Amir ElSaffar, a Chicago-born jazz trumpeter and composer, incorporates Iraqi musical traditions in his 17-piece Rivers of Sound orchestra.
In this edition of The Checkout, we delve deep into the maqam, a system of melodic modes in Arabic music that produces exotic layers of sound and dense microtonal harmonies. ElSaffar combines these Iraqi traditions with his love of jazz in creating a stream of music that Western audiences aren’t accustomed to hearing. “Arabic music and jazz is not a very well explored territory,” he says. “There’s not a lot out there that’s holding up both ends of the conversation.”
In our conversation, ElSaffar made a point of connecting the maqam to one of his early trumpet influences, Miles Davis: “When I listen to ‘So What’ now, I hear it as a maqam, I don’t hear it as a mode. There’s one section of Not Two, the Rivers of Sound recording, that has the ‘So What’ modulation.”
Amir ElSaffar’s recording Not Two (New Amsterdam)CREDIT COURTESY OF ARTIST
ElSaffar works with musicians from East and West to achieve his unique compositional agenda. His Rivers of Sound ensemble features standard jazz instrumentation: saxophones, drums, bass and guitar. But it also highlights the sounds of oud, jowza, buzuq, mridangam — and santur, a Persian stringed hammered dulcimer, played by ElSaffar himself. He also employs western classical instruments such as violin, cello, oboe, and English horn to execute his wildly dynamic vision.
The result is an exhilarating wash of sound, layers upon layers, meant to induce a phenomena commonly known in maqam as tarab, a sense of having an out-of-body experience. “Maqam music itself is very embodied, in the microtones, in the modality, in the stability of the tonic,” says ElSaffar. “There is something as you listen longer and longer, and you get deeper into it. It’s something immersive.”