AZERI JAZZ NEWS

On the eve of the festival, signs of life appeared in Baku jazz and suddenly winter turned to summer, but the 'first swallow' to herald the coming of April was the tribute to Rafiq Babayev held in the capital's Jazz Centre.

Tord Gustavsen

Just a week later, in the Philharmonia, a performance followed by Norwegian jazzmen. Norwegian jazz is known throughout the world - during the latter part of the last century it may be said that there was a Norwegian school of jazz. Musicians like Jan Garbarek, Bobo Stenson, Palle Danielson, Terje Rypdal, Jon Christenson and Ketil Bjornstad became household names for jazz audiences. Thanks to the embassy of the Kingdom of Norway and the Statoil and Kvaerner companies, Bakuvians once again had the opportunity to hear representatives of this school: the trio of pianist Tord Gustafson with bassist Harald Jonson and drummer Jarle Vespestad. I should add that they are contracted to ECM records, one of the world's largest recording companies which has its own imprint and records only the finest musicians - no concessions are made to commercialism within ECM.

The concert was held in the Philharmonia on 5th April and the programme included tracks from the albums "Changing Places" (2003) and "The Ground" (2005). To sum up in a few words the music played by Tord and his partners: it was a spare and restrained northern lyric. Underlying the tightness, however, was an educated technique and a distinctly individual creativity.



And the music itself? The programme consisted wholly of their own compositions; no jazz standards were included. This music differed from the normal jazz standard by its more melodic tones, more closely resembling the work of a composer. The melodic themes might all have been at the heart of lyrical ballads. Their playing is clearly rooted in the European classical tradition, at one point reminiscent of Edward Grieg's immortal "Peer Gynt". From the jazz point of view, Tord's playing style resembles that of Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett and Brad Mehldau, one of the leading modern jazz musicians. Especially notable pieces were "Token of Tango" in the first set and, after the break, "Tears Transforming", which featured solos from bass and drums. Vespestad's solo was individual but entirely in sympathy with the drums; he constructed a thoughtful solo, built upon contrasts. In brief, there was nothing extraneous in an evening of high quality music; those who expected an American style were a little bemused, but I was only surprised by the concert's sudden end. On checking my watch, however, I realized it had lasted an hour and a half, not the 40 minutes it had seemed. The trio's musicians demonstrated their ability to play standards at a jam session organized afterwards in the Jazz Centre. They showed that they were very capable of holding their own in this field, too.

Two weeks after the Norwegians' concert, on 21st April to be precise, another trio played in the Song Theatre. This time Bakuvian music enthusiasts listened, as part of the 'Year of Russia in Azerbaijan', to double-bass player Vladimir Volkov and two singer/instrumentalists: Sergei Starostin and Andrei Kotov, making up this Russian trio. This was, in fact, the trio's second performance together; the first was at a festival in Norway last year.

All the musicians are top quality professionals and very experienced performers. Andrei Kotov, for example, has been on the professional stage for 30 years. Starting his career in the Pokrovsky choir, Kotov formed his own group, Sirin, in 1989, performing Russian religious songs of the 14th and 15th centuries and religious poems, as well as modern compositions. His experience, participation in festivals and solo concerts around the world are proof enough of the demand for his music.

As for Sergei Starostin, he was named an award winner by BBC radio in World Music 2003; the award is given for contributions to ethnic music.

And what of Vladimir Volkov? Suffice to say that he has worked on 20 albums, as well as being highly rated at international jazz festivals and working with musicians such as Igor Butman, Arkady Shilkloper, Bobo Stenson, Trey Gann, Daref Yusef, Tomasz Stanko and also with Kenny Wheeler, who played last year in Baku, among many others.

The musicians themselves consider their music to be ethno-jazz, but I think their playing strays far beyond the realms of Russian folk and religious music. There was a fine, overall jazz spirit to the evening, although visually it was more reminiscent of a folk concert. A theme laid down by Kotov and Starostin gradually developed into an improvisation in which each musician was allowed free rein for self-expression, while looking out for each other. The group's sound was itself very interesting: the bass in the lower registers bringing a new dimension to Russian music, usually heard only in the higher registers; assisting was the nagara (yes, our very own nagara!) played on some pieces by Andrei Kotov. Our guests' attention to detail gave a clear Russian identity to the music while consummately weaving in harmonies from different cultures. There were flavours of the Baltics, the Carpathians and the Balkans, but the 14th century religious music they played was firmly rooted in the Byzantine.
Tord Gustavsen trio

At one point Volkov used a pure mugham motif and, by way of variety, Sergei Starostin played a lullaby. His gusli had a saz-like sound as he played a pure Russian melody, with Kotov and Volkov provided the rhythm. Again, Kotov played nagara while Volkov played harmonies from negro spirituals with intimations of the blues. The vocal expertise of Sergei Starostin and Andrei Kotov merits particular mention: it was not run-of-the-mill choral singing. The principal melody was usually sung by Starostin, with Kotov building jazz harmonies around it before returning to the main theme. So, rather than ethno-jazz, it would be better to say the concert was of the increasingly popular 'World Music', because the Russians played a deep but gentle synthesis of the music of many countries.

