemn vocals out of the Iraqi/Mesopotamian tradition, an almost funereal song befitting an underworld voyage. About 3 minutes in, an upbeat tempo emerges, with a rhythmic groove in minor, and ElSaffar continues to sing, almost keening, building in energy. Then the voice drops out, leaving us with strings and drums only; eventually the horns begin a call and response with the strings. This builds to a level of interplay nearly as complex as that in “Infinite Variety,” and the sax and trumpet soon begin a very intense conversation. Finally, the music slows down, with interplay between the strings (including bowed double bass) and drums, with solemn horn lines emerging, solemn with hints of optimism. There is a pause, a bass and string groove, and then the whole band comes in to end this movement with a lyrical rising line.

The final movement of “The Inana Suite” is “Venus, the Morning Star,” and begins with languid horn lines over rippling rhythms, conveying again an impression of majesty fit for a rising queen. ElSaffir sings again, and the vocal lines give the impression of rebirth, as symbolized by the morning star rising.
The CD ends with a piece called “Al-Badia.” It begins with an overtone-rich bass vamp, then a Middle Eastern drum enters, followed by the trap kit and then a muted trumpet. Finally, the saxophone enters with a lyrical line (with the strings answering as appropriate). The rhythm becomes almost a march, and the melody very Iraqi, with various band members taking the lead. We return to the beginning vamp, the horns play the head once more, and that’s it.
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Overall, Inana is a fine piece of work by a promising young artist with an excellent set of musicians. The band, despite coming from very different traditions, is very tight and the musicians listen to and communicate well with each other. ElSaffer does an excellent job of combining the two traditions of modern jazz and Iraqi maqam, showing both influences while making music that is becoming something more. Sometimes one tradition is more dominant, and sometimes the other (and often in the same piece), and sometimes the effect is like looking at one of those optical illusions that is either two faces or a vase depending on one’s focus. However, this music is no illusion, it is definitely the real deal. I look forward to seeing how ElSaffar’s career and music develop further; Inana is a fine effort from a very promising artist.

Recommended post: Concert Review: Brief Impressions of Amir Elsaffir’s Two Rivers Ensemble