ABOUT THE ARTISTS
Trumpeter, player of the santur (a Persian hammered dulcimer), vocalist, and composer Amir ElSaffar has distinguished himself with a mastery of diverse musical traditions and a singular approach to combining Middle Eastern musical languages with jazz and other styles of contemporary music. A recipient of the 2013 Doris Duke Performing Artists Award, ElSaffar has been described as “uniquely poised to reconcile jazz and Arabic music without doing either harm,” (The Wire) and “one of the most promising figures in jazz today” (Chicago Tribune).
ElSaffar is an expert trumpeter with a classical background who is fully conversant in the language of contemporary jazz. He has created techniques to play microtones and ornaments idiomatic to Arabic music that are not typically heard on the trumpet, and he is a purveyor of the centuries-old, now endangered Iraqi maqam tradition, which he performs actively as a vocalist and santur player. As a composer, ElSaffar has used the microtones found in maqam music to create an innovative approach to harmony and melody. Described as “an imaginative bandleader, expanding the vocabulary of the trumpet and at the same time the modern jazz ensemble,” (All About Jazz), ElSaffar is an important voice in an age of cross-cultural music making.
ElSaffar’s most recent CD release, Crisis (2015) chronicles the continuing development of his critically acclaimed Two Rivers Ensemble, a band purpose-built to explore the juncture between jazz and music of the Middle East, in particular the maqam.
His quintet CD release, Alchemy (2013), received significant acclaim, including praise from veteran jazz writer Howard Mandel, who dubbed ElSaffar an “exquisite alchemist,” noting his ability to surmount the difficulties of bringing jazz and maqam together, “a challenge that he’s accomplished with aplomb.” The album was described as a “milestone session,” in Point of Departure, and “radically contemporary in its sound even as it connects with music’s most ancient roots” by the Irish Times.
ElSaffar’s 2013 Newport Jazz Festival debut, with the Two Rivers Ensemble, was later broadcast on Dee Dee Bridgewater’s Jazz Set on NPR. In 2015 he and the quintet returned to Newport. Recent European performances have included premieres of a new work, Ashwaaq, for string quartet, santur, and voice, at the prestigious Aix and Avignon festivals. The tour included the Saalfelden Jazz Festival in Salzburg, a week of shows in Berlin, and a performance with Aka Moon and South Indian percussion master U.K. Sivaraman.
In addition to performing and composing, ElSaffar is music curator at Alwan for the Arts, New York’s hub for Arab and Middle Eastern culture, which hosts semi-monthly concerts and the annual Maqam Fest. In 2013, he collaborated with the Metropolitan Museum to create a festival of Iraqi culture. He also teaches maqam classes at Alwan, and is the director of the Middle Eastern Music Ensemble at Columbia University, where he also teaches jazz ensembles.
Born near Chicago in 1977 to an Iraqi immigrant father and an American mother, ElSaffar was drawn to music at a young age, listening incessantly to LPs from his father’s collection, which included Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and the soundtrack to The Blues Brothers (but interestingly, no Iraqi music). His first musical training was at the age of five, singing in a Lutheran church choir at the school he attended. His mother, an avid music lover, introduced him to the music of Bach and Haydn, and taught him to sing and play American folk songs on ukulele and guitar. ElSaffar eventually found his calling with the trumpet in his early teens.
Chicago offered many opportunities for the young trumpeter. He attended DePaul University, earning a degree in classical trumpet, and had the opportunity to study with Bud Herseth, the legendary principal trumpeter of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. As a trumpeter with the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, ElSaffar worked with esteemed conductors such as Pierre Boulez, Mstislav Rostropovich, and Daniel Barenboim, and recorded on Barenboim’s1999 Teldec release Tribute to Ellington, with Don Byron and members of the Chicago Symphony. Additionally, ElSaffar gained experience playing regularly in Chicago’s blues, jazz, and salsa clubs.
At the turn of the century, ElSaffar moved to New York, where he performed in the ensembles of jazz legend Cecil Taylor. He also performed with Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthappa, who were in the early stages of their careers, making forays drawing upon their ancestral backgrounds toward forging a new sound.
Amir gradually found himself drawn to the musical heritage of his father’s native Iraq. In 2001, after winning the Carmine Caruso Jazz Trumpet Competition, he funded a trip to Baghdad to find and study with the few surviving masters of the Iraqi maqam. Some were still in Baghdad, but he discovered that most had left the country. Amir spent the next five years pursuing these masters across the Middle East and Europe, learning everything he could about the tradition. During this period he learned to speak Arabic, sing maqam, and play the santur. His main teacher during this period was vocalist Hamid Al-Saadi, currently the only living person who has mastered the entire Baghdadi maqam tradition.