In short, this was a delightful evening of music, leaving one feeling light and refreshed. But it was not entirely without the usual problems: no local television channel recorded our guests' playing - this kind of concert should have its place in the archives. In truth these words should also be aimed at the Russian embassy, too; the embassy appeared to have little information about this event and did not promote the concert within the media to the level it deserved. I recall the support given to Tord Gustafson's concert by the Norwegian embassy, and particularly by ambassador Steinar Gill. The concert in the Song Theatre was not a populist event, but very few people knew about it and, as a result, the modest auditorium was only half full. Such a pity.

Finally, this jazz-eventful month ended. On Saturday 29th April in the Philharmonia, also part of the 'Year of Russia in Azerbaijan', the quartet of popular saxophonist Igor Butman played a concert. Butman's name is well-known among jazz fans, but it was also interesting to listen to the playing of a quartet which has resisted changes to a long-standing line-up. Drummer Alexander Machin, who has been a regular visitor to our city, spoke glowingly last year about the quartet's pianist Anton Baronin. Also in the group are drummer Eduard Zizakh and double-bass player Vitaliy Solomonov. I have to see that some of my expectations of the concert were realized, some not; but first things first.

The Russian maestro played a programme of almost two hours, consisting mainly of his own compositions of jazz interpretations of popular Soviet animated pictures. I don't want to go into detail about the group's style. Virtually every kind of music was played: jazz-rock, ballads and blues. 'Caravan' was the only jazz classic on the programme and, at the end of the first half, Butman's playing of James Brown's 'I Feel Good' certainly broke the ice. His blues interpretation of the song 'Barinya' set the spirit of the concert. Butman played the song as masterfully as you could expect from such an established musician. His excellent technique, lengthy passages and ability to consummate a phrase were truly amazing. His lightning descents from upper to lower register, creating the effect of a dialogue of two saxophones, were well-received by an appreciative audience. In these passages he seemed to be urging on the bass to greater effect in the rhythm section. On 'Caravan' Butman and Solomonov created a memorable duet; at this point drums and piano were silent and the dialogue between high and low registers was fascinating. This was a multi-layered arrangement of the Ellington/Tizol piece; Butman added the 'Song of the Sultan' from the film 'The Caucasian Prisoner', and switched to a tango before returning to 'Caravan'. The audience response was suitably sympathetic and knowledgeable. Apart from 'Caravan', the second half was devoted to Soviet animated films. They provided a wealth of material for the jazz musicians. It is no accident that these melodies feature on Butman's next CD release. By the way, he recorded the disc with jazz giants pianist Chick Corea, bassist John Patitucci, drummer Jack DeJohnette and Randy Brecker. Themes from the animated films 'Bremen Musicians', 'I'll Show You!', 'Captain Grant's Children' and the well-loved 'Brainbox'…. In brief, this was a memorable concert by the Russian maestro.



Now I'd like to comment on the less successful moments. The musicians arrived at the last moment and were not able to properly prepare beforehand; this affected the sound. As they appeared on the stage a little after 6pm I was in front of the stage. I moved further back for the second half, but it made no difference. The double-bass, which should fill out the sound, wasn't able to fulfil its role: it was drowned out by the other instruments. After the concert I spoke to Emil Hasanov, Bakustik's bassist, and realized that the Philharmonia's acoustics demand a particular sound mix, of which Butman and his sound engineer were unaware; the sound equipment should be used sparingly. One more thing - I didn't like the playing manner of Anton Baronin. It was not just that his piano was under-amplified. In a small group, each instrument has to contribute to the overall sound, but Baronin was limited to accompaniment and could not add his own colour to the palette. He played in the way he has always played. Perhaps Butman determined Baronin's role. On their own ground, the stage of 'Le Club' they may play this way, but I would like to hear Anton play as one of the lead musicians, as Sasha Machin's opinion must be respected.

Rovshan Sananoglu