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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.

With Thomas Fonnesback on bass and Per Odvar Johansen on drums. Lien's trio played a set rich in lyricism and virtuosic flare. The trio opened with several as yet unreleased tunes. Gentle trio stirrings paved the way for "Ponkoral," a sumptuously lyrical tune featuring a flowing solo from the leader and a more measured response from Fonnesback. A delicate piano coda bled softly into "Nipa," Lien's gentle rumbling in the lower keys and Joahnsen's light cymbal pulse soon joined by Fonnesback as bass and piano slow-waltzed in unison. Fonnesback then Lien in turn stretched out, with Johansen responding intuitively to the ebb and flow. Lien's improvisation, buoyed by an insistent bass groove, linked a series of flowing glissandi -melodious but tension filled.

The third new tune in a row stemmed from a mantra-like, left-hand piano motif that was picked up by Fonnesback, and Johansen's cantering brushes. Maintaining the circling motif, Lien's right-hand roamed freely. As the pianist's improvisation gathered pace, the ascending, nine-note motif was replicated by Fonnesback. The groove safely in the pocket, Lien took the new-found freedom and tore into more angular terrain with gusto, his runs ever tighter, ever denser.

The pianist's music, however, was largely faithful to form and he was presently drawn once more into the trio's more measured gravity. The collective voice gradually dissipated, leaving piano and gossamer brushes to steer the trio into "Hymne," a deft and in turn exhilarating weave of folkloric, classical and jazz idioms from Lien's trio debut What are you doing the rest of your life? (Curling Legs, 2001). Shades of Swedish pianist Jan Johansson's famous folk-jazz explorations of the 1960s echoed in the quieter passages that bookended this number, but Lien is above all else, an original voice and unmistakable as such.

Folksy lyricism underpinned "Jasmine" -surprisingly, the only tune from Lien's 2017 release Guzuguzu. Fonnesback's temple-like cymbals and sombre mallets conjured an austere meditative ambiance, lightened by Lien's prettily trilling motif. Bass and drums observed a dry, ceremonial pulse, colored by deft percussive accents as Lien carved out a teasing solo of elegant restraint. Sandwiching the uplifting, baroque-tinged elegy "It is What it Is" were two contrasting tunes -the powerfully grooving "Gamut Warning," with Lien in expansive, probing mind-set, and for the encore, the dynamic Esbjorn Svensson tribute, "E." If it's true that imitation is the greatest form of flattery, then Helge Lien Trio paid heartfelt tribute to Svensson, and the hugely influential trio he led from 1993 until his untimely death in 2008, on this rousing send-off number.

The whoops, cheers and applause of the crowd was a fitting response to a highly engaging, emotionally nuanced set.

Friday

Michael Pipoquinha

Virtuosity is so commonplace in jazz these days that it's almost taken for granted -the bar is seemingly raised higher all the time and Youtube-reared virtuosos seem younger and younger. Just occasionally, however, a musician comes with the talent to truly astound. This was the case when twenty two-year-old Brazilian bassist Michael Piopoquinha took to the stage of the Rotunda Jazz Club.

The six-string electric bassist was flanked by accordionist Douglas Marcolino and drummer/percussionist Adriano DD -two outstanding musicians in their own rights. With three days of rehearsals together in Paris and just a couple of gigs under its belt prior to the BJF, this trio was barely out of its wrapper, but over the course of a dazzling ninety-minute show you could have been forgiven for thinking it had toured the world several times already -so tightly attuned were the musicians to each other and to Pipoquinha's sometimes breathless charts.

On the opener "Hola Paris," shaped by Marcolino's sunny melody, the three musicians served early notice of their virtuosity, with simmering groove a constant presence. Marcolino was impressive, the accordionist's hybrid language—jazz, choro, samba—evoking accordion greats Sivuca and Dominguinhos. Pipoquinha then ignited the crowd with a display of uncommon virtuosity, racing up and down the bass neck as though merely wiping the strings with a cloth. All the while Adriano DD marked time, his percussive accents lending bursts of bright color. His own solo, unmistakably Brazilian in its carnivalesque vitality, returned the trio to the head.

Two highly melodic Dominguinhos tunes reflected the legendary accordionist's influence on Pipoquinha. Bassist and accordionist switched between air-tight unison lines and free improvisation on "Princesinha no Choro," while the even livelier "Te Cudia Jacaré" prompted Marcolino to abandon his chair and dance to his own beat. The infectious rhythm swept up the audience who clapped in time as the tune sped towards its conclusion.

