Friday, June 15, 2007

Jazz Prodigy Eldar Finds His Own Voice

Eldar Djangirov's fingers flew across the ivories of the Steinway grand piano at Carnegie Hall as he romped through Oscar Peterson's "Place St. Henri," one of the tunes that first kindled his interest in jazz as a child prodigy in distant Kyrgyzstan.

His Carnegie Hall debut at an all-star tribute to Peterson in early June marked another milestone in the 20-year-old pianist's remarkable jazz odyssey that has taken him from the former Soviet republic in Central Asia all the way to the Big Apple, with stops along the way in Kansas City and the West Coast.

"This was a gig that I looked forward to from the day I heard about it," said Eldar, who uses only his first name professionally, in a telephone interview after the concert. "I had a chance to really show how much Oscar's music means to me."

"So many of the concepts that I follow today in my piano playing is derived from a certain mentality Oscar carried across. ... Beyond the obvious power and perfect technique, there are so many inexplicable things that go into his sound _ the blues inflections, the way he uses bebop, his phrasing and the way he swings."

Eldar also honored Peterson by including "Place St. Henri" on his new CD, "re-imagination," released this month by Sony BMG Masterworks. While his first two CDs for the label were mainstream jazz, equally mixing originals and standards, "re-imagination" explores his own more mature musical vision, emphasizing his skills as a composer on nine of the 11 tracks.

Eldar's compositions blend influences from the varied genres of music he listens to besides jazz. His personal tastes run from classical pianists Evgeny Kissin and Vladimir Horowitz to Radiohead and Kanye West.

"I wanted to make a statement that's truly from me ...," said Eldar, who moved to New York in January after studying nearly two years at the University of Southern California's Thornton School of Music. "This record is done from a jazz musician's perspective ... you can hear bebop, swing and the blues inflection. But you can hear the romantic period of classical music ... and certain reflections of rock, electronica."

Eldar switches freely among acoustic piano and electric keyboards and synthesizers, using three different rhythm sections, with electric guitarist Mike Moreno and hip-hop turntablist DJ Logic enriching the sonic mix on the more rock-oriented fusion pieces like "Polaris."

Eldar's compositions reflect people, places and events in his short but eventful life, starting with the opener "I Remember When," dedicated to his parents, who sacrificed much to bring him to the United States to pursue his jazz dream.

"My father and mother are very crucial to what I've become, to what directions I took in life," Eldar said. "They taught me that there is no shortcut to playing the piano _ it was always hard work, discipline, a good work ethic. ... But it's not like I was pressured. ... I just enjoyed what I was doing."

His father, Emil, was an engineer and jazz aficionado who nearly lost his job at a technical university in the former Soviet Union because he listened to banned Voice of America and BBC broadcasts. Eldar began playing piano at 3, and soon was able to repeat note-for-note what he heard on the jazz recordings by Peterson and others his father was constantly playing at their home in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek. He began taking formal lessons in the classical Russian piano technique at 5 from his mother, a musicologist at a local college.

"I don't even know what I would do today without my mother teaching me classical," said Eldar. "There's the discipline, the clarity of the tone of the playing, the posture. ... The classical technique gives you just overall more control over your instrument."

But Eldar became drawn to the freedom of jazz and would start changing the chords in the middle of a Mozart piece. The 9-year-old Eldar's first public performance at a jazz festival in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk impressed a visiting New York-based jazz patron, Charles McWhorter, who arranged a scholarship for him to attend the Interlochen Center for the Arts summer camp in Michigan.

Eldar came to the United States at 11 in 1998 with his parents. They chose to settle near Kansas City, allowing him to pursue his musical studies in a city with a rich jazz tradition but without the pressures of New York's scene.

At 12, he became the youngest musician to appear on Marian McPartland's NPR series "Piano Jazz." Another veteran jazz pianist, Billy Taylor, presented Eldar on CBS' "Sunday Morning."

"I was quite surprised at the enormous talent that this young kid had," said Taylor. "He sounded like a combination of Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson. I've done profiles on a lot of different prodigies over the years for `Sunday Morning,' and none of them impressed me as Eldar impressed me."

Eldar recorded two CDs _ the first at 14 _ for a small Kansas City label. His family later moved to San Diego where he enrolled in a performing arts high school, and went on to receive a full scholarship to USC.

He was just 18 when his major-label debut, "Eldar," was released by Sony in March 2005, with a repertoire that acknowledged such influences as Herbie Hancock and Thelonious Monk. His roller coaster-like runs on tunes like "Sweet Georgia Brown" evoked comparisons to the dazzling technique of Peterson and Art Tatum. His up-tempo original "Point of View" showed that he could hold his own with tenor sax virtuoso Michael Brecker. A year later, he released "Live at the Blue Note" showing he could do in a live club setting everything he did in the studio.

In mid-December at Sony's Music Studios in Manhattan, the boyish but confident Eldar, casually dressed in a hooded sweat shirt and gray jeans, took a very hands-on approach as he recorded "Place St. Henri" and other tracks for "re-imagination" on which he shares producing credits for the first time. He listened carefully to each take, deciding such details as the proper tempo and whether there should be more of a backbeat.

"I just wanted to do a record where I push myself in a direction and try to do something that I haven't done before. ... because I want to evolve," he said during a break in the recording session. "Jazz to me means evolution, and evolution in jazz is freedom."

By CHARLES GANS - The Associated Press


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