Amir ElSaffar Two Rivers Ensemble
Saturday, September 24, 5:15-6:15pm
Born near Chicago to an Iraqi immigrant father and an American mother, AMIR ELSAFFAR plays trumpet, santur (a hammered dulcimer of Mesopotamian origin), and sings within jazz, classical, and Arabic musical styles. He was drawn to music at a young age, listening to LPs from his father’s collection, which included Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and the Blues Brothers Soundtrack; he later found his calling with the trumpet, earning a degree in classical trumpet from DePaul University, studying with the legendary principal trumpeter of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Bud Herseth, and working with conductors such as Pierre Boulez, Mstislav Rostropovich, and Daniel Barenboim. During this period, Amir also gained experience playing in Chicago’s blues, jazz, and salsa clubs before moving to New York at the turn of the century where he played with Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthappa, then in the early stages of their careers. Amir has created new techniques to play microtones and ornaments that are idiomatic to Arab music but are not typically heard on the trumpet. As a composer, he has used the microtones found in maqam music (system of melodic modes used in traditional Arabic music) to create a unique approach to harmony and melody. In 2002 he began studying the maqam tradition in Baghdad and London with Hamid al-Saadi, one of the most renowned maqam singers in Iraq and is currently an acknowledged performer of the classical Iraqi magam tradition. He is active as a vocalist and santur player with his group, Safaafir, the only ensemble in the US performing Iraqi Maqam in its traditional format.
Receiving a commission to compose Two Rivers, Amir created a suite that invokes Iraqi musical traditions and frames them in a modern jazz setting. Anastasia Tsioulcas, of NPR Music, says, “ElSaffar has found a beautiful and singular way of pairing the sibling spirits of jazz and the classical maqam system of the Arab world, with their shared spheres of improvisation, deep knowledge of tradition and urge to keep innovating.” In addition to AMIR ELSAFFAR on trumpet, santur, and vocals, Two Rivers includes drummer NASHEET WAITS, a mainstay in Jason Moran’s Bandwagon; bassist CARLO DEROSA, whose CD Brain Dance achieved considerable acclaim; GEORGE ZIADEH on oud and vocals, considered an authority in maqam and Arab classical repertoire; buzuq player and percussionist WANEES ZAROUR, leader of the Middle East Ensemble at University of Chicago; and tenor & soprano saxophonist OLE MATHISEN, a master of microtonal playing.