Amir ElSaffar

Doris Duke Artist Award, 2013

New York, NY

Iraqi-American trumpeter and composer Amir ElSaffar has created jazz with a cross-cultural impact in only one decade—combining it with aspects of Middle Eastern music and manipulating tones, melody, and harmony with distinctive imagination. He has customized techniques and created a microtonal harmonic system new to jazz, idiomatic to Arabic music, and rarely heard on the trumpet. He is a noted interpreter of the classical Iraqi Maqam tradition, which he performs on the santur and as a vocalist. He has released four highly acclaimed recordings: Maqams of Baghdad (Salaam, 2006), Two Rivers (Pi, 2007), Radif Suite (Pi, 2010), and Inana (Pi, 2011). His many honors include grants from French-American Jazz Exchange (2013), Chamber Music America New Jazz Works (2009), and a 2013 commission from the Newport Jazz Festival. He currently curates a weekly concert series at Alwan for the Arts, a New York destination for Middle Eastern arts and culture. With Alwan, he recently curated Eloquence: a Festival of Iraqi Culture, the first festival and tour of its kind to represent Iraqi culture in the United States.

  • Photo Credit: Evi Lemberger
  • Amir ElSaffar- “Al-Badia,” Inana (Pi, 2011) :
    “Al-Badia,” Inana (Pi, 2011)
  • Amir ElSaffar- “Introduction: Copper Refraction,” Radif Suite (Pi, 2010) :
    “Introduction: Copper Refraction,” Radif Suite (Pi, 2010)
  • Amir ElSaffar- “Khosh Reng (Maqam Awj),” Two Rivers (Pi, 2007):
    “Khosh Reng (Maqam Awj),” Two Rivers (Pi, 2007)
  • Photo Credit: Nicole LeCorgne

Suppose you just met someone who didn't know your work, what project from the past 10 years would you direct them to as an entry point to you and your work, and why?

Two Rivers is a project that combines jazz and Iraqi Maqam, representing much of who I am as an artist and human being. Maqam is a musical system practiced from Morocco to Western China, consisting of melodies built on seven-note modes containing microtones (pitches between white and black keys of the piano), and the Iraqi Maqam is considered one of its most sophisticated manifestations. In 2006, I was commissioned to compose a work combining jazz and Iraqi Maqam. At the time I was reluctant, as the idea was not only daunting but difficult to make peace with—I had spent five years immersed in maqam music, and the thought of combining such a perfect, complete art form with anything felt superfluous. It was also during the height of violence in Iraq, and coexistence between American and Iraqi cultures seemed impossible. Once I began exploring the sounds, links between the traditions became apparent, the music began to flow, and I realized the importance of composing this work on musical and personal levels, as an Iraqi-American living with the two countries in conflict. I formed the Two Rivers Ensemble, a sextet combining jazz and Arab instrumentation, and composed Two Rivers, a suite drawing from Iraqi Maqam melodies and recontextualizing them with rhythms, orchestration, and freedom of jazz. This work showcases not only the points of consonance, but also the struggle in reconciling these two cultures and musics. I have since composed Inana (2010), in tribute to the Sumerian goddess of love and warfare, expanding the palette of each tradition, extrapolating maqam melodies in non-conventional ways and extracting microtones to create new harmonies. In August 2013, I will premiere a new work for the ensemble at the Newport Jazz Festival, which will incorporate influences from the music of Egypt, where I have recently been based.