Amir ElSaffar: Alchemy

Trumpeter Amir ElSaffar has made three albums that bring Iraqi maqam music into a jazz setting, including an excellent collaboration with saxophonist Hafez Modirzadeh, 2009’s Radif Suite. Here ElSaffar starts with a standard quintet lineup of trumpet, tenor saxophone and rhythm section, and brings modes and alternate scales to bear on the ensemble. It’s not surprising then that the opening section of the three-track Ishtarum Suite sounds like fairly conventional postbop, at least harmonically. The rhythms prevent the music from becoming predictable, with time signatures that gain and lose beats, sounding like odd ostinatos that are difficult to get a read on. François Moutin (bass) and Dan Weiss (drums) add swing to them, so trying to count is harder but finally unnecessary. Better to get swept up in the pensive solos cooked up by ElSaffar and tenor/soprano saxophonist Ole Mathisen.

Following that suite are four sections from the trumpeter’s Alchemy Suite, based on his own tuning system built on quartertones. “12 Cycles” could almost be called a Middle Eastern “So What,” with each of the dozen variations in pitch and rhythm introduced before trumpet and soprano skillfully take one chorus each to build on them. The microtonal variations in pitch are most noticeable in “Quartal,” even in John Escreet’s piano, creating one of the disc’s most intriguing themes.

After those more conceptual works, “Athar Kurd” wouldn’t have been out of place on an adventurous Blue Note album circa 1965. ElSaffar’s choice of intervals and Moutin’s rapid double-stop strumming is more of this century, but there’s something indelibly linked to jazz’s past in the feel.

Mike Shanley

Mike Shanley has been a lifelong resident of Pittsburgh and gladly welcomes any visitors to the city, most likely with a cup of coffee in one hand. Over the years, he has written for several alternative weekly papers and played bass guitar in several indie rock bands. He currently writes for the bi-weekly paper Pittsburgh Current and maintains a blog at