Amir ElSaffar – Alchemy (2013)

(The song in video above is from ElSaffar’s Inana release, not Alchemy.)

They say that the cradle of civilization lies in the fertile Mesopotamian plain between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is now modern-day Iraq. Iraqi-American trumpet player Amir ElSaffar’s new CD Alchemy shows how that same region of Babylon and Sumeria also became the cradle of jazz music, or at the least, some elements of jazz. From that ancient culture came forth a musical system of seven modes and twelve keys, which later found its way into the Greek system of modes, the foundation for the Western tonal system. Add to that the microtonality still found in music from that part of the world today; major jazz figures from Duke Ellington and Thelonius Monk to Ornette Coleman and Joe Maneri have at least flirted with half-tones or quarter-tones, if not outright embraced them.

Amir ElSaffar’s expertise in Arabic music gives him a leg up on his predecessors in exploring the possibilities in making something new out of something very old, and this expert in the Arabic Maqam system has been leveraging his knowledge over several albums, both his and others (such as his key supporting role in Hafez Modirzadeh’s Post-Chromodal Out! (2012)). With a very typical jazz quintet format, Alchemy strives — and succeeds — in illuminating the connection between those ancient forms and this modern one, and creating something new in the process.

That seven modes system from the Sumeria/Babylon area became the basis of music that ElSaffar composed for the “Ishtarum Suite” found at the beginning of this album. At first, it appears to follow early 60s Coltrane more than early civilization, but it soon becomes apparent that the scales used aren’t of the Western world, and there’s a certain majesty to it that makes it universally attractive. On “Ishtarum” on the front end of the suite, Dan Weiss’ drums follow that melody that’s articulated by ElSaffar and tenor saxophonist Ole Mathisen. Pianist Escreet soon launches into an expansive, probing solo. For “Nid Qablitum,” counterpoints are made to major themes and Mathisen plays his tenor with some urgency. An exotic Middle Eastern rhythm pattern powers “Embubum – Ishtarum – Pitum,” where another, related theme is introduced and then elaborated, through the trumpet/sax combo. In the midst of this song, ElSaffar forges a pretty and direct solo that’s all jazz, bringing home the link between two disparate worlds.

The four-part “Alchemy Suite” is a laboratory infusing microtonal concepts into jazz using a quarter-tone system of ElSaffar’s own device. The distinction in this experiment over, say, Post-Chromodal Out!, is that the even tempered instrument, Escreet’s piano, remains so. By being surrounded by microtonal horns, it’s hardly noticeable, though. In Mathisen, ElSaffar chose someone who knows his way around this stuff; it’s not a given that just because the saxophone can handle any note that one can play the right one between those full intervals, but Mathisen can. Escreet is given the task of soloing around notes he can’t play on the meditative “Balad,” and does a convincing job of meshing his notes with ElSaffar and Mathisen. He does the same on “Quartal,” an advanced bop tune that with the exotic notes being played by the front line recalls the Eric Dolphy/Booker Little team.

The remaining three tracks stand apart from a thematic set of suites, but are nonetheless a dynamic, challenging set of modal presentations. “Miniature #1” is the most ambitious of these, with the Francois Moutin/Dan Weiss rhythm section running freely and the microtonal adventures carrying over from the “Alchemy Suite.” Moutin, by the way, produces an impulsive, risk-taking bass solo in the middle of “Athar Kurd” that’s worth checking out.

In introducing exciting foreign concepts, sometimes it helps to immerse oneself with foreign cultures. Amir ElSaffar has done it, and it shows. Here’s a fascinating thesis on the link between ancient music and modern music that you can actually enjoy with your ears instead of slogging through it with your eyes.

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Alchemy is due out October 22nd, from PI Recordings. Visit Amir ElSaffar’s webiste for more info.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on,, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at
S. Victor Aaron

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