— At the Festival

Published on July 12 2019

FROM NEW YORK JAZZ TO BAGDAD MAQAM

AN INTERVIEW WITH AMIR ELSAFFAR

— Could you please tell us about your musical training and background, which are completely atypical?

I was born in Chicago, Illinois. I started out by learning the guitar, playing rock and roll, and eventually the blues. That all led me to jazz. When I was 14, I started began the trumpet, and got interested in playing classical music. I trained with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which is known for its incredible brass tradition. But at the same time, I continued playing jazz, rhythm and blues, and salsa and merengue. During those years, I was leading a sort of double life: during the day, I was a trumpet player in the training orchestra of the Chicago Symphony—being conducted by Pierre Boulez and Daniel Barenboim, among others—and at night, I played in big bands and blues bands. After my conservatory training, I moved to New York to focus on jazz and improvisation. And then I discovered Arabic music. In 2001, I won a major trumpet competition in the United States, which paid for my plane ticket to Iraq, where I started studying Iraqi maqam very seriously. During that time, I completely moved away from jazz, except for when I was playing with Cecil Taylor’s big band. He is one of the founders of free jazz, who unfortunately died last year. All of those experiences helped me to find my own voice and develop my own style.

— And with the beginning of the war in Iraq, you were forced to continue your studies in Europe.

After leaving Bagdad, I was fortunate enough to find a teacher in London, Hamid Al-Saadi. He is the only living performer who knows the entire Iraqi maqam tradition. He guided me tremendously. And now I still work with him: I brought him to New York last year, and we’re touring around the United States together.

— Can you explain to us what these famous maqams are?

Maqam and Western music share a common root in the Greek modes. These modes are seven-note scales from which you can make an infinite number of melodies. Whereas Western music went in the direction of a “functional” harmony with major and minor chords, Middle Eastern music went in the direction of microtones. The maqam system uses shades of pitches, slight gradations of pitch, that are slightly higher, slightly lower. They don’t use the equal-tempered system of the West; but the melodies are still very complex, very intricate, and full of nuance. Maqam is generally taught orally; it’s memorized. It is not improvised, but each person is supposed to create their own version. So it is very open and flexible.

— And some maqam have a symbolic or spiritual side.

All of the maqam are, in their essence, spiritual. In Iraq, we don’t use the word “melody,” but instead use a word that literally means “a spiritual essence.” When you perform a particular maqam, you’re not just rendering a melody: you’re entering into a spiritual realm.

— Could you tell a little about the musicians you’ve been playing with for over ten years in the Two Rivers Ensemble?

Our ensemble is made up of jazz musicians and musicians from the Middle Eastern tradition. Zafer Tawil plays the oud and percussion. He’s a very open-minded, versatile and adventurous musician, who’s always taking risks on stage. Tareq Abboushi plays the buzuq, a long-necked lute. He’s also a trained jazz pianist; and his instrument almost sounds like a rhythm guitar, in the way that he plays it and with the chords he uses. Ole Mathisen, a Norwegian tenor saxophonist, is an extraordinary technician, and a master of microtonal playing. Nasheet Waits is, to me, one of most authentic jazz drummers alive. He has a very powerful sound and a lot of spirit. Carlo DeRosa is a living legend on the bass. For us, he is the rock that keeps all the music anchored and maintains the core of the center, because sometimes we can go very far in collective exploration and improvisation.

— And what is your artistic approach with this band?

In 2006, when I came back from my journey in the Middle East, I was so deep into maqam and so enamored by the purity and the logic of it, I didn’t want to dilute it or ruin its perfect balance by artificially introducing it to jazz. However, I eventually discovered that there were a lot of commonalities and shared vocabulary between jazz and maqam. Oftentimes in what is called “world fusion,” you step back and look very generally at the two traditions and you find the simplest points of connection. But my approach was to go very deep and to find the essence of the music, to find the basic musical grammar, and then to build from there. And that was the beginning of a process that I’ve been developing and refining for the last twelve years with our band.

— Breaking codes, using improvisation and incorporating musical elements from different cultures is, in a way, the essence of jazz music.

Absolutely. From the very beginning, New Orleans jazz integrated elements of French, Creole and African culture, which combined to form a new kind of music. When it moved to New York, it took on other elements, connecting it to classical Western music. There was a certain fascination in jazz with the Middle East and the Far East. I’m thinking especially of “Caravan,” by Duke Ellington in the 1950s, but also Dave Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo à la Turk” and “Take Five,” which were influenced by his various trips. John Coltrane went deep into Indian music, and into different types of Middle Eastern and North African music. There has always been this undercurrent of connection with the music of the Middle East, ever since jazz’s beginning. I’ve been trying to find ways to highlight that connection and build off of it.

— The last album you recorded with your ensemble is called Crisis (2015). Your music sometimes seems to be based on your reactions and thoughts to sweeping events throughout the world.

I began writing Crisis just after the Arab Spring, after living in Egypt, and then Lebanon, and then working with musicians from Syria. These events are very complex and difficult to understand, and I had the feeling that there was no political or philosophical direction that really made sense. The entire world also seems to have trouble reconciling with where we are at this moment in history. I wanted to create music that reflects this turmoil and responds to it emotionally, in hopes of maybe having some resonance with the way other people are processing it.

Interview by Louis Geisler

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