Amir ElSaffar plays for the hometown crowd

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By Michelle Dybal

Contributing Reporter

Music can evoke a mood, bring up feelings, escort us on an emotional excursion. It can also transport us to a far-away realm of dreams or even tap the memories of our ancestors.

It takes a talented composer to do both, especially one who can combine two types of music that seem worlds apart. Amir ElSaffar does just that — with Jazz and Maqam, traditional music of the Middle East — with great success.

ElSaffar, who grew up in Oak Park and River Forest and now lives in New York, was awarded the United States Artists Fellowship in January, one of 45 artists across nine disciplines to receive the $50,000 award. According to their website, "ElSaffar is an important voice in an age of cross-cultural music making."

He returns home Friday to perform with his 17-piece orchestra, Rivers of Sound, at Symphony Center in Chicago. Besides composing, ElSaffar is an accomplished classical and jazz trumpet player. He also sings and plays santur, a stringed instrument struck with light hammers.

He previously performed at Symphony Center as a DePaul University student in the late 1990s. Majoring in classical trumpet, he played in DePaul ensembles and as a member of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, which operates in alliance with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

At the time, ElSaffar began performing regular gigs for R&B, Big Band and Jazz.

"I was playing shows all over Chicago in college," he said. "The vibrant music scene gave me a solid base in different kinds of music."

He discovered his affinity for Jazz as a freshman trumpet player at Oak Park and River Forest High School, where he was in band and orchestra. Previously, his musical forays included guitar lessons at Guitar Fun, formerly at Ridgeland and Lake, which felt "like a family" to him, and the choir at Grace Lutheran, where he attended school in kindergarten and fifth through eighth grades.

"It was an important moment, playing jazz, freshman year in high school," ElSaffar recalled. "It opened me up to different kinds of music and guided me in my early explorations of Jazz."

After graduating from DePaul, he moved to New York in 2000 to pursue a Jazz career in which he could "create his own language." Having an American mother and an Iraqi father, he decided to seek the music of his ancestry.

"I knew the American side; I wanted to understand the other music of my heritage." ElSaffar said. "When I got to Iraq, not a lot of people were keeping [the traditional music] alive. With wars, it's not conducive to keeping the arts thriving."

He dove in, studying Maqam, which has a seven-note scale and "microtonal pitches that lie between the notes of … the Western tonal system," and learned Arabic.

"I thought I'd study this for a short time, but I immersed myself completely and for a decade that was my focus," he said. "It was not until I got a jazz commission in 2006 that I found the connections."

His study of Maqam led to the formation of the Two Rivers sextet to perform his Maqam-infused Jazz. Along with his sister, Dena, who plays violin and jowza, an Iraqi stringed instrument, they formed Safaafir, dedicated to Iraqi Maqam. There's the 17-piece orchestra, Rivers of Sound, of which Dena is also part. His performances, residencies and commissions, including an upcoming Flamenco composition for the Transcultural Music Program in France, which premiers in the Netherlands, take him around the world. But his Maqam studies also touched emotions close to home.

"When I was singing Maqam, it was an unexpected gift to my father," ElSaffar said. "He left [Iraq] as a teenager, ran away, cut off from the culture and adapted to the U.S. It awakened something in him."

Amir ElSaffar will also revisit his past as he takes the stage at Symphony Center where he played several times each week in his youth.

"I'm influenced by my days there," he said. "To be there, with my own orchestra no less, I'm very excited about it."

See Amir ElSaffar's "River of Sound: Not Two" at Symphony Center, Friday, Feb. 9, 8 p.m. $24 to $76. Tickets: cso.org. 220 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago. 

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