He trained with Boulez and Barenboim at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and studied in the Middle East from 2002 to 2007, acquiring the codes of the sophisticated oral culture of the Arab world. An acclaimed composer in the USA, he has now become well known in Europe thanks to his collaboration with Fabrizio Cassol and Aka Moon on AlefBa (2013) and Oración (2014). A recipient of the Doris Duke Performing Artist Award and a 2018 US Artist Fellow, ElSaffar is an expert trumpeter with a classical background, conversant not only in the language of contemporary jazz, but has created techniques to play microtones and ornaments idiomatic to Arabic music that are not typically heard on the trumpet. Additionally, he is a purveyor of the centuries old, now endangered, Iraqi maqam tradition, which he performs actively as a vocalist and santur player. As a composer, ElSaffar has used the subtle microtones found in Iraqi maqam music to create an innovative approach to harmony and melody, and has received commissions to compose for large and small jazz ensembles, traditional Middle Eastern ensembles, chamber orchestras, string quartets, and contemporary music ensembles, as well as dance troupes. ElSaffar has received commissions from the MAP Fund, Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC), Newport Jazz Festival, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Chamber Music America, Jazz Institute of Chicago, and is composer-in-residence at the Royaumont Foundation in France in 2017-2019.
The Iraqi-American musician, composer and improviser Amir ElSaffar adopts a transcultural approach combining music from the Middle East with American jazz, while expanding the field of each of these musical idioms. He has been described as “one of the most promising figures in jazz today” (Chicago Tribune).