Amir ElSaffar: At Two Rivers' Confluence
"Apparently, and I was too young to remember this." said ElSaffar, "my father had a tape of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong's music labeled 'Amir's music' as opposed to a tape of opera that he made for my sister labeled 'Dena's music.' I'm not really sure what prompted him to make that decision. The first time hearing trumpet sound was very clear in mind. I was also really obsessed over this Blues Brothers soundtrack that I played incessantly, which I would still play even though it got worn out. When I was about nine or ten I got into music like The Beatles, which brought me to musicians like Clapton and Hendrix and then led me back to the blues."
Despite Armstrong's initial impression, getting serious about playing it didn't come as naturally. "I started playing trumpet at about nine and always hated it; I was always ready to quit, but my mom told me that I had to stick with it and that just so happened to be the time I was getting into Miles Davis. Miles was one of the first jazz musicians I was listening to at that time, the first record being Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959), which was life changing. At the time, I was playing also playing rock guitar and actually went to the Berklee five-week program one summer playing both guitar and trumpet. After the first week, I was just playing trumpet. I was getting into a lot of the stuff from the mid-to-late fifties period, Miles but also Clifford Brown.
ElSaffar went on to study classical trumpet at Chicago's DePaul University. While his classical training was being honed at school, his training in American popular music was being molded on the bandstand, playing in blues, R&B and salsa bands around the city. A frequent musician around the DePaul area on the north side, his father's initial sponsorship in absorbing the blues also got him well acquainted with the south side.
"My dad used to take me to a blues club called The Checkerboard Lounge," recalls ElSaffar. "He would paint a mustache on me to make me look older. It wasn't really until college that I started checking out those blues clubs on my own. These clubs were in some of the rough neighborhoods on the south side of Chicago, places other people might not usually go. I always felt it was important to keep that blues foundation; all the strains of jazz I was listening to had some connection to the blues, some very strong, some a bit more tenuous. A lot of had that 'blues cry' and a lot of that I found in Iraqi music later on as well."
One of ElSaffar's first major collaborations in jazz in his post-college years was with pianist Cecil Taylor. Similar to his eventual involvement with Arabic music, the rewards embedded in working with Taylor came through patience and perseverance. ElSaffar explained the sometimes bewildering but always intriguing process of delving into Taylor's thought process.
"I was working with him almost completely concurrently while I was studying Iraqi music. I met him in 2001. I attended a great month-long workshop that had about 20 people involved by performance time (about 15 had left during the course of that time because they didn't really get what was going on). It certainly was a challenge; we'd spend a lot of time getting all 40 players to play one phrase correctly and then the next day we might come back to it, but we'd completely deconstruct it the next day or just move on to something else. I remember being confused at first, but I was enjoying it because I knew that he knew what he was doing. I remember hearing his music so differently after that. I was able to see the logical progression of the harmonic structures he was working in, each harmony getting plugged into different rhythmic formulas, right and left hand patterns working in tangent and things like that.
"I left early the next year to go to study Iraqi music and I came back in June to play a weekend with him and other professional musicians instead of students this time. I played with the Sound Vision Orchestra with musicians like Taylor Ho Bynum. It was an ecstatic gig; I always felt like my mind was exploding every time I played with him. I kept coming back to the states to play with him over the years. That was a place I found that you could have structure and complete freedom at the same time."
Before the conscious decision was made to study Iraqi music, ElSaffar had inkling early on that he would try his hand with it eventually. His sister, Dena ElSaffar involved herself with playing Arabic music about 10 years before he did. He had assumed that Arabic music was unavailable to him on his Western instrument, but ironically enough, it would be the discovery of another trumpet player that would draw ElSaffar into the world of maqam.