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.
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 maqam music to create an innovative approach to harmony and melody.
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.
In Chicago 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.
Amir gradually found himself drawn to the musical heritage of his father’s native country: Iraq. In 2001 he funded a trip to Baghdad to find and study with the few surviving masters of the Iraqi Maqam.
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).
As of January 2017