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Rain Sultanov: Putting Baku On The Jazz Map

Rain Sultanov: Putting Baku On The Jazz Map

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The fact is because Azerbaijan was part of the Soviet Union for many years it wasn’t easy for us, after the 1990s, to declare ourselves as a country, to talk about our jazz history. This is the goal.
—Rain Sultanov, saxophonist/Artistic Director, Baku Jazz Festival
The Baku Jazz Festival has been a labor of love for its founder and Artistic Director, Rain Sultanov. And, like most love stories, there have been a few bumps along the road. Thirteen editions in, however, the Baku Jazz Festival is well established as one of the highpoints of Azerbaijan's annual cultural calendar. It mightn't draw the crowds or the sponsors of the Baku Formula 1 Grand Prix, but the Baku Jazz Festival is driven by something other than the allure of glamour and money.

For Sultanov, an internationally renowned saxophonist, jazz historian and mentor to the younger generation of Azeri jazz musicians, the Baku Jazz Festival is built upon several cornerstones. Above all, perhaps, it celebrates the love of jazz and the promotion of the music in Baku. Equally important to Sultanov, however, is the festival's function as a platform for young, up-and-coming jazz talent—from both Azerbaijan and abroad—and its potential as an organic archive to preserve and promote Baku's long-standing association with jazz.

Though the Baku Jazz Festival is relatively young, the first jazz festival to be staged in Baku actually dates back over fifty years ago. A small jazz festival took place in the Green Theatre in 1967, with three local bands on the bill. Over the next two years the festival grew, with the 1969 edition featuring musicians from Georgia, Estonia, The Russian Federation and, in the form of Vagif Mustafazadeh, Rafig Babayev and the vocal quartet Qaya, some of Azerbaijan's most celebrated jazz groups of the day.

A decade and a half would pass, however, before another jazz festival took place, operating on alternate years between 1983 and 1987. The next time a jazz festival got up and running, after another gap of fifteen years, Sultanov was involved. "Some people from England and Germany started The Caspian Jazz and Blues Festival in 2002," relates Sultanov. "They contacted me and asked if I could help with the organizing." Like its predecessors, The Caspian Jazz and Blues Festival lasted just three editions before folding.

Undeterred by the historically short life-span of jazz festivals in Baku, Sultanov and his wife, Leyla Efendiyeva, looked for a way to consolidate jazz in the Azerbaijani capital. Backed by a music-loving sponsor, together they set up The Baku Jazz Centre and started the jazz magazine Jazz Dunyasi, a high quality publication that is still going strong to this day. The Jazz Centre, however, has had a more chequered history. "I was the Artistic Director but it wasn't really functioning," admits Sultanov. Determined to make jazz a home for jazz in Baku, Sultanov, made a bold decision. "I thought we should do a jazz festival."

Sultanov sat down with his wife and made a 'to-do' list. With Leyla's guidance a design team revamped the jazz club, opening up a restaurant and bar in the venue. "The Jazz Center was bigger and better than before," says Sultanov," and we started hosting gigs." With a sophisticated venue, new-found momentum and enthusiasm in spades Sultanov and his wife began to contact embassies to gauge interest. "The result," says Sultanov, "was the Baku Jazz Festival."

The launch of the Baku Jazz Festival took place in 2005, with concerts split between the Music Academy and the newly refurbished jazz club. Azeri jazz musicians featured strongly on the festival programme, with Qaya vocalist Javan Zeynalli, guitarist Alasgar Abbasov, the talented pianist Shahin Novrasli and veteran trumpeter Arzu Huseynov. Russian and Turkish bands also featured, though the real coup was the appearance of Joe Zawinul and The Zawinul Syndicate.

Sultanov and Endiyeva also took Jazz Dunyasi to Jazzahead, Bremen, for the first time in 2005. Since then they have returned each year to the world's largest jazz-industry gathering in order to promote Azeri jazz musicians.

The second edition of the Baku Jazz Festival 2006 followed a similar format as the first year, with Azeri talent such as bassist Rauf Sultanov, pianist Emil Ibrahim, and Rain Sultanov-who played with Bobo Stenson—sharing the bill with Maria Joao, Al Jarreau and Herbie Hancock.

Sultanov remembers those first editions of the Baku Jazz Festival with great fondness. "Joe Zawinul said to me that you have to know a person before you can really play music with them. At lunch time we had an open buffet in the jazz club where all the musicians, from abroad and Azeri musicians alike, ate, talked and drank together. This carried over to the jam sessions in the evening. There were a lot of people and the jam sessions carried on to the morning," recalls Sultanov. "It was something special."

