Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble Explores Love and War
Iraq-born trumpeter Amir ElSaffar has been making extraordinary music for several years, most notably with his sister Dena in eclectic pan-levantine band Salaam,and more recently with saxophonist Hafez Modirzadeh . ElSaffar’s latest adventure in east/west cross-pollination, his Two Rivers Ensemble has a new album, Inana, recently out on the adventurous Pi label, that’s a lock for pretty much everybody’s best-of-2011 lists as far as both jazz and Middle Eastern music are concerned. This is ElSaffar’s deepest venture into jazz to date, reminding how well his microtonal quartertone style – which basically doesn’t exist in western music – is suited to American postbop as it is everywhere east of the Nile and many points in between. The album is a thematic suite inspired by the Mesopotamian goddess of love and warfare. The melodies shift seamlessly between Arabic and western jazz modes, and as usual ElSaffar has a sensational band to play them: Shusmo’s Tareq Abboushi on buzuq; Zafer Tawil on oud and percussion; Ole Mathisen on alto sax; Carlo DeRosa on bass and Nasheet Waits on drums. One comparison that springs to mind is Ansambl Mastika, reedman Greg Squared’s deliriously intense pan-Balkan band, which also works many of the same tonalities as this group, although they’re crazier and more improvisational.
The opening track, Dumuzi’s Dream is stunning and intense, ElSaffar’s bright but allusive trumpet contrasting with the suspenseful, rustic, dark levantine groove underneath. Rolling triplets give way to insistence, an otherworldly, spiraling qanun solo, and a biting, pensive oud solo over judicious bass that ElSaffar breaks out of with the Arabic equivalent of major on minor. It’s creepy, and it gives absolutely no idea of how wildly he’s about to take it outside. Meanwhile, Waits proves as comfortably at home moving from one odd (to western ears, anyway) tempo to another, often playing polyrythms against the bass or the rest of the percussion, injecting one counterintuitive, incisive riff after another when he can sneak one in.
That’s sort of a prelude. The suite really gets going with Venus the Evening Star, where the main themes get introduced: this one, a tricky dance with a distinctly Greek shuffle bounce, flutters along amiably until Zawil’s oud solo takes it in a much more ominous direction, DaRosa’s pulse signaling a long, captivating return to the party as ElSaffar casually works his way up to a triumphant note. A suite within a suite, Inna’s Dance coalesces slowly, then sets a catchy, simple trumpet/sax riff over a hypnotic bass vamp, Abboushi adding a thoughtfully energetic sitar-like solo. As it progresses, it takes on a funky edge (that’s Abboushi bringing a little James Brown to the party), Waits and DaRosa’s polyrhythms hypnotic under ElSaffar’s river of microtones.
The warm, stately Lady of Heaven kicks off the most straight-up jazz-oriented section here, simple, sustained trumpet/sax harmonies over clanking buzuq and Waits’ gentle flurries. Infinite Variety picks up the pace, Abboushi reminding that jazz chords are also suited to the buzuq, ElSaffar’s clever arrangement setting up a series of echo permutations against the central bass riff. The big fifteen-minute epic Journey to the Underworld should be Journey Through the Underworld instead: moving from lengthy improvisations for oud and vocals, it reaches unexpectedly upbeat terrain, driven by DeRosa’s insistent bass, then goes murky and rubato until ElSaffar finally signals that the end of the tunnel is in sight, yet almost having to pull the rest of the ensemble out by himself. Those are merely the highlights: it’s an absolutely fascinating, intricately orchestrated performance.
The suite’s concluding segment, Venus the Morning Star, answers the question of what side the goddess will end on: with a return of the simple, supple opening theme, it’s an optimistic, brightly evocative early morning tableau. The final track, Al-Badia, isn’t part of the suite, but it ends the album on the same richly intense note where began, an imaginative blend of oldschool funk and Mohammed Abdel Wahab cinematic hitworthiness, the instruments taking turns nailing the place where the choir would respond as the verse hits a turnaround. The fun the band is having is visceral: count this among the best albums to come over the transom here this year.
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