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In Conversations – Breaking through with Eldar Djangirov

Eldar Djangirov, as known as Eldar professionally, is a pianist, composer and an educator. He is considered one of most celebrated jazz prodigy of his generation. Dave Brubeck, who played a piano duet with Eldar in 2011 called him “a genius beyond most young people I’ve heard.”

Eldar just released his 10th album WORLD TOUR VOL. 1 on April 17th, 2015. A compilation of takes from his recent touring, the record covers a wide range of performances from across the globe with trio and solo tracks sure to impress. Clips from Tokyo, Philadelphia, Windham, Montreal, Atlanta, Washington DC, Tongyeong, San Diego and Oakland are captured in front of live audiences. The record features outstanding performances from Ludwig Afonso, Ferenc Nemeth, and Jonathan Joseph on drums and Armando Gola on bass. The unparalleled virtuosity of Eldar’s playing and thrilling compositions make this a masterpiece not to miss.

Eldar was born in Kyrgyzstan in the former Soviet Union, he moved to Kansas City to further his piano studies when he was ten. At age nine, He was discovered by the late New York City jazz aficionado Charles McWhorter, who saw him perform at the Novosibirsk jazz festival in Siberia. Eldar’s first performance appearance in the States was at the Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan. There was no stopping after that. At age twelve, Marian McPartland invited Eldar to appear on her NPR Piano Jazz radio show(Eldar holds the record as the youngest performer). At age fourteen, Elder participated in the jazz piano competition of the 2001 Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival and won the top prize. The following year, he won first place in the Peter Nero Piano Competition. After releasing two independent albums, at age seventeen, he signed with Sony Masterworks in 2004. At age twenty one, his album Re-imagination was nominated at the 2008 Grammy for Best Contemporary Jazz Album.

Stephen Holden from the New York Times called Eldar “wunderkind” and “as an all-things-to-all-people prodigy”, he decribed Eldar’s music style as “combines Art Tatum’s superhuman velocity with echoes of Oscar Peterson’s grandeur”.  Eldar has shared the stage with well-established jazz masters and musicians such as Dr. Billy Taylor, Dave Brubeck, Marian McPartland, Pat Martino, Michael Brecker, Chris Botti, Harvey Mason, Wynton Marsalis, Joshua Redman, Chris Potter, Nicholas Payton, Pat Martino, Roy Hargrove, Ron Carter and many others. He has performed at the Hollywood Bowl, Carnegie Hall, the Blue Note, the Kennedy Center, and Jazz Festivals around U.S and the world.

With Dr. Billy Taylor at The Kennedy Center. Photo from eldarmusic.com

With Dr. Billy Taylor at The Kennedy Center. Photo from eldarmusic.com

Eldar started learning to play the piano when he was three years old and the first thing he remembers learning was “C Jam Blues“. He discovered the love for jazz from listening to his father’s jazz record collections, “I started playing piano when I was very young.  My father has a Ph.D in mechanical engineering by trade.  While he is not a musician, he’s a huge jazz fan. Music was part of my general education at home and music was really integrated in our lives.  My father had a huge collection of jazz records that he obtained during the time when jazz records were actually illegal in the Soviet Union.  He had some of the best records such as Oscar Peterson, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, Bill Evans and Chick Corea. That’s what I grew up listening to every day.”

Eldar credits his mother for his classical training on the piano, “My mother gave me piano lessons and taught me from a very classical perspective. I was strictly a classical player for a long time. I still like classical music – it’s the source of a lot of inspiration for me. My mother is a quintessential Russian piano teacher. She had such a strong concept of what to teach and how to lay down technique, and she had a sensitivity to different styles and aesthetics. She used to say that ‘there are certain postures and sensibilities that you should include every time you sit down and play’.”

