The Kennedy Center

Amir El Saffar


Iraqi-American trumpeter Amir El Saffar put his New York career on hold in 2002 to immerse himself in the music of his ancestry, the Iraqi maqam. Already an accomplished jazz and classical trumpeter, having performed with esteemed artists such as Cecil Taylor, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Vijay Iyer, and Daniel Barenboim, and having won the Carmine Caruso International Jazz Trumpet competition, El Saffar traveled to Iraq, throughout the Middle East and to Europe, where he pursued masters who could impart to him the centuries-old tradition. He quickly became versed in maqam and found ways to adapt the microtones and ornaments to his trumpet playing. He went on to learn to play the santoor (Iraqi hammered dulcimer) and to sing, and he now leads the only ensemble in the US performing Iraqi maqam, Safaafir. 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 the maqam tradition.
In 2006, upon receiving a commission from the Painted Bride Arts Center in Philadelphia, El Saffar composed "Two Rivers," a groundbreaking and emotionally charged suite that invokes Iraqi musical traditions and frames them in a modern jazz setting. The recording, recently released on Pi Recordings, was described by JazzTimes as "fresh, deep, intensely performed organic amalgam," and by All About Jazz as "a stirring example of the creative possibilities of international jazz in the 21st century," while the Philadelphia Inquirer characterized it as "hypnotic and arresting." In addition, "Two Rivers" appeared on the Boston Globe's Top 10 list of 2007, Philadelphia City Paper's Top Jazz Releases of 2007, and was selected by the Village Voice critic's poll as the runner-up Debut Jazz Release of 2007.
"El Saffar combines his dual heritage into a vigorous hybrid… [and] weaves mesmerizing new tunes out of traditional Iraqi maqam."   ~ Shaun Brady, Philadelphia City Paper-Top 10 Jazz CDs of 2007
Amir El Saffar