Jazzerbaijan hits Ronnie Scott’s
Neil Watson of The European Azerbaijan Society sees two of the country's finest jazz pianists pack out Ronnie Scott's club in London
Ronnie Scott’s Club was full to capacity on the evening of 9 February for a concert featuring two of the leading pianistic lights of Azerbaijani jazz – Amina Figarova and Isfar Sarabski – in a landmark double-bill organised by the Buta Festival of Azerbaijani Arts.
New York-resident Amina Figarova, who previously performed at Ronnie’s on the same bill as Ravi Coltrane, began the evening with the other members of her European sextet. Very much planted in the post-bop school, she focused on her own compositions, beginning with NYCST, penned for her 12th album, aptly named Twelve, which featured an inventive tenor solo from Johannes Müller, who demonstrated his mastery across many styles during the set.
Amina’s home city of Baku sits on the Caspian Sea, and two pieces were inspired by the water. Shut Eyes, See Waves was an atonal and evocative piece, featured the seagull-like trumpet of Frederik Koster, whereas Sneaky Seagulls had a propulsive beat and was a showpiece for flautist Bart Platteau as well as again giving Müller a chance to demonstrate a Coltrane-influenced approach.
The next piece elicited a roar of approval from the Azerbaijani contingent in the audience. It was a glorious Azerbaijani folk song, arranged by Amina especially for the evening. This was replete with eastern harmonies and featured a powerful and evocative trumpet solo from Koster. It was originally featured on Amina’s album Firewind. Baku is known as "City of Winds" and Azerbaijan is the "Land of Fire".
This was followed by The Traveller, commissioned by Jazz at Lincoln Centre, which conjured up visions of the heat of Baku. It also provided drummer Jason Brown with the chance to demonstrate his abilities. Blue Whisper was the title track from Amina’s forthcoming 13th album, and was a quiet and introspective piece, beginning with an ensemble passage featuring flute, trumpet and tenor sax before breaking into an unbridled sax solo from Müller. It also featured a delicate bass solo from Jeroen Vierdag. The final piece was named in honour of Amina’s grandmother Leila, who loved to dance. It included an inventive staccato flute solo from Platteau and tongued notes on Koster’s trumpet, concluding with an exciting drum solo from Brown.
Isfar Sarabski, aged just 25 and currently unrecorded, is very much at an earlier stage of his career. However, he has been making waves since winning the Montreux Jazz Festival Solo Jazz Piano Prize at the age of 19. Playing tonight with the longstanding members of his trio – Makar Novikov (bass) and Alexander Mashin (drums) – he is clearly rooted in the mugham harmonies and other folk music of his homeland, combined with approaches from the post-bop school and jazz-funk.
He is classically-trained, and his Prélude began with an obvious homage to J.S. Bach, before picking up tempo to exciting effect. After a solo introduction that alluded to the magical aspects of the ballet, Isfar’s next solo went on to develop into the Dance Of The Cygnets from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, his funky variations and repeated figures drawing excited shouts from the audience.
Isfar also ably demonstrated his formidable technique with the standard repertoire, distilling the spirit of Bill Evans for a glorious version of Oscar Levant’s melody Blame It On My Youth. He then approached Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm, encapsulating a wide range of piano style, including an elaborate approach akin to that of Oscar Peterson and even some Fats Waller-influenced barrelhouse stride. Following a standing ovation, he encored with his own composition, the propulsive and funky G-Man, his dizzying fingers generating considerable excitement amongst the audience. It was an unforgettable evening.
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