A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo by Daniel Sheehan // EyeShot Jazz

The Wire declares that the trumpeter Amir ElSaffar “is uniquely poised to reconcile jazz and Arabic music without doing either harm…ElSaffar’s music [is] the result of engagement across the board, presented with clarity and eloquence.” The Chicago Tribune concurs; in a review of Danilo Pérez‘ 21st Century Dizzy [Gillespie] ensemble, they praise “ElSaffar’s melismatic trumpet lines conveyed tremendous lyric beauty, his phrases bending and twisting in ways that Western ears are not accustomed to hearing,” and conclude, “[Danilo] Perez, [David] Sanchez, [Amir] ElSaffar and [Rudresh] Mahanthappa rank among the most promising figures in jazz today, each redefining the music with cultural influences from around the world.”

The Chicago-born son of an Iraqi immigrant father and American mother, Amir was surrounded by music from a young age. He discovered Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald through his father’s record collection, and flirted with various instruments before settling on the trumpet at age 10. Throughout his adolescence, Amir honed his skills on the trumpet across genres, including a stint with the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, where he performed under the baton of Pierre Boulez, Mstislav Rostropovich, Daniel Barenboim, and others. During this period, he also earned his bachelors degree from DePaul University.

Amir moved to New York for the first time in 2000, performing with Cecil Taylor, as well as peers such as Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthappa. Yet his desire to delve into the music of his heritage took precedence; after winning the 2001 Carmine Caruso International Jazz Trumpet Competition, Amir used the funds to embark on a five-year search across Iraq, the Middle East, and Europe in pursuit of the masters, studying the Iraqi Maqam and related musical traditions.

Returning to America, Amir formed the ensemble Two Rivers, which frames his investigations of the maqam tradition in a jazz setting, pairing searching contemporary jazz artists like Rudresh, the bassist Carlo DeRosa, and the drummer Nasheet Waits with players well versed in the Iraqi Maqam. The ensemble’s eponymous debut on Pi Recordings solidified Amir as an important new voice; AllMusic declared it, “as impressive a debut as we’ve had in America in the 21st century.” Amir’s recent follow-up, Inana (Pi) has also garnered significant acclaim, including four-and-a-half star reviews from DownBeat and AllMusic.

While traveling, Amir also learned to play the santur (an Iraqi hammered dulcimer) and developed his voice. In 2006, he founded Safaafir, which is the only US-based ensemble “performing Iraqi Maqam in its traditional format.”

We’ve been presenting Amir’s bands since 2008, and commissioned him during our 2009-2010 “New Voices” series. He has also performed on our stage with the saxophonist Hafez Modirzadeh; their collaboration was documented on the 2010 album Radif Suite (Pi). On Friday night, Amir will take our stage alongside his quintet, which includes the saxophonist Tony Malaby, as well as a rhythm section comprised of the pianist John Escreet, the bassist François Moutin, and the drummer Dan Weiss. The group will be premiering new music based on Sumerian Modes in both equal and non-equal temperaments.

Watch footage from a recent Two Rivers concert at Jazz Standard.