Amir ElSaffar

Iraqi-American trumpeter, santur player, vocalist, and composer Amir ElSaffar has distinguished himself with a mastery of disparate musical styles and a singular approach to combining aspects of Middle Eastern music with American jazz, extending the boundaries of each tradition. A skilled jazz trumpeter with a classical background, ElSaffar has created new techniques to play microtones and ornaments that are idiomatic to Arabic music but are not typically heard on the trumpet. Additionally, he is an acknowledged performer of the classical Iraqi maqam tradition, and performs actively in the US, Europe and the Middle East as a vocalist and santur player. As a composer, ElSaffar has used the microtones found in maqam music to create a unique approach to harmony and melody, establishing himself as an important voice in an age of cross-cultural music making. ElSaffar has received grants to compose music from Chamber Music America, the Jazz Institute of Chicago, the Jerome Foundation, Festival of New Trumpet Music (FONT), and the Painted Bride Arts Center in Philadelphia.

Born near Chicago in 1977 to an Iraqi immigrant father and an American mother, ElSaffar heard recordings of Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and the Blues Brothers Soundtrack at a young age from his father’s record collection. He received his first musical training in the Lutheran Church Choir at the school he attended, and his mother taught him to sing and play American folk songs on ukulele and guitar when he was nine.

ElSaffar found his calling with the trumpet at the age of 10, and by his late teens began performing professionally throughout the Chicago area with blues, jazz, rock, and salsa bands, as well as with the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, where he worked with conductors such as Pierre Boulez, Mstislav Rostropovich, and Daniel Barenboim. In 1999, he performed on Barenboim’s Teldec release, “Tribute to Ellington,” with members of the Chicago Symphony.

In 2000, after completing a degree in classical trumpet from DePaul University, he moved to New York, where had opportunities to work with jazz legend Cecil Taylor, in addition to musicians of his generation such as Rudresh Mahanthappa and Vijay Iyer, who incorporated the music of their cultural backgrounds into a jazz context. In 2001, ElSaffar won the Carmine Caruso International Jazz Trumpet Competition, and the following year used the funds to begin an intensive study of the Iraqi Maqam, in addition to other forms of Arabic music. He went on a five-year journey, traveling to Iraq, throughout the Middle East, and to Europe, pursuing masters who could impart to him this centuries-old oral tradition. He soon became versed in maqam, learning to play the santur (Iraqi hammered dulcimer) and to sing, and in 2006 founded Safaafir, the only ensemble in the US performing Iraqi Maqam in its traditional format.

Later the same year, ElSaffar received commissions from the Painted Bride Arts Center in Philadelphia and from the Festival of New Trumpet Music (FONT), to compose Two Rivers, a suite that invokes Iraqi musical traditions and frames them in a modern Jazz setting. ElSaffar has since received commissions from the Jerome Foundation, the Jazz Institute of Chicago, and Chamber Music America and has continued developing a singular approach to integrating Middle Eastern tonalities and rhythms into an American jazz context, releasing three albums, Two Rivers (2006), Radif Suite (2010), and Inana (2011) to critical acclaim. He has also composed for theater projects and film soundtracks, and appeared in Jonathan Demme’s Oscar-nominated film, Rachel Getting Married. In addition to his busy performance schedule, ElSaffar curates a weekly concert series at Alwan for the Arts, New York’s premiere center for Middle Eastern arts and culture.

Related News

NPR Music’s Kevin Whitehead reviews Amir ElSaffar’s Alchemy for “Fresh Air”

“ElSaffar’s new album Alchemy is a step forward in defining and refining his concept.”

Listen to the full review HERE

3.5/4 Stars for Alchemy by Chris Barton LA Times


Matt Mitchell featured in Philadelphia’s “City Paper”

Shaun Brady showcases Matt and his latest release “Fiction” Full story HERE

4 Star Review for Matt Mitchell’s Fiction by Shaun Brady, Downbeat


4 Star Hotbox Review for Vijay Iyer and Mike Ladd’s Holding it Down: The Veterans’ Dreams Project by John Corbett, DownBeat

Vijay Iyer interview for “The New Yorker” by Seth Colter Walls, read the full article HERE

posted on November 8, 2013 by Intern


As we approach the end of the year, we wanted to recognize some of the great press our newest releases have received:

Inana - Amir ElSaffar

“The music deftly combines jazz and Middle Eastern music in a unique way, finding common ground in improvisation… ElSaffar’s studies in both jazz and ethnic music have placed him in good stead to carve out a unique place in the current improvised music. His music and musicial concept is clearly evolving, and this is a very exciting development.”
— Jazz and Blues

