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Amir ElSaffar: At Two Rivers' Confluence

By Published: February 21, 2012
However, ElSaffar noticed an inherent subversion of Western harmony in the context of African-American music. "Blues is interesting because even the idea of having a blues scale work over Western harmony is a weird phenomenon. The anomaly of the blues is the chords because the origin of the singing is not based on any equal tempered idea. It was influenced by the modes that were based in African spiritual singing. About 30 percent of the slaves were Muslim and their call to prayer was based on maqam and there are blue notes within those maqams, like the third and the seventh. Jazz is at a place where we're ready for alternate tuning systems and tuning instruments to the way they hear them. The bebop harmony was a way of abstracting pitch; even the #9 chord is a way of abstracting the major third and the minor third, playing them both at the same time. But even with that, it's still using the Western temperament, treating notes as extensions."

ElSaffar also recalls, "Even when I was young, long before I started researching this kind of music, I remember sitting at the piano and wanting to hear notes that weren't on the piano. I don't think that's unique either; I think we all hear things differently."

As the world of jazz and improvised music grows wider, more and more of the modern jazz community has accepted culturally complex musicians with open arms and attentive ears. Festivals like Winter Jazzfest and Undead Jazz Festival have featured musicians showcasing their integration of cultural traditions in spades, such as Jen Shyu
Jen Shyu
Jen Shyu
(Taiwan, Indonesia, etc.), Min Xiao-Fen (China) and Dean Bowman (traditional American gospel). Amir ElSaffar is happy to be part of this space as a performer and caretaker of Arabic music in the context of modern jazz.

"That's one thing I really love about jazz: that it was a reflection of what was going on, socially, economically, etc. And now you have all these Diasporas in America and it's not just an American art form. You don't just have first or second generation but also third and fourth from these different places. And there might be people who grew up with a different skin color who didn't grow up speaking the language but still had something inside of them that belongs to a culture. Eventually—and I don't know how long it's going to take—but we're going to get to something more human. You wouldn't intuitively think of a Japanese person singing the blues, but even that's been going on for a while now. In Chicago, there was a very petite Japanese woman who spoke with a very thick accent but when she sang it sounded like Bessie Smith. You just think, 'Where is that coming from?' There's something that's a shared common human experience with the blues. I want to be able to emphasize what's unique to each culture, but also what's similar. There's this blues 'thing' about a lot of different music. And maybe somebody could tap into the rhythmic parts of these kinds of music too. Because it's improvised and composed and it's creative, jazz can act as this space for other cultures to exist in one space that makes sense."

Selected Discography

Amir ElSaffar, Inana (Pi Recordings, 2011)
Amir ElSaffar/Hafez Modirzadeh, Radif Suite (Pi Recordings, 2010)
Amir ElSaffar, Two Rivers (Pi Recordings, 2007)

Photo Credits

Pages 1, 4: Courtesy of Amir ElSaffar
Amir ElSaffar
Amir ElSaffar


Page 2, 3: Dave Kaufman

Page 6: Nicole LeCorgne

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