Eldar’s years in America, “My family moved to Kansas City when I was ten years old and I spent most of my conscious and cultural upbringing there.  I finished up high school in San Diego, lived in Los Angeles for a few years, and then moved to New York. So you can see I moved around quite a lot and I’ve traveled and toured all over the world. Kansas City is definitely a place I feel connected to because it was so formative for me.  A lot of great musicians were and still are there. The older musicians were very open to mentor younger musicians and would welcome them on stage. That’s a great learning experience as a teenager to me.“

In terms of musical influences, “My biggest influences are some of the jazz greats I grew up listening to such as Oscar Peterson, Chick Corea, Bill Evans, and Miles Davis.  Being exposed to classical music honed in on the craft for the piano and being exposed to a lot of classical lessons early on from my mother was also a strong factor (I think it’s a necessary influence specifically to an instrument like piano).  It gave me a strong technical ability to execute things on the instrument that I wouldn’t otherwise been able to do.  I would consider those two early exposures as a confluence of my foundation to who I am today.  I think being exposed to good popular music and good rock will seep into the music as well. It’s hard to define any music today without recognizing other stylistic influences inside. Stylistically, there is a lot of genres that often crisscross and become a singular stream. Musical information is shared. My playing is certainly a confluence of many factors.”

Ouro Preto Jazz Festival with Joshua Redman. Photo from eldarmusic.com

Ouro Preto Jazz Festival with Joshua Redman. Photo from eldarmusic.com

Working with other musicians, “Every single person who I’ve played with made an impact on me. I’ve had quite a few excellent musicians guest with me on collaborations over the years. Most recently on the “Breakthrough” album, I had the opportunity working with Chris Potter and Joe Locke. They are both fantastic musicians. The album features Armando Gola on bass and Ludwig Afonso on drums — the core of Eldar Djangirov Trio. We’ve been playing together for seven years and togetger we create a strong dialogue as a team. This trio has a distinct approach and sound. Watching all of these musicians at work was a blast during the album making. On the previous album “Virtue” was featured the same core trio. Joshua Redman and Nicholas Payton each played on a track. To this day, I feel incredibly proud of that album. Roy Hargrove and Chris Botti guested on an album before that.  Both are masters in their own right. Michael Brecker guested on a track when I was 18.  He was amazing.  Dr. Billy Taylor had several programs at the Kennedy Center over the years.  I participated in many of those programs which focused on performance and education.  He was a mentor to me. Dr.Taylor was a great player and a knowledgeable historian. “

Master class with Eldar . Photo from www.usc.edu

Master class with Eldar . Photo from www.usc.edu

When working as a composer, “My music is a reflection of my experiences and my personality. I feel about as strong of a spiritual connection to music as breathing air. The music I make is a combination of my experiences in life and in musical endeavors. The compositions are results and a reflections of those experiences. I’ve generally found music to be objective. There is an element of phrasing and rhythm which can be undeniably right (or undeniably wrong). There is logic in harmony and melody. If a musician is aware of many subtleties of music, the music will be more informed. If a musician dedicates himself/herself to making sure they have a complete technical command of their instrument and are able to execute ideas effortlessly, it will enrich the music. My music comes from awareness, practice and dedication by default.

“As I became more aware of music being very important in my life, I started practicing eight hours a day. When I was living in L.A. and going to USC, I was practicing 12 or 14 hours a day. I had a hunger for a certain thing I wanted to get accomplished, and sometimes it would take 14 hours to get to a point where I accomplished it. I realized very early on that if you don’t do something today, tomorrow’s not going to change drastically. You have to take control.

Armando Gola, Eldar, and Ludwig Afonso. Photo from EldarDjangirov

 “A lot of times when I compose for the trio, I often tend to use a keyboard to play all the parts and make a demo.  I usually send the demo to the musicians along with the score.  It saves on rehearsal time and conveys the idea of the composition more succinctly than my verbal explanation during rehearsal.  In a way we emulate many of the compositional and stylistic aspects of that demo in a ‘live’ setting.  I know how to write for the trio because I’ve done it so much now and I know how they are going to play certain things.  So I try to always bring material that will bring out everyone’s strength.  There’s a rhythmic component to the music that acts as the ‘glue’.  There is a precision that exists in the band that holds the content together.  The focus is also on how phrasing gets conveyed within ‘the grid’ of time and how we bend it. Also there is an effortlessness that comes across when this trio performs.  It’s about being uplifted.  The music should bring a lot of joy and should feel like an instinctual performance rather than a conscious mental effort.”