Pipoquinha is much more than simply a fine interpreter, having proved his writing credentials on his two albums to date. The title track of Lua (Brasil MP3, 2017) also underlined the bassist's innate lyricism, his beguiling solo bass intro as gentle as a lullaby. Marcolino followed suit, with Adriano DD's brushes providing understated accompaniment. Pipoquinha's bubbling solo injected a bit of pep, though Adriano DD's rhythm remained resolutely low-key. The cantering "Baião Chuvoso" moved from rapid, bass and accordion unison lines to an entertaining percussion feature, with Adriano DD working his congas, cowbell, a shaker made of hundreds of plastic bottles tops, an inverted wine bottle, and a set of chimes fashioned from dozens of different-sized keys.

A highlight of the set came with an unaccompanied bass piece. Though there were sparks, Pipoquinha's signature agility was balanced by his rhythmic and melodic sensibilities. Melody lies at the heart of the bassist's music and even his most note-dense passages felt like a tune unfolding. It's early days yet in Pipoquinha's career, but it would be a surprise if, with a few more miles under his belt, this extraordinary bass virtuoso isn't spoken about in the same breath as Victor Wooten, Linley Marthe or Richard Bona.

A little knob-twiddling lent arresting bass harmonics on an atmospheric, version of The Beatle's "Eleanor Rigby," which morphed from gentle swing to frenetic bebop. Pipoquinha and Adriano DD cut loose with a tempestuous exchange but it was Marcolino's sinewy accordion lines that cast the strongest spell. Pipoquinha's up-tempo "Frevo pra Fran" featured a call-and-response between bass and audience and marked the end of the set. The trio, called back for an encore, obliged with two further numbers -drummer Luizinho Duarte's beautifully lilting samba "De Frente ao Baião" and a festive rendition of a Luis Gonzaga tune full of the baião rhythms from Northeast Brazil. The musicians took their bows to a standing ovation.

Hopefully this trio will be an ongoing concern, for if the intuitive chemistry that made this concert so spectacular was the result of just a few hours playing together, how good could it yet become? The extraordinary Pipoquinha is a name to watch closely. If he stretches his musical horizons beyond Brazilian traditions then there really are no limits as to what he could achieve.

Saturday

Jazz Art Exhibition: Labyrinth of Azerbaijani Jazz

Throughout BJF 2018 a free exhibition by Jamala Rahmanli upstairs in The Rotunda presented, in linear fashion, the history of jazz in Baku. An austere, seven-foot-high black wall formed a curving walkway within, where photographs, posters and flyers traced the development of jazz from the arrival of the first vinyl in Baku from Russia. Snaking strokes of primary-colored paint surrounded the photos, but in truth they added little to the experience.

A 1927 poster of the first African-American entertainment ensemble to perform here sat alongside Soviet-era posters, which had less to do with jazz and more to do with the prevailing politics of the Communist era. Old photographs of Baku, like old photographs of cities just about anywhere, depicted a much-less crowded, traffic-free environment, with the people dapperly dressed -nearly all sporting hats.

Photos of historically significant jazz figures such as Tofig Ahmadov, Parviz Rustambeyov, Vladimir Vladimirov, the vocal quartet Qaya, Vagif Mustafazadeh, Rafiq Babayev and many others, represented those musicians who paved the way. These were followed by photos of the post-Soviet generation of jazz musicians like Aziza Mustafazadeh, Shahin Novrasli, Arzu Huseynov, Rain Sultanov, Amina Figarova, for example -several of whom moved abroad to seek new adventures and further their careers.

Previous posters of the Baku Jazz Festival and posters of the Young Jazz Talent competition brought the story up to present times. So too, photos of the current generation of jazz musicians like Nurlan Abdullazadeh, Isfar Sarabski, Elvin Bashirov, Elnara Hasanli and Elchin Shirinov.

There were no texts with the photos and only a few of the figures were named, so for the uninitiated the exhibition primarily reinforced the idea of the long-standing, robust tradition of jazz in Baku.

Ruben Hein Trio

You have to wonder what was on the mind of the Embassy of the Netherlands when, asked to recommended a Dutch jazz group, they offered the BJF Ruben Hein. He is a talented pianist and singer-songwriter, and, as this concert demonstrated, a dynamic performer. He's also a trained jazz musician, yet the trio he presented in the Rotunda Jazz Club had nothing to do with jazz. Still, the audience loved his music, so did it really matter? Isn't there room for other music in a jazz festival? It rather depends on the size of the festival and the audience's expectations.

At huge festivals like Montreal Jazz Festival or North Sea Jazz Festival, to cite two well-known examples, pop, rock and singer-songwriters have long been part of the line-up. These festivals, however, serve up multiple concerts at the same time. As AAJ's John Kelman observed in his article When is a Jazz Festival (Not) a Jazz Festival? if there are jazz alternatives scheduled at the same time that, say, Robert Plant, Neil Young or Grace Jones are playing, then it really shouldn't matter.

