Amir ElSaffar: Alchemy
Jazz & BluesOriental
Ahmed El Dahan
Half Iraqi, half American, Amir ElSaffar spent his youth in Chicago, Illonois. Having picked up a trumpet at a young age, ElSaffar obtained a bachelor degree in classical music from DePaul University and plays fluently in jazz, classical and Middle Eastern idioms.
Shortly after his graduation, the young trumpeter travelled to Iraq where he studied a 400 year old Iraqi Maqam discipline which, although closely interlaced with Middle Eastern music, maintains a degree of variability that gives it a unique sound. During this time, ELSaffar applied the principles of microtonal playing to his trumpet; a feat rarely heard. Alongside this, the young musician picked up the Santur; a native Iraqi dulcimer – similar to a Qanun – although played with mallets as opposed to plectrums.
Now primarily based in New York, ELSaffar recently spent a year in Cairo, where he continued to learn more about Middle Eastern music and interact with Egyptian musicians.
His latest musical venture is the newly released, Alchemy; an album written for a jazz quintet consisting of a piano, double bass, drums, saxophone and trumpet. The music of Alchemy calls on the musicians to play in scales, lavished with microtones. This is a particularly tricky practice that requires the performers to sharpen their ears in order to execute the challenge with conviction.
Alchemy sees a union of some of the greatest musicians based in New York. On piano we hear the venturesome 29 year-old Brit, John Escreet, who is hailed as being one of the technically versed and creative pianists on the modern jazz scene. The rhythm section is comprised of double bassist, Francois Moutin, and drummer, Dan Weiss; both of whom have touched on world music whilst previously working with Indian saxophonist, Rudresh Mahanthappa. Lead sideman, meanwhile, is Norwegian born saxophonist, Ole Mathisen, who is highly proficient in microtonal playing and is a fine compliment to ElSaffars trumpet.
The first three tracks on Alchemy are collectively termed the ‘Ishtarum Suite’; named after an Ancient Mesopotamian tablet that utilised the proportions of a seven pointed star. This tablet was later used to create a tuning system that came to form the basis for Greek, modal tonality. The compositions are long and meandering. Upon listening to these opening tracks, ‘Ishtarum’, ‘Nid Qabiltum’ and ‘Embubum – Ishtarum – Pitum’, ones ears are exposed to a musical environment rarely – if ever – heard. The contrast can even be heard in comparison to the other tracks on the album.
The following four tracks are deemed the ‘Alchemy Suite’, and are composed in Amir ElSaffar’s personal microtonal harmony. ‘Balad’ – meaning country – is the slowest and most spacious track, evoking a sense of grandness and worth, even with the occasional dissonant notes. ‘Five Phases’ is an energetic, modal piece that highlights the horns as they harmoniously play traditional Middle Eastern melodies, on top of the rhythm sections’ energetic back drop. The quarter tones are flawlessly executed, and sound particularly sweet in contrast with Escreet’s dense improvisations that remain faithful to his Western influence. Culminating the fast paced track, Saffar leaves the listener with a touching, mellow, midrange trumpet solo.
Alchemy is a prime example of fine musicianship, coupled with a strong pioneering spirit; Amir ElSaffar has once again proved that his artistry is ever improving and is always capable bringing something fresh to the ear. Never cliché or pastiche, Alchemy is an album that will stay in our jazz playlists for years.