Amir ElSaffar: At Two Rivers' Confluence

Daniel Lehner By

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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.

"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.

"The process had started when my sister played me music by this percussionist named Hossam Ramzy. We were listening to it and at some point I had heard a sound I'd never heard before and I asked what the instrument was. I knew it was a wind instrument but it sounded very foreign to me. She told me it was a trumpet and I was just blown away. It was a trumpet player named Samy El-Bably, an Egyptian musician. I had a chance to meet him once at a workshop in Germany that had Arab musicians and Israeli musicians coming together to play in an orchestra. I got a chance to see him play and conduct the musicians. I wanted to be able to study with him but, unfortunately, he died just a few months later. That was really where it started because the reason I thought I couldn't play Arab music was because I thought you couldn't play quartertones on trumpet. But listening to him, he was playing all of them completely naturally. I realized he was using a combination of slides and alternate fingerings."

After attending Simon Shaheen's Arabic music workshop at mount Holyoke, ElSaffar had promised himself that if he won the Carmine Caruso trumpet competition he would use the prize money to go to the Middle East. However, in the early 2000s, when the War on Terror was at its outset, money was not nearly the only obstacle in traveling to the Middle East.
About Amir ElSaffar
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