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Baku Jazz Festival 2018

Ian Patterson By

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With multi-national, cross-cultural collaborations increasingly the norm in jazz - and perhaps its inevitable future identity - the BJF is in a strong geographical position to foster musical and cultural ties between Asian and European nations.
Baku Jazz Festival
Baku, Azerbaijan
October 25-28, 2018

Stormy winds that you had to lean into to walk along the pavements had ripped the giant poster of the Baku Jazz Festival clean off the exterior wall of the Rotunda Jazz Club. Not for nothing is Baku nicknamed The City of Winds -a moniker derived from the ancient Persian name for the city, Bādkube, or 'pounding winds.' The cold Caspian Sea wind and the warm southern wind can whip up a veritable storm here on the Absheron Peninsula. The next day was a different story as glorious sunshine beat down from the blue sky. The contrasting meteorological conditions seemed an apt metaphor for the history of jazz in the Azerbaijan capital, which, over the decades, has shone in between the dark years of harsh Soviet repression and debilitating war with neighbouring Armenia.

During the tough times in Baku jazz refused to go away. Its practitioners skirted Soviet disdain for bourgeois Western music by turning to Azeri folk music as a prism through which to channel jazz, sewing seeds in the process that continue to nourish Azeri jazz musicians today. Figures like Rain Sultanov, Amina Figarova, Isfar Sarabaski—winner of the 2009 Montreux Jazz Festival Solo Piano Competition—and Shahin Novrasli have forged international careers, while the current crop of young lions spearheaded by pianists Elchin Shirinov, Nurlan Abdullazadeh and Afgan Rasul points to a bright future for Azeri jazz.

The Baku Jazz Festival is a major part of the modern revival of jazz in Azerbaijan, showcasing international bands and serving as a platform for Azeri jazz musicians. In a separate article, jazz musician, Azeri jazz historian and the BJF's Artistic Director Rain Sultanov talks about the changing character of the festival, throws light on the turbulent history of jazz in his homeland and reveals his determination to help nurture jazz in Baku. This article covers the final four days of the two-week Baku Jazz festival, an annual highlight of Baku's cultural calendar now in its fourteenth year.

The BJF 2018 had kicked off ten days earlier with the soul-funk of Omar in the Elektra Events Hall, Baku's premier live events venue. If that populist opening act suggested a programme were jazz might be squeezed by more mainstream music then the next thirteen days proved otherwise. Russian piano virtuoso Leonid Ptaska, German-born saxophonist Ben Schwendener/Uwe Steinmetz, Norwegian bassist Magne Thormodsaeter, the trio of Belgian, Fender Rhodes player Martin Salemi, the modernistic trio Initiatives led by French pianist Jean Christophe Cholet, Turkish piano-and-bass duo Can Cahankaya and Kagan Yildiz, and Hungarian outfit Kodaly Spicy Jazz, together provided a broad spectrum of contemporary European jazz.

Azeri jazz was well represented by pianist Nurlan Abdullazadeh, the group of drummer Elvin Bashirov and Afgan Rasul's trio, while it was Azeri musicians in the main who lit up the evening jam sessions -when they happened. Most of the concerts and workshops were held in the Rotunda Jazz Club—a stylish venue in the basement of The Landmark Hotel. The luxurious hotel, a major sponsor of the BJF, also hosted the musicians, technicians and journalists, meaning that everything was just a short lift-ride away.

Several concerts—the aforementioned opening concert by Omar Lye-Fook Group, that of Leonid Ptashka and Gasan Bagirov, and the closing concert by the Gregoire Maret Group featuring Christie Dashiel—were held in the elegant Mugham Center, as was the I Am Jazzman young jazz talent competition. An art exhibition entitled Labyrinth of Azerbaijani Jazz by Jamala Rahmanli, which depicted the history of jazz in Azerbaijan, and several jazz films, were also presented as part of the BJF 2018 programme.

Thursday 25

Helge Lien Trio

Though Norwegian pianist Helge Lien already had a solo album plus several trio albums on lesser known Norwegian and Japanese labels—including the notable Assymetrics (DIW, 2004)—it was arguably not until 2008's Hello Troll on the German label Ozella Music, that he began to make major international waves. In the past decade, a further five albums, including another solo outing and a collaboration with violin virtuoso Adam Baldych, have cemented Lien's place as not only one of the finest Norwegian jazz pianists, but one of Europe's.

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