Amir ElSaffar: In search of ecstasy


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Amir ElSaffar has spent much of his life in search of the ecstatic moments that help connect to something bigger. In his case, he does this through his relationship with music and culture.

Trying to define or even explain what he does is not so simple, even for him. He leads five ensembles and has released seven albums over the past 16 years. His primary instrument is the trumpet, and he has devoted much of his career to expanding the vocabulary of the instrument. He also sings in the Arabic maqam idiom and plays the santur, the Iraqi hammered dulcimer. As a composer and band leader, he's devoted to what he calls "transcultural creation" in which he explores the space in between jazz, Iraqi Maqam music, and various other musical traditions from around the world, which have included Spanish flamenco, and Egyptian tarab.

In late 2021 he released The Other Shore with his Rivers of Sound ensemble.

We spoke recently about his ongoing search for the ecstatic by way of what he describes as the human "sea of connectivity," how working with Vijay Iyer, Rudresh Mahanthappa and Cecil Taylor influenced him, the value of coming of age in Chicago, and how his Zen Buddhist practice has helped him to "lift the veil" between his sense of what's outside of him and what's inside.

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