If you dropped Amir ElSaffar and his trumpet anywhere in the world, chances are he’d be able to make great music with whomever he came across. ElSaffar is no stranger to making do with whatever is at hand: he helped improvise the diegetic musical score to the Oscar-nominated film Rachel Getting Married while on set. In addition, ElSaffar is fluent in many musical languages. He grew up listening to his father’s Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald records, then studied classical trumpet in college; since 2002, has been a serious student of the Iraqi Maqam and other forms of traditional Arabic music. With his diverse skills and experiences, ElSaffar has the uncanny ability to make music that doesn’t feel like a self-conscious mashup of different styles, but instead something organic and whole—a fully formed traditional music from a culture that might not exist anywhere in the world, but exists in his mind.
ElSaffar’s home base ensemble, Two Rivers (seen below), features traditional Arabic instruments like the oud, a kind of lute, and santoor, a hammered dulcimer, alongside typical jazz instruments to create an otherworldly quality in the music.
On his new album Alchemy (Pi), however, ElSaffar returns to classic jazz instrumentation: trumpet, sax, piano, bass, and drums. Within this more typical jazz context, ElSaffar and his bandmates continue to explore the scales of traditional Arabic music, many of which feature notes that lie in between the evenly-spaced pitches of the Western scale. To play these so-called “microtones” on Western instruments is challenging, and both ElSaffar and his saxophone partner Ole Mathisen are true masters. Playing these microtones against the evenly-tuned notes of the piano creates a new kind of dramatic tension in ElSaffar’s music, leading to moments of spine-tingling beauty. For ElSaffar, utilizing a traditional jazz lineup isn’t a return to a more traditional jazz style, but a further journey into his own vast musical universe.
The Amir ElSaffar Quintet, which features Ole Mathisen on saxophone, John Escreet on piano, Francois Moutin on bass, and Dan Weiss on drums, plays music from their new album “Alchemy” at The Jazz Gallery this Saturday, November 2nd, at 9 and 11 p.m., $20 general admission and $10 for Members. Purchase tickets here.