All About Jazz

Home » Articles » Interviews

Dear All About Jazz Readers,

If you're familiar with All About Jazz, you know that we've dedicated over two decades to supporting jazz as an art form, and more importantly, the creative musicians who make it. Our enduring commitment has made All About Jazz one of the most culturally important websites of its kind in the world reaching hundreds of thousands of readers every month. However, to expand our offerings and develop new means to foster jazz discovery we need your help.

You can become a sustaining member for a modest $20 and in return, we'll immediately hide those pesky Google ads PLUS deliver exclusive content and provide access to future articles for a full year! This combination will not only improve your AAJ experience, it will allow us to continue to rigorously build on the great work we first started in 1995. Read on to view our project ideas...

124

Amir ElSaffar: At Two Rivers' Confluence

Daniel Lehner By

Sign in to view read count
Now jazz is not just an American art form. Eventually we're going to get to something more human. I want to emphasize what's unique to each culture but also what's similar. Jazz can act as a space for other cultures to exist in one space that makes sense.
There was a point during Amir ElSaffar's study of Arabic music where he almost didn't come back to jazz. He had gone to Iraq to study maqam, the system of melodic modes in traditional Arabic music, in order to bring some of the concepts into jazz. However, the experience proved to be a deepening one for ElSaffar.

"I was supposed to spend three weeks in Iraq, but once I had gotten a taste I realized that I wasn't really getting into the tradition at all. I knew some of the notes of the melody but not a lot of the nuances. So at a certain point, during that six-month time I dedicated myself to learning the music for its own sake. I had seen only a few people in Iraq that were really taking this music seriously. Very few Arabs even knew that there was an Iraqi version of the maqam and I wondered who was taking care of this music. Part of it was me wanting to be practitioner in my generation and part of it was just falling in love with the music and wanting to understand it more. At a certain point, I was really into the tradition almost to the point of not playing trumpet and maybe not wanting to play jazz anymore, but then I would get a call from somebody like Cecil Taylor who wants to do a week at the Iridium and, of course, I'm not going to say no."

Such is Amir ElSaffar's current presence in the music world. He has been splitting his time between the Arabic music and the jazz and improvised music, immersing himself in both fields for extended periods of time. In fact, the idea of being in two musical worlds has been codified into an ensemble named Two Rivers, who debuted their first recording on Pi in 2007. "I think it was when I got the commission to write the Two Rivers suite that sort of fished me out of just being into the maqam and gave me the chance to combine it with jazz. I was really resistant to it at first but then stuff started to fall into place."

In the States, ElSaffar has been keeping both busy and diverse. This winter, he's playing with flutist Jamie Baum's Septet and is involved with bassist Mark Dresser's Telematics project, using the internet and other high-speed connections to play with musicians in Abu Dhabi via NYU. He's involved with Danilo Pérez's "21st Century Dizzy" project along with other culturally-minded musicians like saxophonists David Sanchez and Rudresh Mahanthappa, percussionist Jamey Haddad, bassist Ben Street and drummer Adam Cruz. "It's sort of recreating Dizzy's approach to incorporating different cultural traditions in jazz, the way he did with Cuban music in the bebop era," said ElSaffar.

Inana (Pi, 2011) follows up on the ideas and aesthetics of the first Two Rivers records. Praised by critics as a personal and non-clichéd exhibition of jazz and Middle Eastern methodology, ElSaffar describes Inana as the next step in the musical exploration of the maqam in jazz, using new techniques in harmony and counterpoint that weren't on the first record. The line-up has changed very slightly since the self-titled release but for ElSaffar, the personnel of the band still act a cross-section of his interests as a musician.

"I knew immediately that I wanted Rudresh [Mahanthappa] involved; I had studied with him in Chicago. Nasheet Waits was somebody that I admired for the openness of his approach, the big sound that he has. Zaafir [Tawil] and Tareq [Abboushi] are both rooted in Arabic tradition but also very expansive in the kinds of music and instruments they play. Carlo [DeRosa] is one of the first musicians I met when I was in New York and he's just rock solid. When Rudresh told me that it was hard for him to rehearse because he was so busy, my fiancée recommended Ole Mathisen who was nailing it right off the bat. He's someone who's checked out Persian and Indian music, too. I'm always looking for people that are firmly rooted in jazz but have invested their energies into other music also."

Long before his foray into the traditional music of Iraq, ElSaffar's first musical interest was the quintessential American tradition: the blues. Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, ElSaffar's father helped expose him to the northern city's rich commonwealth of blues and jazz. Allegedly, ElSaffar earliest exposure to jazz came as a conscious decision by his father.

Tags

Related Video

comments powered by Disqus

CD/LP/Track Review
Interviews
Read more articles
Not Two

Not Two

New Amsterdam Records
2017

buy
Rivers of Sound

Rivers of Sound

Not Two Records
2017

buy
Crisis

Crisis

Pi Recordings
2015

buy
Alchemy

Alchemy

Pi Recordings
2014

buy
 

Inana

Pi Recordings
2012

buy
Inana

Inana

Pi Recordings
2011

buy

Related Articles

Read Linley Hamilton: Strings Attached Interviews
Linley Hamilton: Strings Attached
by Ian Patterson
Published: April 17, 2018
Read Camille Bertault: Unity in Diversity Interviews
Camille Bertault: Unity in Diversity
by Ludovico Granvassu
Published: April 10, 2018
Read Chad Taylor: Myths and Music Education Interviews
Chad Taylor: Myths and Music Education
by Jakob Baekgaard
Published: April 9, 2018
Read Fabian Almazan Interviews
Fabian Almazan
by Angelo Leonardi
Published: March 30, 2018
Read Ryuichi Sakamoto: Naturally Born to Seek Diversity Interviews
Ryuichi Sakamoto: Naturally Born to Seek Diversity
by Nenad Georgievski
Published: March 27, 2018
Read Leonardo Pavkovic: Nothing is Ordinary Interviews
Leonardo Pavkovic: Nothing is Ordinary
by Chris M. Slawecki
Published: March 16, 2018
Read "Yacine Boularès: Coltrane by way of Descartes" Interviews Yacine Boularès: Coltrane by way of Descartes
by Ludovico Granvassu
Published: January 26, 2018
Read "Andy Summers: Creating Light from Dark" Interviews Andy Summers: Creating Light from Dark
by Nenad Georgievski
Published: August 31, 2017
Read "Richie Cole: Blue Collar Bebopper" Interviews Richie Cole: Blue Collar Bebopper
by Rob Rosenblum
Published: August 1, 2017
Read "Arto Lindsay: Watch Out Madames!" Interviews Arto Lindsay: Watch Out Madames!
by Enrico Bettinello
Published: April 25, 2017