Primary Instrument: Trumpet
Amir ElSaffar, trumpeter, composer, singer, and santoor player, is garnering an international reputation for his work, both in the traditional Iraqi Maqam and in jazz music.
Described as one of the important carriers of the Iraqi Maqam tradition by Maqam master, Hamid al-Saadi, Amir currently leads the only ensemble in the US performing Iraqi Maqam, Safaafir. Amir sings and plays santoor, and is accompanied by traditional instruments, such as the joze (spike fiddle) and tabla. This ensemble has researched ancient practices that have been lost in recent generations, and is now reviving these sounds, continuing the legacy of the great masters of this tradition. Safaafir has appeared throughout the US, performing both for Iraqis as well as general audiences. Safaafir recently released a CD, entitled Maqams of Baghdad.
In addition to his work in the traditional realm, Amir also leads a Sextet of Jazz and Arabic musicians that performs his suite, entitled Two Rivers, which invokes elements of the Iraqi Maqam in a modern Jazz setting.
Being of mixed Iraqi and American heritage, and an expert in Iraqi Maqam and jazz, Amir has been able to organically join both musical styles in a way that preserves the characteristics of each without compromising either. As Dave Douglas said of a recent performance, “when [Amir] picked up the trumpet…he was playing in the quarter-tone scales of traditional maqam. But that seemed to be a small point--it wasn't for effect or show, it was simply that he'd adapted his instrument to the needs of the music.” Amir was described in All About Jazz as a virtuoso on the horn, but also an imaginative bandleader, expanding the vocabulary of the trumpet and at the same time the modern jazz ensemble.
Born in 1977 near Chicago, Illinois to an Iraqi father and American mother, Amir was influenced at a young age by an array of musical styles, including Classical, Rock, Jazz and Chicago-style Blues. He attended DePaul University in Chicago, where he earned a Bachelor's degree in Classical Trumpet in 1999.
As a Classical trumpeter, Amir recorded with Daniel Barenboim and members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on the 1999 Teldec release, Tribute to Ellington, and was a member of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago from 1997-1999, performing with such esteemed conductors as Pierre Boulez, Mstislav Rostropovich, and Maestro Barenboim.
As a Jazz trumpeter, Amir won two major competitions: the 2001 Carmine Caruso Jazz Trumpet Competition and the 2001 International Trumpet Guild Jazz Improvisation Competition, and has performed with esteemed artists such as Cecil Taylor, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Vijay Iyer, Randy Brecker, Miya Masaoka, and Samir Chatterjee, among others.
Amir's journey into the Iraqi Maqam began in his 2002 trip to Baghdad as he was seeking out inspiration for his Jazz compositions and improvisations. While in Baghdad, Amir studied singing the Maqam and playing the santoor (Iraqi hammered-dulcimer). In early 2003, with the war looming, Amir left Iraq and went to Europe to continue his research under the tutelage of Maqam masters Hamid al-Saadi, Baher al-Rejeb, and Farida Mohammed Ali. Amir has now mastered a significant portion of the Maqam repertoire, which has very few surviving masters and is one of the most sophisticated and complex traditional music forms of the Your browser may not support display of this image.Middle East.
After gaining an understanding of Iraqi music in the its traditional setting, Amir began to develop a new approach to playing the trumpet, which utilizes the microtuning and ornaments that are characteristic to Arabic musical instruments but are not typically heard on the trumpet. He has performed on trumpet with Egyptian violinist Alfred Gamil, Palestinian violinist Simon Shaheen, Salaam, and Shusmo.
Today, Amir ElSaffar can be heard around the world, and has performed, solo and with his ensembles in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis, Bloomington, IN, Montreal, Cairo, Beirut, and London. He has appeared recently on BBC’s The World, NPR’s Morning Edition, and the New York Times.
~ David R. Adler
...when he picked up the trumpet (alternately, cornet) he was playing in the quarter-tone scales of traditional maqam. But that seemed to be a small point--it wasn't for effect or show, it was simply that he'd adapted his instrument to the needs of the music. Actually, the most noticeable aspect to his playing is his imperturbable sense of focus. There was a moment in one piece, a soft slow piece, when all the others fell away and left Amir by himself. He played with a quiet, airy intensity that not only quieted the whole band, but paralyzed the entire room. After about 30 seconds by himself he simply stopped. There was a collective gasp in the room that stunned. Beautiful. Also notable was how well Amir and Rudresh Mahantappa blended, both in tone and in pitch. Rudresh's solos took fire every time. Nasheet Waits was also outstanding, particularly on a tricky piece in 17 that had all the musos counting on their fingers.
~ Dave Douglas