Trumpeter, santur player, vocalist and composer Amir ElSaffar has made more than one mark on contemporary jazz. Borrowing from his background and studies of Arabic music (his father is originally from Iraq), ElSaffar has developed his own techniques for playing quarter tones on the trumpet. Extending that cross-pollination, he has released a series of beautiful and evocative records combining Arabic and Western approaches and instrumentation. I spoke with him as he was concluding a composer residency in France and gearing up to present his large ensemble Rivers of Sound at the Newport Jazz Festival.
Kurt Gottschalk: First off, tell us what you’re doing in France.
Amir ElSaffar: I’m composing for an ensemble called Ictus, a contemporary music ensemble based in Brussels. They’re really fantastic, renowned in Europe in contemporary music circles. I’m writing a piece using the maqam [Iraqi devotional song] language and some of the microtonal stuff I’ve been discovering. We have a retuned piano, a retuned vibraphone, but it’s further out, it’s not like the usual maqam tuning. We’ve gone several steps beyond. There’s four string players and two woodwinds, it’s an octet plus me. We just had a week of rehearsals and it was pretty intense, it was not easy, because I’m trying to give them stuff by ear and trying to work out ideas in the rehearsal process and they’re used to having complete scores. They’re excited by the idea but they’re also just a bit timid or something, so it was a challenge. I’m just realizing I have to score out a lot more than what I like to do and what I’m used to so I’m just going to be buried in this work for the next month.
KG: The new record is just beautiful, I love it, and the release concert that you did at the River to River festival was just great.
AE: Thank you, yeah, the music keeps getting better every time we play it.
KG: How many times have you played it?
AE: We premiered it April 15, I think eight total. Newport will be our ninth.
KG: It was hard at the release concert to ignore geographically where we were, right in the financial district and just a few blocks from Ground Zero. I don’t want to project meaning onto it but certainly sitting in the audience it felt very significant.
AE: Oh yeah? That’s interesting. I guess I’m used to it because Alwan [for the Arts, where ElSaffar is music curator] is down in that neighborhood so I’m in that neighborhood all the time and we have concerts there a few times a month. I didn’t think about it, actually. Although maybe being in this Chase Plaza and all that, it’s a very corporate part of town. I’m constantly aware of that contradiction, I guess, in working and presenting art and music in that neighborhood.
KG: Being outdoors made it a little more profound, seeing the buildings towering over us rather than being inside a theater.
AE: Right, sort of nestled in the midst of these large, glass structures that keep sprouting everywhere in the city.
KG: You used the word “contradiction,” you said you’re aware of the contradiction. I wonder if I could ask you, in your view, what is the contradiction there?
AE: There’s not an art scene, there aren’t art galleries or performance spaces so much in that neighborhood. It’s mostly the banking world and Wall Street, so presenting music and presenting something that’s bringing a very different imagery, that’s the contradiction.
KG: Have you ever felt a response of political tension to the work you’re doing, combining these two musical traditions?
AE: Perhaps it’s there but to me, I’m at a point where I don’t see them as being separate. For me it’s about the conversation between sounds and between personalities and individuals and having this idea of how we can create something beautiful. I don’t see eastern and western or U.S. and Arab and Islamic culture, those at this point are so far from the way I’m seeing and hearing the music. It’s really a question of how can we make these frequencies work together, teaching people who have never played E-half-flat and then when they do play it, and when they really feel it, then they connect to something deep and it’s not just external but it’s something that resonates very deeply within the individual. And similarly when we get into a rhythmic pattern or the energy of collective group improvisation or something that’s more akin to what’s found in jazz of the last 50 or 60 years, that also somehow there’s an energy, the oud players will get excited and get engaged. I’m really thinking more about these energies and the interaction of vibration, whether it’s sonic or rhythmic, or personalities, and that conversation’s being had. So if anything it’s being able to present that in the midst of where people are in this very heightened state of anxiety. I think that music and art have a very particular place right now to somehow, not really wash over, interpenetrate and allow things to release a little bit. It’s almost like being able to encompass all of what’s going on, the ups and the downs and the extremes and the highs and the lows, it’s almost like a compassionate embrace that I think sound can create physically. With this project in particular, when we play, I feel like that’s what we’re creating. That afternoon at River to River, I felt this special moment that we shared, where people were really in that space. It’s not to deny or to pretend that problems don’t exist but it’s actually to be resilient and to persist regardless of what’s happening in other aspects of our lives.
KG: The new record is on New Amsterdam, a new label for you. Do you see that helping you reach a new audience?
AE: Yeah. New Amsterdam is really well known in contemporary classical music circles and I think jazz is an important element, but the ideal venues are concert halls. When we play at the Kimmel Center or Kreeger Museum of Art or the Walker, those type of venues seem to really hold this music well. The Newport Jazz Festival will be our first jazz festival gig and I’m curious to see how the music fits in that space. The responses I’m getting are already starting to indicate a shift toward that demographic.
