Baku, November 25, AZERTAC
Internationally-acclaimed Azerbaijani pianist Elchin Shirinov brought his unique approach to jazz to the Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho, London as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival on 18 November, in a concert supported by The European Azerbaijan Society (TEAS). Established in 1969, this is one of the leading jazz venues in the metropolis, having hosted a range of international stars from across the decades and genres, including Bud Freeman, Benny Carter, Lew Tabackin, John Dankworth, Diana Krall and Jamie Callum. TEAS has previously supported his concerts at the Festival Jazz à Saint-Germain-des-Prés Paris; Sunnyside Festival in Reims; and at the Spice of Life and Vortex Clubs in London.
Shirinov – who comes from the Azerbaijani folk tradition – belongs to the new generation of Azerbaijani jazz musicians who combine elements of post-bop jazz with the modes, melodies and microtones of Azerbaijani folk and classical music. The concert featured two musicians well-versed in Shirinov’s music – Italian bassist Andrea Di Biase and British drummer Dave Hamblett.
The first set began with a piece by the father of Azerbaijani classical music – an aria from the 1910 operetta O Olmasin Bu Olsun (If not this one, that one) by Uzeyir Hajibeyli, which he had reworked into non-standard metrical form. Maintaining the richly ornamented main theme, the piano then entered into interplay with drummer Hamblett, giving rise to increasingly more daring and successively faster improvisations, propelled by the drumming, before reaching dizzying heights of complexity.
Throughout, Shirinov made space for both Hamblett and Di Biase to improvise as freely as possible, being perfectly content to recede into the background as an accompanist or come to the foreground with his own exciting improvisations whenever necessary, particularly after Hamblett upped the tempo. His composition Muse was a thoughtful and delicate eastern-tinged dance-like melody that provided many opportunities for his own extemporisations to reach new heights of ingenuity.
Shirinov’s own Waiting, beginning as a languorous and delicate piece, again demonstrated the strong themes and eastern harmonies that are a hallmark of Shirinov’s work, the symbiotic relationship with both western musicians emphasising the infinite understanding and respect that exists between all trio members.
Maiden Tower is one of Shirinov’s latest compositions, inspired by the iconic 12th century tower located in Icheri Sheher (Old City), a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A nostalgic piece, this was redolent of Shirinov’s childhood and conjured up the sounds of this area of the city.
Introducing each song in English, Elchin followed this with another of his compositions – Chika Chika – a dynamic and staccato piece, full of repeated figures leading to freeform passages. This provided the groundwork for Hamblett to apply his full arsenal of percussion and percussive techniques, ranging from straightforward on-the-beat drumming through to a dizzying combination of cymbals, high-hats and bass drums that whipped the multinational audience into a frenzy.
The second set began with an elegiac (and currently unnamed) composition, followed by a version of the folksong Gul Achdi, beginning with a single repeated note on the bass that was picked up on the piano, giving way to staccato variations on the main theme. The dancelike melody resulted in a trancelike state for all audience members, and prompted them to a standing ovation.
I’m a Mother was written by film composer Adil Babirov, and featured a plaintive melody replete with microtones across a 6/8 rhythm, which gave way to contrapuntal interplay between Di Biase and Shirinov. This was followed by his version of the Azerbaijani folk song Durna, which began at a furious drum-led pace and was full of eastern harmonies, microtones and repeated figures, urging on Hamblett towards increasingly daring and complex drum passages. This, in turn, prompted a staccato response by Shirinov before his pianistic pyrotechnics upped the tempo even further, reaching a new degree of excitement. Throughout the concert, Di Biase demonstrated that the legacy of the great lyric bass player of postbop jazz – Scott LaFaro – remains firmly alive.
The concert concluded with arguably the most famous Azerbaijani folk song – the enigmatic Sari Gelin – beginning at a stately and reverential pace, laid down by Hamblett, its sad theme captivating all audience members. This led to an empathetically reflective bowed bass passage from Di Biase. The piece culminated with a richly ornamented variation of the main theme, accompanied by a bowed bass in its upper register that stunned every member of the audience into silence.
The response to the concert gave credence to the observation by renowned US drummer Jeff Ballard (formerly a sidesman with Chick Corea and Ray Charles): “Passionate. Thoughtful. Always playing with care, Elchin Shirinov is a musician for us to discover and enjoy. His original compositions are exciting to listen to. The band sounds relaxed and in totally sync. Their playing together is smooth as silk and seemingly effortless. Great stuff!”