From the beginning Sultanov championed the Young Jazz Talent competition, understanding that the future health of jazz in Azerbaijan required the encouragement and nurturing of those young musicians with a passion for the music. With the Young Jazz Talent competition, jam sessions that celebrated the improvisatory, egalitarian traditions of the music, workshops and jazz-related art exhibitions, Sultanov had laid the foundations for a festival that was about so much more than just selling tickets for gigs.

Unfortunately, the honeymoon wasn't to last. The festival's principal sponsor had another vision for the BJF, one that cared less for promoting Azeri jazz or youthful talent and which instead was interested primarily in attracting artists of international renown. "It is true that we did not agree on some issues. I have always believed that there is no need to adapt to the listener, but rather to educate the listener. That said, I have great respect for people who contribute to jazz and in those first two years the festival and the work of the jazz center achieved many of our goals. It was simply time to part ways."

Unable to reconcile himself with an overtly commercial programme, and with regret, Sultanov walked away in 2007 from the festival he had dreamt of and founded.

Without Sultanov guiding the BJF it ran the danger of disappearing, like all the other jazz festivals that had got a start in Baku since the 1960s. 2008, in fact, was a fallow year. The Ministry of Culture and Tourism rebooted the BJF between 2009 and 2015, though the character of the festival in those years was markedly different. "It had changed," says Sultanov, with a little sadness in his voice. "There were no workshops, no competition, no exhibitions -nothing. Just big American names."

There were just six concerts in 2009, with Branford Marsalis and Richard Bona top of the bill. In 2010 the programme was an all-American affair, with no room for any Azeri jazz musicians. 2013 was a very similar story, with plenty of American jazz muscle in the form of Joshua Redman, Kenny Garrett, Marcus Miller, Bob James & David Sanborn -but not a single Azeri musician.

There was room for the Elchin Shirinov Trio and the Emil Afrasiyab Group in 2015 on a bill headlined by Charles Lloyd, Fourplay and Diana Krall, but with just six concerts spread over ten days and no other activities at all there was little in the way of a festival feel to spark the enthusiasm of the Baku jazz-loving public.

The story of the Baku Jazz Festival was to take another twist in 2015 when word reached Sultanov that the Ministry of Culture and Tourism was pulling the rug from under the festival. There was no longer any money, not just for the BJF, but also for the city's principal folk festival, The Mugham Festival, and significantly, the Mstislav Rostropovich Baku International Festival -all of which fell by the wayside.

If there were no funds to sustain the festival founded by one of Baku's most famous sons, the internationally celebrated cellist and conductor Rostropovich, then what chance jazz?

There imminent demise of the BJF, however, opened a window of opportunity, as Sultanov explains. "When we heard that the BJF would stop because there was no more money from the government Leyla asked me: 'Rain, do you want to organize the festival again?' There was no budget, of course," relates Sultanov. "The government couldn't help financially, but I thought that perhaps with several venues it might be possible. So I said 'Okay. We will try.' Leyla asked me if I was sure and I said, 'Yes, it's my child.'"

Thanks to Sultanov and Efendiyeva, the Baku Jazz Festival not only survived, but was effectively reborn in 2016, with Sultanov resuming the role of Artistic Director and Efendiyeva guiding the ship as Festival Director. Sultanov is quick to acknowledge the influence of Efendiyeva, who doubles as Chief Editor of Jazz Dunyasi. "She is my spouse and my true friend. I couldn't have achieved everything without her. We work together as a team and always have. I know that everything she does will be done for sure, and on time."

From six concerts in 2015, the BJF 2016 under Sultanov and Efendiyeva's stewardship expanded to twenty. From an all American-programme the year before, BJF 2016 moved to embrace jazz musicians from Brazil, Spain, Germany, Italy, the UK, Lithuania, Poland, The Republic of Mauritius, France, Georgia, Hungary, Macedonia, Austria and Norway. Naturally, Sultanov welcomed back Azeri jazz musicians, and, in a nod to the music's historical roots, one of New Orleans most progressive contemporary jazz groups, Plunge.

It was a programme that was truly representative of jazz's global reach, and one that underlined Sultanov's philosophy: "My strategy is I don't need famous, big names. I need good music, good musicians, and I try to show a lot of styles of jazz music, not only traditional, old-school jazz, but more contemporary jazz as well. From the start of the festival to the end you can feel that each band plays its own style of jazz. Today is one style, tomorrow and the day after tomorrow are something completely different. It's important for the audience."

In addition, Sultanov reactivated the Young Jazz Talent competition, and reintroduced daily workshops, jam sessions, jazz-related films and an art exhibition to the programme. In all, BJF 2016 comprised sixty four events -ten times the previous year's programme.

