Now aged 86, Ahmad Jamal is one of the living legends of postbop jazz. Influenced by the great Erroll Garner, he is one of the most successful small group leaders of all time, having developed a richly figurative style that owes as much to Bach as to Art Tatum. He achieved particular popularity in the jazz hub that is Paris, and has performed at all the major Parisian concert halls, including L’Olympia and the Salle Pleyel.
His ears remain resolutely open to other pianists of all styles, and hence the organisers of the Festival Jazz à St-Germain-des-Prés Paris paid an unusual tribute on 20 May by permitting Ahmad Jamal to select one pianist to perform – this accolade being given to the dynamic Azerbaijani pianist, Shahin Novrasli, in a concert supported by the Paris office of The European Azerbaijan Society (TEAS).
This continues a tradition established by the organisation, which has previously sponsored the participation of three other extraordinary Azerbaijani jazz pianists – Isfar Sarabski, Emil Afrasiyab and Elchin Shirinov.
Performing amidst the imposing mural-dominated academic surroundings of the 500-seat amphitheatre of La Maison des Océans, headquarters of the Institut océanographique, Shahin launched his second album Emanation alongside James Cammack, longstanding bassist with Ahmad Jamal; septuagenarian French drummer André Ceccarelli, whose previous collaborators include Dee Dee Bridgewater, Stéphane Grappelli and Chick Corea; and Georgian drummer Irakli Koiava, who performed on an amazing panoply of Latin and other percussion, fascinating the audience and achieving an extraordinary aural impact.
Coming in the wake of his first album, Bayati, Shahin’s new album was co-produced with Ahmad Jamal and recorded in Paris. It features the same rhythm section as at the concert with the addition of guest violinist Didier Lockwood on some tracks.
Christophe Doré, jazz pundit for Le Figaro, highlighted the concert, saying: “There are few musicians that refresh us with their gravity, genres and style, transforming rivers of notes into a flow with their fingers… the Azerbaijan pianist Shahin Novrasli is one of the greatest jazz musicians of his generation, founded in the classical school.
“The way in which he searches for notes, letting them fly at will, or by chance, is impressive. He seizes the desire for freedom, taking improvisatory risks to make jazz. His latest album Emanation is a treasure of fusion, both festive and virtuosic, inspired by the Orient, and combining classical and jazz to draw a patchwork that is particularly successful.
‘When I write or play, I do not think of jazz or any particular style’, stated the pianist. ‘I just want it to be beautiful.’
Mr Doré goes on to quote Frédéric Charbaut, Jazz Broadcaster and Co-founder of the Festival, who offered his plaudits. “I do not hide the fact that, for me, one of the most exciting concerts for the new edition of the festival is by Shahin Novrasli, who is surrounded by the veritable talents of James Cammack on bass and André Ceccarelli on drums.”
During the concert, Shahin performed a vibrant mélange of standards, his own compositions and variations on Azerbaijani pieces, Azertac reported.
His opening piece was Stella By Starlight, a work that has inspired many jazz musicians over more than seven decades. Sitting on the edge of his piano stool and writhing with creativity, Shahin frequently appeared to be extracting each note from his very soul. Throughout the concert, the rapport between each of the four musicians was self-evident. As his hypnotic variations continued, his improvisations became evermore elaborate, plumbing the depths of harmonic exploration in a manner that owed something to Thelonious Monk, but was nonetheless very much his own.
Another standard, entitled You Don’t Know What Love Is – made famous by doomed trumpeter Chet Baker – was more introspective, as expected, yet replete with Bachian counterpoint that drew attention to Shahin’s own classical background. He then performed his first Azerbaijani piece, an evocative work that was replete with chords taken from Eastern harmonies, complemented by Irakli’s wind effects that reminded the listener of Baku, known as the City of Winds.
Throughout, his compositions and improvisations on standards incorporated some of the harmonies and microtones of mugham, a semi-improvised modal form of folk music originating in Nagorno-Karabakh, an Azerbaijani cultural hub that has remained under illegal Armenian occupation for 25 years.
Shahin’s mellifluous, yet dizzying, variations on How About You? placed the capacity audience in the palm of his hand, reducing them to a whistling and stomping crowd who were aware of seeing a great master at the height of his powers. This was followed by an Azerbaijani piece that reached a zenith of excitement, with the two drummers, bassist and Shahin achieving an extraordinarily symbiotic relationship.
The father of Azerbaijani jazz-mugham is generally recognised as being the pioneering pianist Vagif Mustafazeh, of whom B.B. King commented: “People call me King of the Blues, but if I could play the piano like you do, I would call myself God.” It was therefore only fitting that he took a slow section of Vagif’s Piano Concerto and paid tribute to this pioneer of Azerbaijani ethnojazz, his incredible technique demonstrating his justification as heir to Vagif’s crown.
Following several minutes of stomping, stamping, clapping and whistling from the audience, Shahin returned to the stage for an unexpected encore of Michael Jackson’s She’s Out of My Life. It was a poignant end to an unforgettable evening of music in Paris – one of the world’s leading jazz capitals.
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