Classically trained trumpeter Amir ElSaffar, from Chicago, got in touch with his ethnic roots by traveling to Iraq and throughout the Middle East for five years to pursue intensive study of the centuries-old Arabic music called maqam. He emerged as one of the foremost authorities on Iraqi maqam in the U.S., as well as an accomplished maqam singer and performer on the Iraqi santoor (hammered dulcimer). As a follow-up to his acclaimed 2007 release Two Rivers, ElSaffar further explores the melding of modern jazz and ancient modal music on the stirring and wholly unique Inana, named after and inspired by the ancient Mesopotamian goddess of carnal love and warfare.
Utilizing new techniques that allow him to color with microtones on a standard three-valve trumpet, ElSaffar casts a mesmerizing spell with his stellar crew of drummer Nasheet Waits, bassist Carlo De Rosa, saxophonist Ole Mathisen, Tareq Abboushi on buzuq (long-necked lute) and multi-instrumentalist Zafer Tawil on oud and dumbek. From the droning opener, “Dumuzi’s Dream,” to the slowly insinuating groove of the closer, “Al-Badia,” this nine-song suite transports the listener to another time and place, with ElSaffar alternately providing beguiling muted trumpet and bold, sinuous open horn lines along the way.
Mathisen, who replaces Rudresh Mahanthappa in the lineup, contributes provocative, twisting and at times non-tempered lines on both tenor and soprano. His solo contributions on “Dumuzi’s Dream,” which is maqam in flavor though underscored by Waits’ undeniably jazzy drumming, and the rhythmically charged 9/8 dance number “Venus, the Evening Star,” are profound. Tawli’s virtuosity on oud is showcased on the third movement of a four-movement “Inana’s Dance,” and Waits offers a stunning polyrhythmic performance during the second movement of that percolating suite.
ElSaffar reveals his entrancing non-tempered vocals on the epic “Journey to the Underworld,” a mini-suite that builds to intense crescendos marked by precise, super-charged playing by all the participants. In total, Inana is ElSaffar’s Sketches of Iraq.