The festival's new home was in The Landmark Hotel, a luxurious hotel facing The Caspian Sea with tremendous panoramas of Baku. The bulk of the concerts were held The Landmark Hotel's Rotunda Jazz Club, which made it easy for rehearsals, and the musicians were accommodated and fed in the hotel.

Sultanov is extremely grateful to Eran Muduroglu, The Landmark hotel's owner, whose sponsorship of BJF has been crucial to the success of its relaunch. So too, Rauf Aliyev, whose production company A+A Events provides all the sound equipment for BJF. "Thank God we have these two partners and our embassy partners" stresses Sultanov. "They are very important. It is thanks to them that we can do the jazz festival. For the rest, you must do yourself, to find the sponsorship. It's very difficult, but I feel every year that more and more companies are interested in supporting Baku Jazz Festival."

The 2017 edition followed the same blueprint established in 2016 -Azeri and international acts representing a broad spectrum of jazz-but was of slightly smaller scale. In 2018, BJF—reviewed here in a separate article—roared back with an extended programme of eighteen main concerts and over forty events. There was a special Azeri Jazz Day, which featured the talents of Nurlan Abdullazadeh, Elvin Bashirov Group and Afgan Rasul Trio. "It is important that our audience sees and hears Azeri musicians," says Sultanov.

Promoting Azeri jazz and preserving the history of jazz in Azerbaijan are two sides of the same coin for Sultanov. An authority on the subject, Sultanov authored a book, The Jazz History of Azerbaijan (Efendi Publishing House, 2015) -an essential read for anyone wishing to understand the bigger picture. The book's 320 pages trace the roots of jazz in Azerbaijan and profile the leading figures that form a timeline to the present day.

As Sultanov highlights in his book, jazz arrived in Azerbaijan not long after it emerged in the USA, via vinyl records from Russia. Sidney Bechet played Baku in 1927 as part of Frank Wither's Kings of Jazz. America's great swing bands provided the inspiration for Azerbaijan's first jazz orchestra, which was founded in the late 1930s by Tofig Guliyev. Unfortunately, World War II meant that the orchestra would have a short life.

As it transpired, the end of the war did not mean that jazz musicians in Baku could pick up exactly where they had left off.

For Joseph Stalin, jazz equated with corrupt Western values, and more than one jazz musician in Baku suffered the consequences. In May 1949, 27-year-old saxophonist Parviz Rustambeyov was arrested by Mirjafar Baghirov's military police and thrown in a prison cell. As Sultanov recounts in his book, The Jazz History of Azerbaijan, Rustambeyov was charged as an 'anti-Soviet and pro-American element' and was sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment. Six months later Rustambeyov died in unexplained circumstances while in prison.

"It was a very difficult time," reflects Sultanov. "During the Stalin regime people who played jazz were seen as selling out their country -as bourgeois. Musicians were afraid that any day somebody from the KGB would turn up and say 'Come with me.' Poets, musicians, composers -all were put in prison."

Soviet repression meant that jazz musicians had to adapt or pay the price. It's remarkable that jazz continued at all in Baku during the Stalin years, though what emerged as a result of Soviet disdain for all things Western was a new form of jazz unique to Azerbaijan.

"Of course, musicians still wanted to play jazz music," explains Sultanov. "In fact, there were a lot of jazz musicians and jazz orchestras at that time in the 1950s. It was a very hard time, a dangerous time, but musicians adapted automatically. They had to change the name 'jazz music' and play something else, so they mixed Mugham style with jazz. It was a way to escape the Soviet censure and continue playing jazz."

Mugham, Azerbaijan's highly complex, modal folk music made a happy bed-fellow with jazz. Arguably, the greatest exponent of Mugham jazz was pianist Vagif Mustafazadeh, who, as Sultanov described in his book, was 'ahead of time, laws, and boundaries.' This brilliant pianist would doubtless have reached a wider audience had it not been for the control of the Soviet authorities, who restricted his performance to Communist, Soviet bloc countries.

Ill fate dictated that Mustafazadeh was not to see an independent Azerbaijan, with all that the new-found freedom would have entailed for his career. He was just thirty nine when he died of a heart attack. A few videos of Mustafazadeh are available on Youtube but his recordings are elusive. "Vagif recorded a lot of vinyl on the Soviet label Melodiya," says Sultanov, "but his records are difficult to find."