“Gracefully poised between two worlds, Inana builds upon ElSaffar's previous accomplishments, establishing an impressive precedent for the creative possibilities of a new global jazz aesthetic.”
— AllAboutJazz

Oblique-I - Tyshawn Sorrey

“One of five drummers whose time is Now…. A spectacular young drummer on jazz’s leading edge, Mr. Sorey has proved himself a serious new-music composer besides, sometimes to the point of cerebral severity. But “Oblique-I” just out on Pi, is a riveting album, with compositions custom designed for the same musicians found here.”
— New York Times

“Oblique — I, is mostly the kind of rollicking band album you’d expect from a powerhouse drummer. His melodies are complex and full of surprises, but often light on their feet. Leading by example, Sorey is helping to heal an old rift in contemporary jazz, between musicians for whom swinging is everything and those also interested in other kinds of rhythmic subtleties and complications…. His quintet/quartet plays twisty, turny rhythms that surge ahead and then fall back, typical of jazz’s left flank. But under those zigzag lines, Sorey’s drums barrel along like a runaway tractor trailer. He makes those tricky patterns move.”

The Mancy of Sound - Steve Coleman

“A vivacious group effort brimming with intricate cross-hatched melodies, oblique harmonies and kaleidoscopic rhythms, The Mancy of Sound follows Harvesting Semblances and Affinities as the strongest albums of Coleman’s career, reinforcing his significance in the development of contemporary jazz.”
— Point of Departure

“Of all the musicians who followed Coltrane, Ornette and the AACM, Coleman has done the most work and sustained the highest level of innovation and creativity of output and impact.”
— Downbeat

posted on November 10, 2011 by Seth


Check out the really fascinating article by Amir Elsaffar in the most recent issue of All About Jazz New York (on page 13) discussing the theories behind his new CD Radif Suite. There is also a review of the CD in the same issue.

posted on April 1, 2010 by Intern


Pi Recordings is proud to announce the new release from Amir ElSaffar and Hafez Modirzadeh: Radif Suite. The release has already been praised as:

“A rewarding collection thick with ideas and inspiration”
LA Times
“A new grammar for composition and improvisation”
Dusted Magazine

The CD is available for purchase from the website.

posted on March 25, 2010 by Intern


There’s more to the news than just what is happening with us and our artists, true. But that is so much of what we spend our time reading.

We’ll try to diversify it a little this time.

The most recent edition of Time Out New York features artists discussing other artists their watching. Who shows up? Amir ElSaffar. Who’s watching him? Vijay iyer. We sense a trend.

And just to show you that it is not all about us, we’re going to be keeping our eyes open for Gabriel Kahane on the suggestion of Ethan Iverson. He lives in Brooklyn. There’s a decent chance we’ll see him around.

posted on September 4, 2008 by Seth


The Year End Lists are in and we would like to thank the following critics for their support of our releases this year; Alex Dutilh for including Muhal Richard Abrams, George Lewis and Roscoe Mitchell’s Streaming and Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Codebook in his year end list and Stuart Broomer and Philip DiPietro for including Steve Lehman’s On Meaning in their year end lists.

Additionally, we would like to thank those critics whose votes helped Muhal Richard Abrams Vision Towards Essence to be included on the Village Voice 2007 Jazz Poll and those whose votes helped Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers to be recognized among the Best Debut Albums of 2007.

posted on January 2, 2008 by Seth


The end of the year is fun for any number of reasons, but it is especially fun for us as it gives us a moment to find out who really enjoyed our output for the year.

At the top of our list this year has to be Derk Richardson. His declaration that Muhal Richard Abrams Vision Towards Essence is the Solo Piano release of the year, in the San Francisco Gate, is no small step towards making this our best year yet.

Not to be outdone though, Siddhartha Mitter listed Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers in his 2007 best of list in The Boston Globe alongside M.I.A. and Bettye LaVette. Not bad.

posted on December 23, 2007 by Seth

download on iTunesRelated Albums Upcoming Events
Nov 10, 2014

Amir ElSaffar Artist-in-Residence (11/10-11/24)

Shangri La Center for Islamic Arts and Cultures, Honolulu, Hawaii

Nov 20, 2014

Amir AlSaffar

Honolulu Museum of Art-Doris Duke Theater, Honolulu, Hawaii

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