“Blending scales from the Iraqi maqam tradition with jazz ornamentation, melodies and rhythms intersect, criss-crossing musical lines dancing like brushstrokes across a broad canvas. Often strings and ouds pluck out a bedrock of repetitive figures, while a row of brass soar overhead, and an engine room of an extended rhythm section drives at the back…ElSaffar strolls the stage directing his musicians, signalling solos and changes, playing the role of both composer, conductor and star.” —The National
Minneapolis, September 9, 2016— Revered composer/trumpeter Amir ElSaffar fuses elements of traditional Middle Eastern modal music and American jazz to create a mesmerizing sonic hybrid that moves into a free state of uninhibited musical exploration. His diverse and virtuosic 17-piece pan-Arabic ensemble features Middle Eastern masters as well as US jazz stars, including guitarist Miles Okazaki, drummer Nasheet Waits, and woodwind legend J. D. Parran. They perform on Saturday, October 15, in the William and Nadine McGuire Theater, 8 pm.
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 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 Two Rivers release, Crisis (2015, Pi Recordings) chronicles the continuing development of trumpeter 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 Iraqi maqam. The new work is his reflection on a region in turmoil and strife: revolution, civil war, sectarian violence; a culture’s struggle for survival. It sets aside some of the more exploratory work that he has done in recent years to focus on music that is passionate and visceral, a cry from the heart. Crisis was commissioned by the Newport Jazz Festival, where at its 2013 premiere, it made a clear emotional connection to the audience, receiving a rousing standing ovation after just the first piece.
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 in 2013. 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 Blues Brothers Soundtrack (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 lover of music, 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 the legendary principal trumpeter of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Bud Herseth. As a trumpeter of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, ElSaffar worked with esteemed conductors such as Pierre Boulez, Mstislav Rostropovich, and Daniel Barenboim, and recorded on the latter’s 1999 Teldec release Tribute to Ellington, with members of the Chicago Symphony and Don Byron. Additionally, 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. He also performed with Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthappa, who were in the early stages of their careers, making forays drawing upon their ancestral background toward forging a new sound.
He currently leads four critically-acclaimed ensembles: Two Rivers, which combines the musical languages and instrumentation of Iraqi Maqam and contemporary jazz; the Amir ElSaffar Quintet, performing ElSaffar’s microtonal compositions with standard jazz instrumentation; Safaafir, the only ensemble in the US performing and preserving the Iraqi Maqam in its traditional format; and The Alwan Ensemble, the resident ensemble of Alwan for the Arts, specializing in classical music from Egypt, the Levant, and Iraq. In addition, he has worked with jazz legend Cecil Taylor, and prominent jazz musicians such as 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).
Tickets to Amir ElSaffar are $25 ($20 Walker members) and are available at walkerart.org/tickets or by calling 612.375.7600.
Drinks at the Lounge
The Walker Lounge (in the former Gather by D’Amico space) is the place to be before and after the performance. Grab a cocktail before the show, or stay afterward for a drink and conversations.
Free Gallery Admission
Extend your art experience—come back with your ticket within seven days of a performance, and get in free to the Walker galleries.
Support for Amir ElSaffar provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
The Walker Art Center’s performing arts programs are made possible by generous support from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation through the Doris Duke Performing Arts Fund, the William and Nadine McGuire Commissioning Fund, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Performing Arts programs and commissions at the Walker are generously supported by members of the Producers’ Council: Nor Hall and Roger Hale; King’s Fountain/Barbara Watson Pillsbury and Henry Pillsbury; Emily Maltz; Dr. William W. and Nadine M. McGuire; Leni and David Moore, Jr./The David and Leni Moore Family Foundation; Mike and Elizabeth Sweeney; and Frances and Frank Wilkinson.