Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Music feature: Jazz phenom Eldar charts course of steady growth

Jazz pianist Eldar.

By Bill Meredith

At the age of 23, most jazz musicians are still figuratively getting their feet wet in both their art and their lives. Which puts young pianist Eldar Djangirov at least up to his waist by comparison.

Going by only his first name since starting his recording career nine years ago, Eldar released Virtue, his sixth CD overall and fourth for Sony Masterworks, last August. The largely-original disc is adventurous and unpredictable; a maze of complex melodies, rhythms and harmonies that illustrate how far beyond his years this young pianist and composer is.

"I was writing this record over the course of about a year-and-a-half," Eldar says, "while soaking up as much music and practicing as much as I could. Many of the tunes started as certain experiments, and little by little, each one developed into its own form. Some expanded slowly; others fast into complete tunes. I've been on the road for the record for about six months, and the response and appreciation has been really good, especially in Europe. People seemed really into it over there, and also in New York City and on the West Coast."

In the liner notes to Virtue, Eldar calls the music "a fitting soundtrack to my life and the things I have seen and experienced while living in New York City since 2007." That soundtrack, complete with recording partners Armando Gola (bass), Ludwig Afonso (drums) and Felipe Lamoglia (saxophone), will be on display March 11 at the Count de Hoernle Amphitheater in Boca Raton's Mizner Park as part of the Festival of the Arts Boca.

"I found the right core band for this record, musicians who could take what I was writing, put it in their own terms, and know what to do with the vocabulary,” he said. “I met Armando while he was playing with Arturo Sandoval, and Armando introduced me to Ludwig. We ended up playing for about 10 hours the first day we got together.

Then we did a tour where we started experimenting with some of the material that ended up on ‘Virtue.’ When we went into the studio, there was an evolution and a confidence. Everything had become more clear through being on the road beforehand."

The pianist's other festival performance is at the amphitheater on March 12 with the Russian National Orchestra. The classical guest appearance gives a clue as to where Eldar's serpentining journey to the Big Apple began, both geographically and musically. And it's a musical roadmap unlike any other.

Eldar Djangirov was born Jan. 28, 1987, in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, in the former Soviet Union. His mother Tatiana Djangirov, a local music instructor, started teaching him classical piano lessons at age 5. Eldar was playing at a Russian jazz festival by age 9, where he caught the ear of American jazz supporter Charles McWhorter, who recommended the young pianist for a summer jazz camp at the Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan.

While Eldar attended the camp at age 11, the Djangirov family settled in Kansas City, the Midwestern town where Charlie Parker -- and a great deal of jazz history -- was born.

"I spent a lot of time in both the Missouri and Kansas sides of Kansas City," says Eldar, who still speaks Russian fluently, and has only a hint of an accent when he speaks English. "They were only a few streets apart where I lived. The town was really vibrant while I was there, and there were so many older musicians that I could learn from."

It didn't take long for Eldar's open ears and promising future to be recognized by jazz royalty. He became the youngest guest ever to appear on venerable British pianist Marian McPartland's National Public Radio program Piano Jazz at age 12, and Dave Brubeck wrote a letter to immigration authorities to recommend that he be allowed to stay in the United States.

That wish was granted, and the young pianist celebrated by releasing his independent debut, Eldar, at the ripe age of 14. That same year, he won the student jazz piano competition at the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival in Idaho.

"Growing up while having a recording career has been very interesting," Eldar says with a laugh. "It has its pluses and minuses, but the important thing is to keep playing and composing. I was brought up learning classical music through my mother, and it’s still a big part of my daily practice routine. You use certain parts of your brain playing classical, and others playing jazz. Oscar Peterson was the first jazz pianist I ever heard, and he had a huge impact. My father Emil, who was a doctor in mechanical engineering and traveled through the Soviet Union, collected jazz records and introduced me to Oscar. I've opened some shows for Dave Brubeck, too. I have a lot of respect for him, and I'm thankful for all of his support."

Other influences include Art Tatum, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock. Eldar's sophomore effort, Handprints, was released in 2003, and he was signed to the Sony Classical label the following year. His 2005 major label debut, also titled Eldar, featured saxophonist Michael Brecker, bassist John Patitucci, and liner notes by iconic jazz pianist, educator and ambassador Dr. Billy Taylor.

