Alchemy (2013)

Amir El Saffar Alchemy cover

  1. Ishtarum
  2. Nid Qabiltum
  3. Embubum – Ishtarum – Pitum
  4. 12 Cycles
  5. Quartal
  6. Balad
  7. Five Phases
  8. Athar Kurd
  9. Miniature #1
  10. Ending Piece


Alchemy is the latest chapter in trumpeter Amir ElSaffar’s continuing investigation into the tonal systems of Middle Eastern cultures within a jazz context. A recent recipient of the prestigious Doris Duke Performing Artist Award, ElSaffar has been residing mostly in Egypt for the last year, further absorbing the musical language of that region. However, unlike his three prior releases on Pi Recordings – Two Rivers (2007) and Inana (2011), which relied heavily on the Iraqi maqam for their structural form and instrumentation; and Radif Suite (2009) with saxophonist Hafez Modirzadeh, which utilized a musical system devised specifically for that group – 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.

The first three tracks of the album, which are based on Sumerian/ Babylonian modes, comprise the Ishtarum Suite. These modes were originally found on a tablet dating to 1750 B.C. on which is a seven-pointed star that describes the tuning of a seven-string lyre. From this tablet, one can extrapolate the system of seven modes (later to become the Greek modes) through 12 keys, forming the basis of the Western tonal system. ElSaffar utilizes the theory behind these millennia-old modal systems as inspiration for new melodic, harmonic, and contrapuntal material. The next four tracks are selections from a larger work, the Alchemy Suite, which employs ElSaffar’s own tuning system, giving quarter tones a value within jazz harmonic systems. The tracks “Quartal” and “12 Cycles” are perhaps the first examples of jazz works that use microtonal “chord changes.” Unlike the work of Hafez Modirzadeh, on whose Post-Chromodal Out! (Pi 2012) ElSaffar also performs, the piano has not been tuned away from equal temperament. However, when surrounded by other instruments playing in microtones, the “normal” pitches of the piano start to sound like they have been retuned, which creates an otherworldly effect not wholly of any musical language or culture.

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.



Amir ElSaffar, trumpet; Dan Weiss, drums; John Escreet, piano; Francois Moutin, bass; Ole Mathisen, tenor saxophone.