Amir ElSaffar is a composer, trumpeter, santur player, and vocalist who specializes in fusing jazz and the music of the Middle East. ElSaffar leads the six piece Two Rivers ensemble, as well as the 17-piece Rivers of Sound orchestra, combining traditional Iraqi Maqam with contemporary jazz, and has worked in a variety of musical genres including contemporary classical, Carnatic (South Indian), Flamenco, and Gnawa, among others.
Here's our chat with Amir:
Can you pick out any favorites from your work that you're particularly proud of?
In terms of what's available online -
Rivers of Sound Orchestra - Jourjina Over Three, live at UMS
Two Rivers Ensemble - Live at Jazzahead, Bremen
Two Rivers - Love Poem, from the album, Crisis (2015)
Interstices - composed for Ictus, a contemporary music ensemble from Belgium
How would you define your main role on most of the projects you work on?
Composer, bandleader, and trumpeter.
How did you get started in music?
My interest in music began before I could talk, when I first heard the sound of Louis Armstrong's trumpet playing "Summertime," from the classic album Porgy and Bess with Ella Fitzgerald, as well as the soundtrack to The Blues Brothers. My father, who immigrated to the US from Iraq, was an avid jazz and blues fan, and my American mother was trained in classical music. Both styles of music were played in my house, but I first decided to play the ukulele, and then the guitar, after hearing the Beatles for the first time when I was nine years old. At the same age, I began taking trumpet lessons in my school's band program, but would not take interest in the instrument until several years later. I started my first band at age 11 with a bassist and drummer, playing mostly covers of Beatles (and their respective solo work), Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, and The Clash, and also my own original songs. Around the age of 13, I heard the Haydn Trumpet Concerto, and that was the first time I took interest in the trumpet. My trumpet teacher refused to teach it to me, saying that it was too far advanced for my skill level, so my mother took me to my sister's viola teacher, who had a knack for inspiring students and getting them to go beyond what they thought themselves capable of. I eventually learned the piece, and my trumpet teacher just about had a heart attack when he heard it, then began flaunting me as his star student. At 14 years old, I heard Kind of Blue, and at that moment my life was forever changed. My interest in the guitar waned and I dedicated myself to the trumpet, playing jazz and classical music throughout my high school and college years. In my early 20s, I took an interest in Arabic music, then traveled to Iraq to study the ancient Iraqi Maqam tradition. The US invasion of 2003 cut my trip short, but I continued traveling all over the Middle East and Europe for about five years, seeking out masters who could impart this tradition to me. At the age of 28, I composed my first work, Two Rivers, for a sextet that I had formed of jazz and Arabic musicians.
Can you briefly describe a moment of frustration from your past work, and what you may have done to overcome the obstacles? Would you approach it differently now?
I think my frustration came from believing in binaries. That I had to be either a jazz or classical trumpeter (at the time, Wynton Marsalis was the only successful example, and got a lot of flak for it from people on both sides), and later either an Iraqi Maqam musician or a jazz musician, a composer or an improviser, etc. I eventually learned that these are false dichotomies, and while it takes a lot of work to master multiple skill sets, it's not only possible, but mutually beneficial to both skills to have multiple perspectives.
Is there any gear you find yourself turning to most when working on a project? What are some of your favorite tools/instruments recently?
I've never been much of a gear person, as I've spent the past 25 years dealing almost exclusively with acoustic music. There are a few microphones that I really like, such as the Neumann U89 which works like a charm on the trumpet, and a pair of Telefunken M60 microphones for my santur that I recently acquired and really sound beautiful for the price. But recently, I've entered the world of synthesizers, and now am addicted to my Prophet REV2 keyboard, and am soon going to invest in a modular synthesizer. It's an exciting way to approach sound, and literally has no limitations (sonically, and in terms of how many modules are out there, and how much one can spend...)
Do you have any words of wisdom for people who might aspire to get where you are in their own careers?
As Mstislav Rostropovich told us members of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago in 1999 - there are two ways to approach music: the first is to play music for one's personal gain, which can lead to fame, money, and many other outward signs of success. And this is great for some people. The other way is to give yourself completely in service to the music, which is a more difficult path and does not necessarily guarantee worldly success, but the happiness and the joy... (at this point, Mr. Rostropovich gestured toward his heart and a smile stretched across his face that was big enough to fill all of Orchestra Hall).
How have your Audeze headphones affected your work?
The Audeze LCD-2 headphones have been a game-changer in terms of how I hear recorded sound. They deliver a clean, balanced, clear, and detailed sound in all registers without being sterile – the sound is warm, beautiful, full of life and color. When I’m on the go, I use the iSine10, which have very similar sonic properties, but in an earbud format. Whether using them as monitors for mixing and mastering my own music, or for listening to my favorite recordings, the LCD-2 and iSine10 headphones have been such a pleasure to work with, a real ear-opening experience. Thank you, Audeze!