In 2006 he founded Safaafir, the only ensemble in the United States performing Iraqi maqam (Arabic melodic modes) in its traditional format. Later the same year, ElSaffar received commissions from the Painted Bride Arts Center in Philadelphia and from the Festival of New Trumpet Music to compose Two Rivers, a suite invoking Iraqi musical traditions but framed in a modern jazz setting. ElSaffar has since received commissions from the Jazz Institute of Chicago, the Jerome Foundation, Chamber Music America, Present Music, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Newport Jazz Festival, the Morgenland Festival, and the Royaumont Foundation, creating works integrating Middle Eastern tonalities and rhythms into contemporary contexts.
ElSaffar currently leads four critically acclaimed ensembles. Two Rivers combines the musical languages and instrumentation of Iraqi maqam and contemporary jazz; the Amir ElSaffar Quintet performs ElSaffar’s microtonal compositions with standard jazz instrumentation; Safaafir is the only ensemble in the United States performing and preserving the Iraqi maqam in its traditional format; and the Alwan Ensemble, the resident ensemble of Alwan for the Arts, specializes in classical music from Egypt, the Levant, and Iraq. In addition, ElSaffar has worked with jazz legend Cecil Taylor as well as prominent jazz musicians including Mark Dresser, Gerry Hemingway, Marc Ribot, Henry Grimes, and Oliver Lake. ElSaffar has appeared on numerous recordings, and has released six under his own name Maqams of Baghdad (2005), Two Rivers (2007), Radif Suite (2010), Inana (2011), Alchemy (2013) and Crisis (2015).
The jazz and Middle Eastern musicians of the Two Rivers sextet have made innovative strides in using the maqam modal system to transform the jazz idiom. Deeply rooted in musical forms of Iraq and nearby regions, the music still speaks the language of swing, improvisation, and group interaction, and the resultant sound is distinct from other contemporary cross-cultural musical fusions. After eight years of extensive performing and touring and the release of two critically acclaimed albums on Pi Recordings, Two Rivers (2007) and Inana (2011), the Two Rivers Ensemble has developed an instinctive ease with ElSaffar’s highly complex music, enabling the band to play with a creativity that transcends pure technical challenge in a style that is rooted in tradition, while creating an entirely new aesthetic. Amir ElSaffar’s latest work with Two Rivers, a piece titled Crisis, was commissioned by Newport Jazz Festival and premiered at the festival in August 2013.
Two Rivers includes Nasheet Waits, one of the most dynamic drummers in jazz, who is best known as a mainstay in Jason Moran’s Bandwagon; bassist Carlo DeRosa, whose CD Brain Dance achieved considerable acclaim; Tareq Abboushi on buzuq (long-necked lute) whose CD, Mumtastic, contains his own blend of jazz and Arabic forms; virtuoso multi-instrumentalist Zafer Tawil, who is one of the most in-demand Arab musicians in New York; and tenor saxophonist Ole Mathisen, a master of microtonal playing who contributes beautifully controlled and technically dazzling playing, serving as the perfect foil to ElSaffar on the front line.
ABOUT THE MUSIC
ElSaffar composed the Crisis suite in 2013, after he spent a year living in Egypt—where he witnessed the Arab Spring protests first-hand—and Lebanon—where he worked with Syrian musicians who were living through that country’s harrowing civil war. The suite is a commentary on the recent history of Iraq and the Middle East. Often based on the melodic modes of the maqam and folkloric rhythms, the music is passionate and ecstatic. ElSaffar’s virtuoso trumpet playing is firmly rooted in the jazz tradition, playing a taqsim (melodic improvisation) in an authentic Arab style, with a sound that is reminiscent of the nay (reed flute) and the melisma and ornamentation of maqam singing. ElSaffar has created new techniques for his standard, three-valve trumpet that enable intonations characteristic of Arabic music. The maqam melodies are appeals for understanding and compassion, and his santour (a Persian hammered dulcimer) is full of tremolos and a long echo evoking an ancient past.
Crisis is ElSaffar’s reflection on a region in turmoil and strife: revolution, civil war and sectarian violence, a culture’s struggle for survival. The suite was commissioned by the Newport Jazz Festival, and premiered there in 2013. It made a clear emotional connection with the audience and received a rousing standing ovation after just the first piece.