KG: How did you end up connected with New Amsterdam?
AS: It was actually through Darcy James Argue, who’s a friend I’ve worked with several times and we’ve hung out over the years. He made the connection and knowing the fresh attitude and approach they have toward music and the wide genre-defying artists that they have, I felt that that was kind of an ideal fit for what I’m doing right now.
KG: It’s a big group. How did you decide on the instrumentation for the ensemble?
AE: The Two Rivers Ensemble, which is the sextet that’s been active since 2006, combines jazz instrumentation with Eastern instrumentation. So the idea of Rivers of Sound was to expand that to a wider canvas. I chose instruments that resonate in certain ways with each other, picking out possible sonorities that can complement each other, for instance vibraphone, santur and the cymbals of the drum, they all have this metallic tingy sound and they resonate with each other in a very particular way even though they’re coming from different traditions. There’s a sort of shared history and the sounds are sympathetic to one another. But a major part of the choice of instrumentation was actually the individuals. I chose people who I believe can really listen to one another. Each person has a very particular, unique sound that I resonated with and their personalities I gel with and they’re people that I consider to be friends. They’re all musicians I’ve worked with, some for more than 20 years in different contexts. Everybody that I wanted in this band was available. They were all my first pick, which is kind of amazing. And each person in the group represents a different era or a different ensemble or a different place in my life. Like Jason Adasiewicz and I played together in high school and college. JD Parran and I played together in Cecil Taylor’s large ensembles. Mohammed Saleh, the oboe and English horn player, and I were working with Daniel Barenboim in his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in 1999. And then of course my sister, who kind of introduced me to Arabic music more than 20 years ago. So with each person, there’s a resonance there.
KG: It’s great it worked out the way it did. You can really feel the connection between the players.
AE: Yeah, friendships formed within the ensemble as well. People became very tight quickly. Maybe it was the intensity of our first week together where we had very long rehearsals and an all day soundcheck and gig at Lincoln Center and then a 14-hour recording session. That kind of experience can fuse people together. There’s this really nice sense of cameraderie throughout the group. It feels like everyone cares about the rest of the ensemble. It’s a really nice vibe.
KG: It seems silly to ask after your last response but I wanted to ask you if you see this as an ongoing project.
AE: Absolutely. I actually am now finding a way to compose a new piece for the group. The first goal was imagining and in the process of rehearsal trying things and finding out how this instrumentation could work together. Now that the sound has become clear, there’s all kinds of new ideas and I think there’s a lot more potential for this group. Wheels are turning. And regardless the group is going to continue to tour. We have dates through 2018.
KG: What do you hope that Alwan brings to the cultural life in New York?
AS When Alwan started it was really Arabs and Iranians and people from Turkey, people from South Asia. There were artists from all disciplines coming together as well as university students and professors, so it was creating this environment for conversations among artists and intellectuals, primarily from this region or connected to the region in one way or another. Now it’s much more open to the larger cultural scene in New York. Our audiences are now 50% people from the Arab world and 50% from anywhere else. So somehow we are representing this part of the world and not only representing traditions but actually showing innovations and how societies that are generally thought of as being ancient or connected to some longstanding tradition, that there’s actually innovation and there is a contemporary art scene and contemporary culture and things happening right now that are breaking now.
KG: Last question: Define the word river.
AE: The idea of two rivers was of course a reference to the Tigris and Euphrates in Iraq, but it was also about joining the streams of jazz and Iraqi music when I first started this project in 2006. But I started to think about it as bloodlines and my own blood and being part Iraqi and part American. There was this idea of currents and traditions in the beginning, this continuity that a river could represent. Now it’s gone beyond that. The idea of rivers of sound was really about, I keep coming back to it, but resonance, and each river almost being frequency or being a sonority or being a timbre or being a particular vibration and then how these rivers, how these sounds, coalesce and how they influence each other when joined. I started to pay a lot of attention to different bodies of water, but in particular rivers, because of the way that the currents run. I used to live right on the Hudson River and I’d watch all the different layers of currents, one on the top going very quickly in one direction and then ripples going in the opposite direction just below and then another layer below that that was maybe going at a 30 degree angle and another speed and then watching how the light reflects off the surface of the water. This kind of visual cue became part of my composition, too. So with Rivers of Sound I was really trying to create the sense of multiple currents and multiple streams happening in layers above one other. So in pieces like “Jourjina Over 3” and “Hijaz 21/8,” there’s three or four different pulses happening simultaneously that create a sense of moving in opposing directions. That was an image inspired by rivers. Rivers of Sound I also think of as rivers of light and this idea of the overtones of a sound eventually reaching light. I don’t know if it’s physically possible but it’s an ideal that I’m constantly striving for in the music.