Iraqi-American trumpeter Amir ElSaffar put his New York jazz career on hold six years ago to immerse himself in the Iraqi maqam, the music of his ancestors. Already an accomplished jazz and classical trumpeter—having performed with Cecil Taylor, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Vijay Iyer, and Daniel Barenboim—ElSaffar pursued masters who could impart the centuries-old oral tradition. He quickly became versed in the art and leads Safaafir, the only ensemble in the US performing Iraqi maqam.
Now, ElSaffar has turned his attention back to jazz, approaching it with an Iraqi/Arabic bent. Two Rivers is an emotionally charged work that invokes ancient Iraqi musical traditions and frames them in a modern jazz setting. The compositions are based on Iraqi maqam melodies, each of which is believed to have a unique spiritual essence. These rich melodies are set to heavy grooves, free-jazz ensemble playing, and multi-layered sound textures. ElSaffar’s compositions are some of the first in jazz to make use of Arabic modality and its non-western tunings. To this end, both he and alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa have developed techniques for playing these pitches on the trumpet and saxophone, instruments that are typically only capable of playing Western tunings. The result is a cross-pollination of sound in which the languages of ancient and modern, East and West, blend together seamlessly.
Trumpeter Amir ElSaffar’s debut recording combines cutting-edge jazz with traditional Iraqi classical music. ElSaffar is one of the few contemporary artists carrying on the classical Iraqi maqam tradition. He is the leader of Safaafir, the only American group performing the maqam, and has been featured by BBC Radio, NPR’s Morning Edition, and the New York Times. Features fiery alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, recent recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and leader of two sessions for Pi Recordings.
“A virtuoso on the horn … expanding the vocabulary of the trumpet and the modern jazz ensemble.” — All About Jazz
“When he 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 … beautiful.” — Dave Douglas
“Harrowing to absorb, but full of as much beauty as pain.” — BBC World