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.