Concert: Jazz With an International Flavor: Amir ElSaffar Two Rivers Ensemble
Trumpeter, santur player, 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 Artist 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, conversant not only in the language of contemporary jazz, but has created techniques to play microtones and ornaments idiomatic to Arabic music that are not typically heard on the trumpet. Additionally, 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 Iraqi magam 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.
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 Blues Brothers Soundtrack (but interestingly, no Iraqi music).
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 the legendary principal trumpeter of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Bud Herseth. ElSaffar gained experience playing regularly in Chicago’s Blues, Jazz, and Salsa clubs.
He moved to New York at the turn of the century where he performed in the ensembles of jazz legend Cecil Taylor and others.
Amir gradually found himself drawn to the Musical Heritage of his Father’s native country: Iraq and spent the next five years learning everything he could about the music of his father’s homeland. During this period he learned to speak Arabic, sing maqam, and play the santoor. 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 founded Safaafir, the only ensemble in the US performing Iraqi Maqam 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 (FONT), to compose Two Rivers, a suite invoking Iraqi musical traditions framed in a modern Jazz setting. ElSaffar has since received commissions from the Jazz Institute of Chicago (2008), the Jerome Foundation (2009), Chamber Music America (2009), Present Music (2010), The Metropolitan Museum of Art (2013), The Newport Jazz Festival (2013), Morgenland Festival (2013) and the Royaumont Foundation (2014), creating works integrating Middle Eastern tonalities and rhythms into an contemporary contexts.