"I want this to be a sensation for jazz in Baku" claimed Rain Sultanov, explaining his mission as newly-appointed General Manager of the Jazz Centre at 19 Rashid Behbutov Street.
High ambition, indeed, and the transformation worked so far provides plenty of grounds for optimism. Neon outlines of trumpet and bass player boldly announce the centre's presence just down from the bronze-glass tower of the Milli Bank (on the side of the Conservatoire). The foyer boasts a couple of equally confident jazz-based works by artist Huseyn Haqverdi and the music hall itself has been completely transformed. Subdued lighting and group tables promote just the right intimate and relaxed atmosphere for the audience, while allowing musicians to concentrate on their own inner world.

Baku Jazz Centre

The opening night, Friday May 21st, gave ample evidence that the eye is also on the ball as far as the music is concerned. To a backdrop of videos of the greats of yesteryear: Tofiq Guliyev, Rafiq Babayev, Vagif Mustafazade et al, the rising stars and stalwarts of the present played live: Shahin Novrasly, Beri Bakh, Jamil Amirov and Bakustik.
The packed and appreciative audience was further pampered by the presentation of Rain Sultanov's "Jazz in Azerbaijan Anthology" A 380 page booklet, with 31 short biographies in Azeri, English, Russian and German and 65 pages of photographs, accompanying 2 CDs comprising 28 tracks recorded between 1940 and 2003.
"This is my choice of the Azeri jazz that the world should listen to" said Rain by way of introduction to yet another side of his restless propagation of the seeds, roots and blossoms of his beloved jazz music. This latest production, the fruit of over a year's work, is a real tour de force and a valuable service in tracing the roots and development of a music whose future suddenly looks much brighter.
The Jazz Centre opening may well be remembered as a turning point for the independent republic's musicians. Azerbaijan is rightly proud of its musical heritage, but has struggled over the last decade to support its players and composers. The appointment of a multi-talented musician to run the Jazz Centre, with the all-important sponsorship of AzEuroTel's Nuri Akhmadov, has already put a spring in the step of Baku's afficiandos.
Each night of the week will feature a different form of jazz, something for all tastes, thus giving, as Rain says, "a second chance for Baku's jazz players to earn a living" and fulfilling his simple aim to "develop jazz in Azerbaijan."
But it's not just the public face that's important in the revitalised Centre, it's an open resource for musicians, too. Walking in even before the official opening we passed a group of students
recording in the studio and a full rehearsal in the main hall. Rehearsal space, available free to local jazz players, is already heavily scheduled, especially it seems, by the exciting talent of Shahin Novrasly. He was particularly excited by the new regime, "It's great! At last we have a stage for rehearsing - it needed a musician to be manager here."
Meanwhile, in the offices a huddle of designers, including Rain's wife and creative partner Leyla Efendiyeva, worked on the programme cover - the energy was clearly infectious.
The first 3 months' programme promised much and is already in full swing as we write: live sessions every night of the week, plus 11 concerts and 4 tribute nights to international legends, emphasise this determination to educate and develop the audience for jazz.
Concerts planned through to the end of August include tributes to Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Charlie Parker and home-grown saxophonist Tofiq Shabanov as well as performances by Salman Gambarov, Shahin Novrasly (before leaving for the 'Hot Summer' Festival in Minneapolis) and Rain Sultanov himself. DVDs, presentations of the lives and music and live performances of their compositions are intended to bring the jazz greats closer to the Baku music public on tribute nights.

Baku Jazz Centre

Rain intends to create a sound and photographic archive of all sessions and musicians at the Jazz Centre - after the problems he had in tracing records of musicians from previous generations for the "Jazz in Azerbaijan Anthology", he is determined to create a properly archived legacy for their successors.
On the evidence of the season so far, the delight may well be in the detail - it's worth experimenting. Arriving after work one Wednesday, we were too late for the Beri Bakh concert and went in as the crowd meandered away. As we settled down for a quiet drink anyway, Shahin made his way to the piano and proceeded to serve up a thrilling mix of classical/jazz improvisation which finally compelled the General Manager to put down his balance sheet, pick up his sax and join in - as the two interchanged and communicated with mellifluous generosity it was a joy, seeming an intimate privilege to be present. There are many moments like this to come - don't miss them.
"Jazz In Azerbaijan anthology" is available from the Jazz Centre, 19 Rashid Behbutov Street, price $25, also from all good music shops.

by Ian Peart and Saadat Ibrahimova