Firehouse 12 • 45 Crown Street • New Haven, CT 06510 • 203.785.0468

Amir ElSaffar


Performer's Website

Iraqi-American trumpeter, santour player, vocalist, and composer Amir ElSaffar is on the forefront of a wave of musicians who are incorporating the traditional musical styles of their cultural backgrounds with modern sensibilities, blurring the lines and conventions that differentiate styles, toward a music that resonates human. Whether playing trumpet in a jazz context, or singing and playing santour in an Iraqi setting, ElSaffar brings a depth of emotion and authenticity to his music that has spoken to musicians and audiences globally.
Growing up in River Forest, IL, a suburb west of Chicago, ElSaffar was first exposed to by his father to the recordings of Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, and to music from the Blues Brothers Soundtrack. He received his first musical training singing in the Church Choir at the Lutheran school he attended, and his mother taught him to sing and play American folk songs on ukulele and guitar when he was nine. He eventually found his calling with the trumpet. While pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in trumpet from DePaul University, ElSaffar was performing throughout the Chicago area with jazz, blues, rhythm and blues, and salsa groups, in addition to being a member of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago for two years, wherein he worked with conductors such as Pierre Boulez, Daniel Barenboim, and Mstislav Rostropovich.

ElSaffar moved to New York in 2000, where he was exposed to and eventually began working with musicians such as Rudresh Mahanthappa and Vijay Iyer, who incorporated the music of their cultural backgrounds into a jazz context. He also received several opportunities to work in the large ensembles of Cecil Taylor, an experience that would be seminal to his life as a musician.

In 2002, shortly after winning the Carmine Caruso International Jazz Trumpet Competition, ElSaffar used the funds to make a trip and immerse himself in the music of his father's ancestral past, the Iraqi maqam. He went on a tremendous quest, traveling to Iraq, throughout the Middle East and to Europe pursuing masters who could impart to him this centuries-old oral tradition. His primary teachers were Hamid Al-Saadi, Farida, Mohammed Gomar, Baher Al-Rajab, Wisam Ayyoub, and Hussain Al-Adhemy. He quickly became versed in maqam, and learned to play the santour (Iraqi hammered dulcimer) and to sing, and now leads Safaafir, the only ensemble in the US performing Iraqi Maqam in its traditional format. He has also created new techniques for the trumpet that enable microtones and ornaments that are characteristic to Arabic music but are not typically heard on a trumpet.

In 2006, upon receiving commissions from the Painted Bride Arts Center in Philadelphia and from the Festival of New Trumpet Music (FONT), ElSaffar composed Two Rivers, a suite that invokes Iraqi musical traditions and frames them in a modern Jazz setting. His 2007 Pi Recordings release, Two Rivers, was described by All About Jazz as "a stirring example of the creative possibilities of international jazz in the 21st century," and by the Philadelphia Inquirer as "hypnotic and arresting." It appeared on the Boston Globe's Top 10, Philadelphia City Paper's top Jazz releases, and was selected by the Village Voice critic's poll as the runner-up Debut jazz release of 2007.

In 2008, Amir received a commission from the Made in Chicago Festival to assemble a 17-piece ensemble and write for it arrangements of the Two Rivers Suite. This ensemble performed at Millennium Park in Chicago, drawing an audience of over 5000 people, and again the following year at Lincoln Center’s Out of Doors Festival. Included in this ensemble were piano, guitar and vibraphone, all re-tuned to accommodate the microtones found in Arabic music.

ElSaffar now leads a collaborative quartet with tenor saxophonist Hafez Modirzadeh. Joining them are Mark Dresser on bass and Alex Cline on drums. This project moves beyond the realm of cross-cultural fusions into a musical language that encompasses cultures across geography and time into microtonal and non-metric realms. Their March, 2010 release, Radif Suite (Pi Recordings), has already received considerable acclaim, appearing on the New York Times Critc’s Playlist, and receiving a prestigious CHOC from Jazzman magazine in France (see “Press” page for more).

This year, Amir received two commissions, one from the Jazz Gallery and Jerome Foundation, for the creation of a new work, called Within Between, which premiered in February. The second commission, from Chamber Music America, is for a new work for Two Rivers that will premiere in the fall. The Jerome foundation also funded Amir’s recent three-month trip to Azerbaijan, where he studied the mugham tradition with various singers, including Alim Qasimov.

ElSaffar has also composed for theater projects, including the Wilma Theater's productions of Heather Raffo's Nine Parts of Desire and Wajdi Mouawad's Scorched. He performed with Raffo, singer Gaida Hinnawi, and others at the Kennedy Center as part of the Arabesque Festival in March, 2009. He has composed, improvised, and performed on several film soundtracks, and appeared in Jonathan Demme's Oscar-nominated film, Rachel Getting Married.

Firehouse 12 Performances

Amir ElSaffar's Two Rivers Friday, September 25, 2015, 10:00p
The Jamie Baum Septet Friday, November 15, 2013, 10:00p
Amir ElSaffar Quintet Friday, October 18, 2013, 10:00p
Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Friday, April 29, 2011, 10:00p
Amir ElSaffar - Two Rivers Friday, May 30, 2008, 10:00p

Return to Performer List
45 Crown Street / New Haven, CT 06510 / 203-785-0468 © Copyright 2017 Firehouse12. All rights reserved