Jazz Trumpeter Brings Traditional Arabic Music to Disc

Jazz Trumpeter Brings Traditional Arabic Music to Disc

by Joseph Dalton

Growing up in Chicago, Amir ElSaffar’s most vivid contact with Iraqi culture came through food. Though his mother’s ancestors settled in America during the 1600s, she had learned to prepare the traditional fare of her husband’s homeland. ElSaffar’s father was a first-generation immigrant from Iraq who arrived during the 1960s.

When recordings or radio were played in the ElSaffar home, it was usually jazz or classical. As a trumpeter and composer, Amir became fluent in both those genres before finally, during his 20s, taking a deep dive into the traditional Arabic music known as maqam. Today he is one of its greatest exponents, weaving the characteristically long and flowing melodies into his wide-ranging original works.

ElSaffar also performs maqam in its pure form and that’s what he’ll be doing when he leads a quintet that features the renowned vocalist Hamid al-Saadi, who was a mentor to ElSaffar. The pre-recorded online event is presented by Clarion Concerts at 5 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 5, and will be available on the organization’s website indefinitely ( The suggested ticket donation is $20.

“This music became my way of getting close to the culture. It was a gateway to poetry and community,” says ElSaffar. “As a 3,000 year-old tradition in Iraq, it rooted me in something ancient.”

During an extended visit to Iraq in 2002, the year before the American invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, ElSaffar made new and deeper connections with relatives and also sought a thorough training in maqam from its living masters. 

A principal aspect of the music is that it’s microtonal, which means that the intervals between notes are smaller than in standard Western tuning. The trumpet isn’t made for that, so ElSaffar obtained various supplemental valves and slides that were created to allow for the alternative tunings used in certain strains of contemporary classical.

Singing wasn’t a completely alien practice since he’d been in various choirs and also a rock band, but a new focus and refinement was required. For an instrument he chose the santur, a hammered string instrument akin to the dulcimer.

“It resonated in my bones and performing maqam become much more intimate than just with trumpet,” says ElSaffar. For the upcoming program, he’ll perform on santur and be joined by other musicians playing traditional instruments including the joza (a bowed string instrument) and the oud, which resembles a lute.

The concert will draw from the two sides of maqam -- sacred and secular. The musical forms are based in modal harmonies with a mix of structure and improvisation. “There’s a strict, set manner for the melodies and how things start and how they end in a particular place. But you have to find ways to get there,” explains ElSaffar. He makes a comparison to the interpretive range found among jazz singers, pointing out how “Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald can sing the same song but in entirely different ways.”

interpretive range found among jazz singers, pointing out how “Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald can sing the same song but in entirely different ways.”

ElSaffar recalls that during his intensive study of the traditional Arabic music, he had a gig playing trumpet in a 14-piece big band led by the composer and pianist Cecil Taylor. “Wildly expressive,” is how ElSaffar recalls the avant-garde music. During a break in rehearsals, ElSaffar was asked by another player about what aspect of music he was so intensely researching. “I told him about maqam, how some sections were rhythmically free, how there are melodies you had to play a certain way but with freedom. And he said, 'Yeah, that’s what we do.'”

Though ElSaffar had to put aside his trumpet to learn maqam, that was only temporarily. Since then he’s become known for bringing the distinct strains of Arabic music into the jazz realm.

“Most jazz I’m involved in right now includes elements of maqam. And when people call me as a trumpeter or band leader, it’s with an expectation that it’s in there,” he says. “Maqam creeps into my jazz playing, but not the other way around.”

One of ElSaffar’s first pieces to blend jazz with maqam was a suite titled “Two Rivers.” Since then, he named one of his own groups Two Rivers Ensemble and they’ve released a stream of recordings over the last 10 years. But the first entry on ElSaffar’s discography is a two-CD set, “Maqams of Baghdad” (2005), devoted to traditional maqam.

“It’s nourishing on a deep level and there’s no substitute for that,” says ElSaffar. “If I were only doing maqam or only doing jazz, I wouldn’t feel complete. To switch modalities represents how I grew up between cultures. I’ll probably be straddling these different traditions for the rest of my life.”

Joseph Dalton is a freelance writer based in Troy.


Joseph Dalton, The Times Union
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