“ElSaffar frequently talks about makam’s specifics and the difficulties of bringing the two [jazz and makam] lineages together – a challenge that he’s accomplished with aplomb. But he knows that people who aren’t steeped in musical knowledge listen for something else… The Newport ovation validated ElSaffar’s blending of makam and jazz, his still-in-development alchemy.”
-Howard Mandel, Downbeat Magazine
ElSaffar’s newest ensemble, the Amir ElSaffar Quintet, has developed out of an ongoing project of standard jazz instrumentation for which he has composed since 2001. The quintet performs compositions that re-contextualize the non-tempered pitches found in the Iraqi Maqam to explore new and unique microtonal harmonies and chord progressions. Previously including re-tuned piano, the group currently features equal-tempered piano instead perceived as “de-tuned” by the microtonal context created by surrounding instruments. Other compositions are based on Mesopotamian modes, which form the basis of the tonal systems that have persisted from Ancient Greek to contemporary music theory. Looking back to the ancient and forward to innovative sonic possibilities, the Quintet chronologically frames the Iraqi Maqam tradition, re-examining its position in music history.
ElSaffar’s quintet is made up of some of the top improvising musicians in New York: John Escreet (piano) is an innovative and adventurous pianist with six albums under his own name; Francois Moutin (bass), who plays with unparalleled chops on his instrument, leads the Moutin Reunion Quartet; and Dan Weiss (drums), who in addition to leading his own trio, plays with Lee Konitz, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Miguel Zenon, Dave Binney and countless others. Tenor saxophonist Ole Mathisen – who is a master of microtonal playing – contributes beautifully controlled and technically dazzling playing, and serves as the perfect foil to ElSaffar on the front line. Together the band tackles this challenging music with creative aplomb.
“Here’s a fascinating thesis on the link between ancient music and modern music that you can actually enjoy with your ears instead of slogging through it with your eyes.”
-S. Victor Aaron, Something Else!
Alchemy (Pi Recordings, 2013) is the latest chapter in trumpeter Amir ElSaffar’s continuing investigation into the tonal systems of Middle Eastern cultures within a jazz context. Unlike his three prior records, Alchemy finds ElSaffar writing for a standard jazz quintet with a sound distilled through his highly personal harmonic vocabulary, one that draws on microtonality and the maqam.