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Amir ElSaffar

Amir ElSaffar, trumpeter, composer, singer, and santoor player, is garnering an international reputation for his work, both in the traditional Iraqi Maqam and in jazz music.

Described as "one of the important carriers of the Iraqi Maqam tradition" by Maqam master, Hamid al-Saadi, Amir currently leads the only ensemble in the US performing Iraqi Maqam, Safaafir. Amir sings and plays santoor, and is accompanied by traditional instruments, such as the joze (spike fiddle) and tabla. This ensemble has researched ancient practices that have been lost in recent generations, and is now reviving these sounds, continuing the legacy of the great masters of this tradition. Safaafir has appeared throughout the US, performing both for Iraqis as well as general audiences. Safaafir recently released a CD, entitled "Maqams of Baghdad."

In addition to his work in the traditional realm, Amir also leads a Sextet of Jazz and Arabic musicians that performs his suite, entitled Two Rivers, which invokes elements of the Iraqi Maqam in a modern Jazz setting.

Being of mixed Iraqi and American heritage, and an expert in Iraqi Maqam and jazz, Amir has been able to organically join both musical styles in a way that preserves the characteristics of each without compromising either. As Dave Douglas said of a recent performance, “when [Amir] picked up the trumpet…he was playing in the quarter-tone scales of traditional maqam. But that seemed to be a small point—it wasn't for effect or show, it was simply that he'd adapted his instrument to the needs of the music.” Amir was described in All About Jazz as "a virtuoso on the horn, but also an imaginative bandleader, expanding the vocabulary of the trumpet and at the same time the modern jazz ensemble."

Amir's Story:

Born in 1977 near Chicago, Illinois to an Iraqi father and American mother, Amir was influenced at a young age by an array of musical styles, including Classical, Rock, Jazz and Chicago-style Blues. He attended DePaul University in Chicago, where he earned a Bachelor's degree in Classical Trumpet in 1999.

As a Classical trumpeter, Amir recorded with Daniel Barenboim and members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on the 1999 Teldec release, "Tribute to Ellington," and was a member of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago from 1997-1999, performing with such esteemed conductors as Pierre Boulez, Mstislav Rostropovich, and Maestro Barenboim.

As a Jazz trumpeter, Amir won two major competitions: the 2001 Carmine Caruso Jazz Trumpet Competition and the 2001 International Trumpet Guild Jazz Improvisation Competition, and has performed with esteemed artists such as Cecil Taylor, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Vijay Iyer, Randy Brecker, Miya Masaoka, and Samir Chatterjee, among others.

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"Amir ElSaffar, the Iraqi-American trumpeter...is a virtuoso on the horn, but also an imaginative bandleader, expanding the vocabulary of the trumpet and at the same time the modern jazz ensemble. Accomplished in the jazz and Western classical fields, ElSaffar has also immersed himself in the Iraqi maqam. Much as Vijay Iyer has done with Carnatic music, ElSaffar is bringing the maqam - the urban classical music of Iraq - into contact with jazz. At Makor (Oct. 5th), during the second month of FONT, ElSaffar played an extended work called "Two Rivers", signifying the Tigris and Euphrates but also the commingling of musical worlds. He began the set on santoor, a type of hammered dulcimer. For a time the group seemed physically split between East and West - with ElSaffar, violinist/oudist/percussionist Zaafer Tawil and buzuq player/pianist Tareq Abboushi on the left and altoist Rudresh Mahanthappa, bassist Carlo DeRosa and drummer Nasheet Waits on the right. Gradually the boundaries blurred; ElSaffar migrated to a standard trumpet and a cornet with a slide, to enable microtones. The music ranged from mournful rubato song to raging New York-style improvisation. Waits took to the mix of rhythms with relish and skill. When ElSaffar returned to santoor, he began to vocalize in authentic maqam style, to haunting effect."

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Concert Schedule

Nov 1 Tue

Album Discography

Recordings: As Leader | As Sideperson

The Other Shore

OutNote Records
2021

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Rivers of Sound: Not...

New Amsterdam Records
2017

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Crisis

Pi Recordings
2015

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Alchemy

Pi Recordings
2014

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Inana

Pi Recordings
2011

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Radif Suite

Pi Recordings
2010

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