Like the most significant musicians, however, Vagif Mustafazadeh's legacy lives on in the musicians he inspired. Mugham jazz has developed in his wake as a bona fide style of music in Azerbaijan. Today, over four decades later, pianist Shahin Novrasli, one of Azerbaijan's most outstanding jazz musicians, keeps the mugham jazz flame alive. In November 2009, Novrasli, who is in demand at festivals all over the world, performed mugham jazz at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall with two of the UK's most outstanding contemporary jazz musicians -Tim Garland and Iain Ballamy.

Another generation of Baku jazz musicians had to endure extremely difficult times in the first half of the 1990s. The pro-independence movement in Azerbaijan was met by martial law imposed by Mikhail Gorbachev. In January 1990, Soviet troops entered Baku, killing scores of Azerbaijani civilians in a brutal crackdown. A year later Azerbaijan declared independence as the Soviet Union disintegrated dramatically. In the aftermath of independence, Armenia invaded Nagorno-Karabakh. Inter-ethnic fighting in the disputed territory had been simmering since the late 1980s, and in 1992 war erupted. Though largely confined to the mountainous, forested Nagorno-Karabakh territory, Baku was not unaffected. On 19 March, 1994 a suicide bomb attributed to Armenian terrorists exploded in a metro station in Baku, killing fourteen people. Among the dead was jazz pianist and composer Rafiq Babayev.

"It was a very difficult time," recalls Sultanov of that turbulent period. "The curfew, the war. There were guns on the streets. You couldn't play music, the restaurants shut. There was no music, no life. People stayed at home."

For almost two years Sultanov was unable to find work in the oppressive environment. In 1992 he moved to Turkey, playing with jazz bands in Istanbul and playing beach resorts in the summer, before relocating to Germany in 1996. "These were difficult years for me -a turning point," relates Sultanov. "I tried to find a way to survive as a musician. I was in search of both myself and of music. Turkey gave me a little, but in Germany I met musicians who were closer to me in spirit. The years I spent outside of Azerbaijan are part of my history and I love them too."

He was not alone in seeking opportunity abroad. His brother Rauf Sultanov, the veteran jazz bassist, relocated to Moscow, and many others musicians were also forced to abandon Baku in search of work.

By 1997, things has quietened down sufficiently at home that friends were able to persuade Sultanov to return to Baku, where he formed the band Syndicate and began his recording career in earnest. Sultanov released eight self-produced albums between 1998 and 2015, before German label Ozella Music placed its faith in him. For his debut on Dagobert Boehm's label, Inspired By Nature (Ozella Music, 2017), Sultanov found his muse in the vastly landscape of his country. Nine out of the word's eleven recognized climate zones exist in Azerbaijan -the terrain evolving dramatically from The Caspian Sea in the east to the Murovdag mountain range of the Lesser Caucasus. Sultanov travelled with his musicians and a film crew throughout the country, recording the natural sounds they encountered.

"My idea was to speak with nature, with the animals, the trees -to connect with the atmosphere of nature," explains Sultanov. The result was music both visceral and lyrically haunting. Inspired by Nature was produced in Oslo's Rainbow Studio by legendary ECM sound engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug, which was a particular thrill for Sultanov. "I had followed the music of Keith Jarrett and Jan Garbarek for many years and so many of their records were recorded there in the Rainbow Studio. I knew Erik would do a good job. It was a very special experience."

The second release on Ozella Music is a radically different affair. Cycle (2018) is a series of sombre, meditative duets with Isfar Sarabski, who doubled on church organ and piano. It was a significant departure for Sultanov, whose early style, by his own admission, was grounded in the music of John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Michael Brecker. "Something has changed in my approach," Sultanov acknowledges. "I need more space, more clarity, more silence in the music."

Initially, Sultanov's idea had been to use a pianist and an organist but in the end he entrusted both roles to Sarabski. "I've known Isfar since he was a child," says Sultanov. He was already a very good keyboard player at the age of seventeen or eighteen years and he's a very good classical pianist too. He has a great sound and I knew he could play both organ and piano. I know his music and his touch very well."

So impressed was Sultanov with Sarabski that in 2008 he took the young pianist, when Sarabski was just eighteen, on tour in Norway. It was Sarabski's first tour abroad. Within a year Sarabski would win the Montreux Jazz Festival Solo Piano Competition, launching the career of one of Azerbaijan's most promising jazz musicians. Since then Sarabski has performed all over the world as a leader in his own right, and has toured extensively with Dhafer Youssef's Birds:Requiem (Okeh, 2014).

The first recording sessions for Cycle were held in Baku's Church of the Redeemer with Azeri sound engineer Nazim Kerimov present to record the rehearsals. The sight of the microphones came as a surprise to Sarabski, who thought it was a rehearsal, but such a spontaneous approach to recording is in keeping with Sultanov' philosophy of music-making. "I don't like to over-rehearse," Sultanov explains. "When I go into a studio I like to play a piece no more than three or four times and I search for one or two takes -usually the first or second, because the third, fourth or fifth usually just repeat."