There is also the argument that big pop and rock names bring non-jazz punters through the door where they are quite likely to experience some jazz. Some may come back for more. Diversity, in the audience as in music, is certainly healthy, but in a jazz festival like BJF, where thirteen of the fifteen nights featured a single band, there wasn't much room for liberty-taking with the programming. For Azeri jazz fans, it must have been a surprise to discover that the concert on the 27 October wasn't jazz. For the more general music fans who bought tickets for the show they'll maybe have gone home thinking that the likes of Dave Matthews, David Gray, Robert Palmer or Paul Simon—arguably all touchstones for Hein—are jazz artists.

Two evenings of BJF 2018 featured two concerts at the same time, which might have been a more legitimate opportunity to programme the Ruben Hein Trio. More legitimate still, would have been for the Embassy of the Netherlands to have sent an aspirational Dutch jazz band to Baku instead. It must be disheartening for young jazz musicians who struggle to get onto international jazz festival stages to see non-jazz artists on such programmes. Does any blame lie with Ruben Hein? Well, the "Trio" tag, a veritable preserve of jazz, did seem a little disingenuous.

So, what of Hein's music? An unaccompanied vocal number made for an unusual opening and one that commanded the complete attention of the audience. Acoustic guitarist Julian du Perron and electric guitarist Wessel Herbschleb laid down a foot-tapping groove on the blues-tinged "Somebody to Love." Hein's slightly smoky vocals were undoubtedly soulful, while his rhythmically pronounced piano soloing contained elements of blues, boogie woogie and rock. It set something of a template for much of the music that followed, with Herbschleb's subtle embellishments bringing a little variation to the format.

Several tunes came from Groundwork Rising (Bateleur Records, 2018), the music ranging from the introspective to the epic, sometimes within a single song, as on "Jugglers." Three-way vocal harmonies punctuated "Gameshow," an infectious slow-burner that could have come from Eric Clapton's pen. Regardless of potential influences, Hein's tunes boasted a personal stamp, notably on the elegant acoustic song "Owls." There was space too for his sidemen to sing their own tunes, with Herbschleb's "24" sounding like vintage Neil Young, while du Perron's composition had the smooth, melodic and harmonic contours of a Fleetwood Mac ballad. In between, Hein sang "Where or When," the Richard Rogers/Lorenz Hart show tune beloved of many a jazz musician. "Since this is a jazz festival, I thought, well, let's play at least one jazz song," Hein said, without a hint of irony. Hein's rather mournful version, incidentally, was more show-tune ballad than jazz.

The riffing intro to "Mountain Road" suggested a rock heartbeat, but without a drummer to kick-start the band, and with Herbschleb restricted to simple comping, it was left to Hein's dancing, Bruce Hornsby-esque piano solo to animate the tune. A couple of melancholy, harmonically soothing tunes brought a change of pace before the final track, a rocking, boogie-woogie-fueled anthem that finished the set on a high. The encore, saw Hein return unaccompanied on the piano for a fairly faithful, and in truth, rather mundane rendition of Paul Simon's "Still Crazy After All These Years," colored slightly by a piano break. The audience, once more, was generous in its applause towards this talented singer-songwriter.

Jam Sessions

Apart from the opening and closing nights of BJF 2018 jam sessions were scheduled each evening in the Rotunda Jazz Club. Rarely, however, did they spark into life and the audiences were invariably small. Part of the problem no doubt lies in the fact that most evenings only one band was playing on the festival programme, meaning that there were only these visiting musicians around. Michael Pipoquinha and his musicians gamely got back on stage very shortly after their concert ended in an attempt to kick-start the jam session but it petered out fairly quickly. Another evening the jam session began, bizarrely, with a classical piano recital.

There was one successful jam session in three evenings leading up to the final night covered in this article and it was a session featuring exclusively Azeri musicians. Elnarra Hasanli, a jazz singer of over twenty years standing, demonstrated that the art of scatting is alive and well in Baku, while veteran singer Gasim Khalilov gave a great turn in the style of Tony Bennett. Several young instrumentalists impressed, notably alto saxophonists Bayramli Jamal and Talishinsky Mirhuseyn-khan, and pianist Afgan Rasul. Though Rasul has yet to record he's a sure talent, with technical skill and finesse in abundance. A year in New York, where he was a regular at jam sessions, doubtless helped hone his chops. His jam session duets with Rain Sultanov, notably on a slow version of "My Favorite Things" and a gorgeous rendition of "Blue in Green" provided absolute highlights of BJF 2018.

