Amir ElSaffar and the Crisis Suite at Maverick

Amir ElSaffar

Amir ElSaffar

Lovers of jazz are in for an excellent show this Saturday when Amir ElSaffar and the Two Rivers Ensemble make their Maverick debut in the Jazz at the Maverick series, the first of this summer’s “New Century, New Voices” concerts. Born outside of Chicago in 1977 to an Iraqi immigrant father and an American mother, the accomplished trumpeter, santur-player, vocalist and composer is recognized by the Chicago Tribune as one of the most promising figures in jazz today.

What exactly does that mean, to be “the most promising” artist of any genre? ElSaffar has already performed worldwide and recorded with his own groups, and has worked with many other well-known jazz musicians as well, including Cecil Taylor, Mark Dresser, Henry Grimes and Oliver Lake. He is the recipient of commissions from the Jazz Institute of Chicago, Chamber Music America and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among others. And he performs so continuously that he refers to New York City as “the place he pays rent.”

The promise seems to exist in the artist’s ability to translate impressions of contemporary life into work that evokes eternal ones. Having studied maqam in Baghdad and Europe, gaining firsthand exposure to the rich musical culture of his paternal ancestors, he presented Crisis Suite at the 2013 Newport Jazz Festival in an emotional premiere that inspired a standing ovation after just the first piece. ElSaffar composed the suite following a year spent living in Egypt, where he witnessed the Arab Spring protests, and in Lebanon, where he worked with Syrian musicians who were living through their country’s civil war.


He’s a composer who straddles two worlds of musical convention, embarking on a very unconventional path and joining them in a form that embraces innovation. “The music is certainly a commentary or reaction to the present and more distant past in Iraq and the Middle East, and the relationship between Western and Middle Eastern cultures. The music is an emotional and abstract reaction: a way through my own experience of what happened in Iraq and Syria and Egypt in recent years, as an Iraqi American living between the two cultures and existing in both, but not belonging entirely to either at the same time.”

I ask how his musical imagery is able to communicate such a concept, especially to Western sensibilities. And what sort of reactions does he get from people still very attached to their cultural roots?  “I haven’t actually performed in Iraq since 2002,” he says, “but there are a number of Iraqis who have written to me on Facebook, who have heard my music through the Internet, and it seems to resonate with them. My teacher, who is an Iraqi maqam specialist – rather a purist in his own way – loved the combination and the mix. I didn’t expect him to because he doesn’t like a lot of innovations within the tradition. He really enjoyed hearing the tradition that he knows so well filtered through a jazz context.”

Meanwhile, Iraqi communities in the US have embraced the music, ElSaffar says. “When we do traditional maqam that they know really well, it conjures memories from their childhood and the past, and a collective memory of Iraqi history of a place and time that no longer is. It’s a very intense emotional experience. When we do the new stuff, some people really take to it, especially younger people. It’s like they’re hearing their own tradition, but amplified. So it’s exciting, more dynamic, with lots more adventure in it than the old tradition. Oftentimes it’s a predominantly Iraqi audience, so we throw in one or two traditional songs.

“I’ve noticed people hear into it what they know. When we perform live, the Arabs in the audience seem to tune into one layer, which is an Arabic flavor, and the jazz listeners tune into the free jazz and adventurous elements. There’s a dichotomy within the music, and some people resonate with one, and the other is an added flavor.”

His next project, Rivers of Sound, involves an ensemble of 17 musicians. “In the expanded group, the maqam is strong, but there’s also a lot of orchestration that draws on my symphonic background; and of course there are jazz things happening, keeping the spirit of improvisation in a more complex, structural way. I hope to bring that group to Woodstock one day.”

Now known for integrating Middle Eastern tonalities and rhythms into contemporary contexts, ElSaffar brings in his critically acclaimed sextet, the Two Rivers Ensemble, to the Maverick to showcase the combined languages and instrumentation of a very traditional Arabic music system and contemporary jazz. The group members are Carlo DeRosa, Tareq Abboushi, Zafer Tawil, Ole Mathisen and Tomas Fujiwara. This is one of five performances in this summer’s Jazz at the Maverick series, which continues through August 13 with concerts by Vijay Iver, Fred Hersch and Jane Ira Bloom and Julian Lage with his trio.


Crisis Suite: Jazz at the Maverick with Amir ElSaffar & Two Rivers Ensemble, Saturday, July 16, 8 p.m., $25/$5, Maverick Concert Hall,120 Maverick Road, Woodstock; (800) 595-4849,

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