Armando Gola, Eldar, and Ludwig Afonso. Photo from EldarDjangirov

Speaking of music linguistically- “Music is a language. The range is wide. Every tune is a different personality. Musical language is full of punch lines along with ‘sentences’ that conveys comedy, sarcasm, wit, aggression, kindness, romance, anger, angst, depression, understanding, elation, realization, catharsis — and it’s encoded in the construction of music.  These emotional descriptions ultimately uplift us.  There is an element of physical prowess the player must have in order to get these kind of messages across in a musical context.  When I am performing I want to deliver the message with as much clarity as possible in terms of musicality, technical ability and expression.  A song like Lullaby Fantazia will have a different message than Exposition.  Lullaby is much more somber and the melody has a certain cathartic quality to it.  Exposition has a serious physical element to it as far as precision of playing, a certain wit in construction and portrays excitement. In a good environment, it’s a blast to play an exhilarating song with good sound and a great band — it’s an adrenaline rush and sometimes that’s literally what the message is!

“Every time I have a good concert, that’s a high point. When people connect, that’s important to me. First thing to me is the audience member feels like its good day to be alive. They should feel uplifted by your music and feel a sense of hope; even if not everything is ok but they are going to be alright at the end.“

Photo from Eldar Djangirov

Photo from Eldar Djangirov

Observations on Jazz today- “What I miss nowadays in jazz is that there’s quite a bit of music that’s un-listenable and gets branded as ‘innovative ‘and people often misuse that term.   Some music gets branded as ‘forward thinking’ while focusing on the most avant-garde, dissonant and peculiar. In truth, I think some of this type of music has floated up as ‘jazz’ because jazz has become detached from the mainstream culture.  There is a lack of a discerning audience to steer it into an appropriately musical place.  So in a poor attempt to move jazz forward, some folks want to look at it in terms of peculiarity rather than something to enjoy, admire, and understand from a truly musical context.  The peculiarity of jazz has often become the ‘thing’ — not the performance, execution, craft, message nor musical mastery.  Poor musicianship gets cloaked underneath peculiarity and an image of elitism, and then gets labeled ‘high art’.  I see it happening a lot.  I miss musicians who can really play their instruments.  I miss virtuosity at a high level.  I miss musicians being in shape for the music.  All of those things need to change from a musical perspective if jazz is to come back into more of a limelight in the mainstream.  And there are quite a few exceptional musicians out there but they don’t seem to be at the forefront of the media often enough.

“Another concern on the minds of most musicians these days is that it’s no longer possible to sell recorded music through CDs (or any medium really).  There has been an influx of freely available content on the internet that people have poured their hearts into.  This devalues the work so many musicians have put forth.  The music is people’s blood, sweat, and tears.  It is created out of thin air, inspiration, and hard work.  And it’s often consumed in a way that gives little thought to the people who made it. “

On upcoming live album- “I’m super excited about the new album which will come out very soon this year. It’s called World Tour Vol 1 and it’s a compilation of performances from all over the world.  There are performances include clips from Oakland, San Diego, Philadelphia, Tokyo, Tongyeong, Montreal, Washington DC, Windham, and Atlanta.  It’s a collection of my favorite performances captured in front of live audiences.  I can’t wait to share it with everyone!  Please stay tuned for more info via www.eldarmusic.com/store/!!”

Eldar Djangirov Trio will be performing at The Spire Center on April 18th in Plymouth, MA. With Eldar Djangirov on piano, Armando Gola on bass,  and Ludwig Afonso on drums. 

“Rhapsody in Blue” with the Russian National Orchestra

Eldar Djangirov Trio “HOPE” Live at Atlanta Jazz Festival

 

Eldar Djangirov Trio with Chris Potter: “What is This Thing Called Love”

Eldar featuring Michael Brecker

Eldar Exposition featuring Joshua Redman

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