Hopefully the jam sessions will continue in future editions of the BJF but it will take a concerted audience development programme and some thought as to how to encourage more musicians to turn up with their instruments to make these jam sessions a success.

Sunday

Gregoire Maret featuring Christie Dashiel

To describe Swiss harmonica player Gregoire Maret as the best jazz harmonic player in the world wouldn't mean very much given that there are so few of his ilk. However, it wouldn't be a stretch to describe him as one of the most thrilling virtuosos in contemporary jazz. Leading a stellar band, Maret gave an electrifying performance worthy of the festival's closing event. The handsome venue, the Mugham Center, was built specifically for acoustic Azeri folk music, but thankfully the space was kind to the fairly high decibel approach of Maret's quartet.

Before the musicians took to the stage, the US chargé d'affaires William Gill paid tribute to BJF's Artistic Director Rain Sultanov, its Director Leyla Efendiyeva and the BJF team, noting their hard work and congratulating them all for making the BJF such a success. He also noted the support of the Ministry of Culture. Mr. Gill then said a few words about jazz as an American art form, its global adoption and its inclusive nature. He recognized Azerbaijan's long-standing jazz history and the international standing of many Azeri jazz musicians, noted for their creativity and virtuosity.

The words gave way to music as Maret, keyboards/pianist Bobby Sparks, bassist Robert Kubiszyn and drummer Donald Edwards launched into a high-powered version of Stevie Wonder's "Superstitious." It's been a staple of Maret's gigs for some years now and no wonder, for this high-octane jazz-fusion workout got the concert off to a flying start. Sparks' synthesizer solo set the clock back to the 1970s, teeing up Maret nicely for a solo as melodious as it was adventurous. Just as you were reeling from chops that any bebopper would have been proud of Maret raised the bar higher still on "The Gospel," leaping about the stage as Edwards' blistering polyrhythms drove the harmonica player onto a breathless, bravura improvisation.

Maret introduced singer Christie Dashiel on "Beautiful Memories," a soulful number with Sparks conjuring rolling Hammond textures from his Nord C2 organ. As the music swelled, Dashiel and Maret dovetailed in exhilarating fashion, the prelude to the softest of landings. Dashiel dipped in and out of the set as Maret orchestrated the set's mood. Kubiszyn's lyrical intro to "Wish" seem to set the tone for another soul-jazz outing, a notion lent credence by Dashiel's sultry tenor, but Maret's intervention lifted the music into overdrive, the harmonacist going toe to toe with Edwards in a thrilling dialogue. The final word went to Dashiel, who restored the soulful ambiance of the beginning.

Freedom trumped form on Stevie Wonder's "Isn't She Lovely," which, apart from the recognizable motif, consisted of a soaring solo from Sparks and a drum solo from Edwards that balanced intensity and innovation. Dashiel and Maret turned the mood dial down at the beginning of "It's Your Time" before lifting the music once more in tandem -the singer's wordless vocals in full flight. Dashiel showed her considerable scatting chops on "Free to Love," another powerful soul-jazz number that escalated into fiery collective release.

The Mugham Center crowd rewarded the band with a standing ovation, calling it back for an encore. The lulling, quasi orchestral intro soon gave way to a James Brown-esque funk groove that invited rhythmic clapping from the crowd. Maret and Dashiel warmed up with a call-and-response exchange, before the harmonacist came down off the stage and rocked the Mugham Center with an astonishing solo that was more heavy metal than jazz. Sparks got in on the fun, lifting his keyboard and extracting woozy electric guitar sounds, with a nod to Jimi Hendrix' "Voodoo Chile." In tune with the choreography of the concert as a whole, Maret gradually guided the music down for a gentle conclusion—the calm after the storm—before the musicians took their bows once more.

Wrap-up

At the end of Gregoire Maret's concert, the BJF team and representatives of the sponsors, organizers and festival partners lined up for a group photo on the Mugham Center stage. The sight of the BJF's professional and volunteer team alongside officials from embassies and cultural institutes, painted a fairly accurate picture, not just of the BJF's structure, but of jazz' dependency in general, globally speaking, on the support and largesse of sympathetic donors. It was also indicative of just how many people from diverse backgrounds have to pull together to successfully bring off an event like the BJF.

A success the BJF undoubtedly was, both artistically and from an organisational point of view. The jazz on offer represented a broad panorama of the contemporary scene, with participating musicians from Russia, Georgia, Estonia, Kazakhstan and Turkey reflecting Azerbaijan's position at the intersection between Eastern Europe and Western Asia.

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.

It is to be hoped too, that Azerbaijan's current crop of jazz musicians will receive the sort of support and encouragement beyond the confines of the BJF that their talents deserve. Come wind, come shine.

Photo: Courtesy of Orkhan Khalilov

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