“I feel as though there’s almost two streams going through my veins, two bloodstreams,” says trumpeter and composer Amir ElSaffar, leader of Two Rivers. “A lot of my life has been about reconciling the two.”
Born in 1977 to an Iraqi father and an American mother, ElSaffar was an eighth-grader at a Lutheran school outside Chicago when the Gulf War broke out in 1990. Soon after, his family visited his father’s relatives in Iraq for the first time. All Iraqis’ circumstances deteriorated through the 1990s, a decade during which young ElSaffar was mastering the trumpet.
On the night of Sept. 10, 2001, ElSaffar — now an award winner in classical and jazz competitions — performed with Arabic musicians for the first time, at a restaurant in New York.
“I had this elated feeling, because I had never performed this music before,” he tells JazzSet.
Almost overnight, determination replaced elation. ElSaffar felt a strong drive to visit his relatives before such a trip became impossible. He stayed almost a year in Iraq to study traditional music, including the maqam tradition (sometimes likened in form to the raga tradition in Indian music).
Since then, ElSaffar has made pilgrimages to Egypt and Lebanon, and has played with Syrians who drove for hours to cross the border and play music with him. He composes with jazz and Arabic materials, mixes instruments from both sides of the world, and calls his ensemble Two Rivers in honor of the Tigris and Euphrates. It’s hard not to marvel at the musical flow that Two Rivers achieves, even in non-Western modes and odd, long meters at breakneck speeds. At that point, it’s time to stop counting along and join the flow.
That’s how the Newport Jazz Festival audience handles it. After only the first movement, they leap to a standing ovation and stay engaged through the entire journey.
- “The Great Dictator”
- “The Shaab (The People)”
- “Flyover Iraq”
- Amir ElSaffar, trumpet and santur
- Ole Mathisen, tenor sax
- Zafer Tawil, oud/violin/dumbek
- Tareq Abboushi, buzuq/percussion
- Carlo DeRosa, bass
- Nasheet Waits, drums
This work (not yet named) was commissioned by the 2013 Newport Jazz Festival with generous funding from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, which also funds JazzSet. Commissioning music is part of the mission of the Newport Festivals Foundation to expand the repertoire, and to grow and develop with the times.
Recording by David Tallacksen, WBGO. Surround Sound mix by Duke Markos. Thanks to the Newport Jazz Festival and NPR Music.