Literally and figuratively, Eldar had arrived. He'd already relocated to San Diego with his family, and had been admitted to the Brubeck Institute at the University of the Pacific in Stockton. He soon moved to Los Angeles, and was studying at the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California when he recorded Live at the Blue Note in 2006 with guest trumpeters Roy Hargrove and Chris Botti. The 2007 release Re-Imagination earned Eldar his first Grammy nomination for best contemporary jazz album just as he was getting his feet set in Manhattan.

"I finished high school while we lived in San Diego," he says, "and then I started studying at USC. I'm an only child, and my mother teaches for the Yamaha School of Music in California, so she wanted me to stay. She said, 'You only just graduated high school; I don't want you to leave yet.' I knew it would make her happy, so even though I wanted to move to New York, I stayed in Los Angeles to be with her for a few years."

For the last few years, Eldar has lived in the jazz epicenter.

"I'm close to Columbia University, so places stay open late and there's always something going on," he says. "The city itself provides so much inspiration."

With the release of Virtue, Eldar may have sealed his role in future jazz history.

Saxophonist Joshua Redman guests on its opening track, Exposition, on which Eldar, Gola and Afonso play frenetically in shifting time signatures too complex to easily distinguish. Trumpeter Nicholas Payton forms a horn section with Lamoglia on Blackjack, a number in standard 4/4 time that the pianist and rhythm section make sound like anything but. Of the piano trio numbers, Blues Sketch in Clave shows Eldar's Latin jazz vocabulary, and the quieter Lullaby Fantazia skates between 4/4 and 5/4 time and features a memorable, haunting melody.

The disc's depth, complexity, wide range of influences, and synchronicity between the piano, drums and electric bass is akin to late-1970s Weather Report (Eldar also adds occasional, Joe Zawinul-influenced electric keyboards). And like many of that supergroup's best studio efforts, Virtue has the expression, energy, spontaneity and fire of a live album -- but with the immaculate instrumental sounds of a controlled environment. In this case, Avatar Studios in New York City.

"That's exactly the kind of feel we were shooting for," Eldar says.

Ten years ago, Eldar was playing on National Public Radio with McPartland, one of only a handful of living jazz greats who appeared in Art Kane's famous 1958 photo, A Great Day in Harlem. Many prodigies might have burnt out or sold out during the 10 years following such an appearance, but Eldar shows why he's avoided such pitfalls by stating where he wants to be in another decade's time. With one foot in tradition, and the other placed forward to create transition, he may be assembling a jazz standard for tomorrow.

"When people tell a young kid that they're the greatest thing since sliced bread, they can naturally stop moving forward," he says. "But if you realize that you need to constantly do just that, you've made a conscious effort to dedicate yourself to the art. I definitely just want to stay on an upward slope. Which means keeping motivated and clean, getting better, and keeping my vision over the horizon, even though we can't know what'll be there.

"It would've been hard to predict the changes that have happened in the music industry over the past 10 years. You just have to keep progressing, because that's the only thing you know you can control. The dedication, and improvement, should give you self-satisfaction."

Bill Meredith is a freelance writer based in South Florida who has written extensively about jazz and popular music.

Eldar performs during the Festival of the Arts Boca with his quartet at 7 p.m. on March 11, and guests with the Russian National Orchestra (with pianist Conrad Tao and conductor Constantine Kitsopoulos) at 7 p.m. on Friday, March 12, at the Count de Hoernle Amphitheater in Mizner Park, Boca Raton (866-571-2787).

An Eldar discography

Virtue (Sony Masterworks). Tracks include Blues Sketch in Clave, Lullaby Fantazia, Vanilla Sky. Released 2009.

Re-Imagination (Sony Masterworks). Tracks include Interludes 1 and 2, Out of Nowhere, Blackbird. Released 2007.

Eldar: Live at the Blue Note (Sony Masterworks). Tracks include What Is This Thing Called Love, Straight, No Chaser (with Roy Hargrove), Sincerely. Released 2006.

Eldar (Sony Masterworks). Tracks include Sweet Georgia Brown, 'Round Midnight, Nature Boy. Released 2005.

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