Sultanov's new label Ozella Music liked the music, which gave Sultanov the green light to forge ahead. He and Sarabski returned to the Church of the Redeemer to record more tracks, though because of the noise from the subway the recording sessions were held between one and five in the morning.

Sultanov and Sarabski performed Cycles at Baku Jazz Festival 2016, though the official album launch came at Jazzahead, Bremen, in 2018. The project has proven to be an international success, with performances in Ukraine, Sweden, Germany, France, Norway and Russia, with further dates pencilled in going forward.

2018 has been a significant year in other ways for Sultanov in raising the profile of jazz in Azerbaijan. On April 30 Azerbaijan joined 190 other countries in celebrating the UNESCO International Jazz Day in Baku's International Mugham Center. In a gala concert broadcast live on national television, Azerbaijani artists Sultanov, Sarabski, Elnara Hasanli, Ruslan Huseynov, Elvin Bashirov and Vadim Abramov, plus young, up-and-coming Azeri musicians shared the bill with Kennedy Administration from the USA.

For Sultanov, UNESCO International Jazz Day is another important platform for jazz in general and for young, aspiring jazz talent from Azerbaijan. "It's an opportunity for those musicians just starting out to play alongside professional musicians, and I can tell you, some of the young jazz talent here is very worthy."

The promotion of jazz youth at Baku Jazz Festival's annual I Am Jazzman competition, which is open to both Azeri and international musicians, is an important part of Sultanov's vision for jazz in Azerbaijan. Sultanov delights in the fact that one of the 2017 prize-winners, accordionist Seymour Hasansoy, was invited to play with Richard Galliano on the festival's main stage, drawing praise from the renowned French accordionist. "This is why we hold the I Am Jazzman competition," affirms Sultanov. "There is a lot of talented jazz youth that we can help develop."

In 2018 Sultanov took another important stride for jazz in Azerbaijan when Baku Jazz Festival joined the Europe Jazz Network. The EJN is a dynamic, non-profit association of 133 organisations (festivals, venues, promoters, and national organisations), Europe-wide and beyond, that is broadly and resolutely dedicated to the promotion of jazz.

Joining the EJN is a significant development, as Sultanov explains, for the Baku Jazz Festival and for jazz in Azerbaijan. "The fact is because Azerbaijan was part of the Soviet Union for many years it wasn't easy for us, after the 1990s, to declare ourselves as a country, to talk about our jazz history. This is the goal," he declares.

The history of jazz in Azerbaijan will doubtless become better known thank to the publication of in September 2018 of the book The History of European Jazz: The Music, Musicians and Audience in Context (Equinox Publishing, 2018). This 740-page tome, edited by the respected Italian jazz author/historian Francesco Martinelli of the Siena Jazz Archive, includes a chapter, written by Sultanov, on the history of jazz in Azerbaijan.

For all the above-mentioned reasons, and with Azeri jazz musicians playing abroad as much as at any time in the country's long jazz history, it is, Sultanov feels, a good time for jazz in Azerbaijan.

"The history of jazz in Azerbaijan is interesting and paradoxical, but today we have all the conditions and opportunities to move forward. Azerbaijan is an independent, economically developed, modern country. It's an open and hospitable country -these are our Eastern traditions. There are challenges to develop jazz beyond Baku," Sultanov acknowledges, "but there is still no large-scale, state programme. This year one of the young musicians in the competition was from Sumgayit, and last year there was a group from Ganja -there are jazz scenes in these cities but not as developed as we would like. Still, we have some plans to give impetus in this direction."

State sponsorship may be key in taking jazz in Azerbaijan to the next level by sustaining Sultanov and Efendiyeva's existing efforts and by and investing in the development of the country's young jazz talent. The publishing/reissue on CD of the works of some of Azerbaijan's best known artists—Mustafazadeh for one—is arguably overdue. With Baku Jazz Festival a firm fixture at Jazzahead, an active promoter of UNESCO International Jazz Day and now a member of the Europe Jazz Network, the time is perhaps ripe for Azerbaijan to stake its claim as a hub for jazz where Eastern Europe and Western Asia meet.

After years of promise, struggle and false dawns, Baku now has a jazz festival to be proud of -one that is determinedly set for the long haul. "We have put the Azerbaijan flag on the jazz map of the world," says Sultanov with quiet pride. "It is a good time."

Photo: Courtesy of Rain Sultanov/Baku Jazz Festival

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