Thursday, January 31, 2008
There’s an intoxicating wind from the East sweeping across the Peninsula in February, and it’s blowing fantastically hot and pleasingly cool.
The disparate currents emanate from the same source, as a pair of exceptional musicians born in the Soviet Union make their debuts at the Jazz & Blues Company on successive weekends. The blazing young pianist Eldar Djangirov performs with his trio on Saturday, and the gifted vocalist Masha Campagne holds forth on Feb. 9 with a superlative Brazilian jazz combo featuring Peninsula piano maestro Weber Iago, reed expert Harvey Wainapel, bassist Scott Thompson and drummer Phil Thompson.
While jazz is a quintessentially American art form, the music has circulated around the world, and these two musicians are fascinating examples of how inspiration knows no borders. The Moscow-reared Campagne, for instance, absorbed swing from her grandfather, a saxophonist who bucked the communist system in the 1950s by playing the allegedly bourgeois American music.
Since moving from Russia to San Francisco in 1991, Campagne has forged relationships with some of the region’s finest musicians, and she makes the most out of those ties on her debut album, Caminhos Cruzados. Most importantly, she’s collaborated widely with Iago, the brilliant Rio-raised pianist/arranger who has so enriched the Northern California music scene. Exploring a program of American Songbook standards and Brazilian gems by the likes of Dorival Caymmi, Jobim and Guinga, Champagne has forged a delicious Brazilian jazz sound that she traces back to her early infatuation with Astrud Gilberto.
“I think it was the vulnerability of her voice that caught me, and the energy, passionate yet subtle,” Campagne says. “Later I realized that Brazilian songs had all the components for great music. The lyrics are poetic and beautiful, the melodies are gorgeous, the rhythms swaying and bouncy, and the harmonies are very sophisticated.”
If Campagne’s creative journey from Moscow to Rio seems unlikely, the 20-year-old phenomenon Eldar Djangirov boasts a far more improbable story, with good intentions and great jazz paving the way from Central Asia to Southern California.
Since the release of his 2004 self-named debut on Sony Classical, the San Diego-based pianist has been traveling at hyperspeed, carried along by a combination of awe-inspiring technique, improvisational flair and brilliant marketing. Growing by leaps and bounds, he is both a dauntingly accomplished player and a self-possessed student, eager to soak up whatever experiences come his way.
In a few short years, he’s won admirers among jazz’s elite, impressing veteran stars such as pianists Billy Taylor and Marian McPartland, and the late Benny Carter, not a man known for gushing, who wrote that the pianist is “one of the most astounding artists I’ve heard in a long, long time.” Eager to make his way in the world, Eldar concurred with his label’s decision to record and present him solely under his first name, a canny move that saves people the trouble of pronouncing Djangirov, while heightening the already thick drama surrounding his emergence. “There are not too many Eldars in general,” he notes, “so the last name wouldn’t really serve a purpose.”
Born in Kyrgyzstan, Eldar started studying piano at age 3 with his mother, who was a professor of music history at a college in Bishkek, then the capital of the obscure Soviet republic in Central Asia. His father, an engineer and avid jazz fan, noticed that Eldar had an amazingly acute ear as early as 5, and was capable of playing back phrases from jazz recordings note for note.
“My dad had a lot of albums by horn players and big bands, but especially piano players: Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock,” Eldar says. “Peterson was the very first piano player I consciously remember listening to and that just kind of knocked me out, because that cat is a genius. From the very first time I heard him, I thought, ‘Wow! I really want to do that.’ ”
Eldar’s odds of making an impact on the U.S. jazz scene would have been infinitesimal without a chance encounter with the lawyer and arts supporter Charles McWhorter, who heard the 9-year-old pianist performing at a jazz festival in the Russian city of Novosibirsk. He helped arrange a scholarship for the pianist at the prestigious Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan, and made sure that Eldar understood that with opportunity came responsibility.
“I was late for a lesson one time at Interlochen, and a few days later he sends me a watch as a present,” Eldar says with a laugh. “ ‘Yo, Eldar! Here, don’t be late.’ ”
In 1998, McWhorter helped the family relocate to Kansas City, where Eldar quickly started making waves in the local jazz scene. The drummer Todd Strait, best known as a longtime member of singer Karrin Allyson’s band, started to hear stories about a brilliant, impossibly young musician from Kyrgyzstan.
“I was like yeah, sure, maybe I’ll just invite him over to the house, play blues, see what he can do,” says Strait, who plays on Eldar’s Sony Classical debut. “So he came over and we played the first tune and I remember thinking, ‘Who is this kid? What planet did he arrive from?’ He was amazing then, and every time I play with him he’s continued to grow. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone with that much of a natural gift.”
ELDAR performs 7:30pm Saturday, Feb. 2, at the Jazz & Blues Company, San Carlos and Eighth, Carmel. Tickets, $40.
CAMPAGNE performs with Weber Iago’s Quartet, 7:30pm Saturday, Feb. 9, at Jazz & Blues Company. Tickets, $40. 624-6432. www.thejazzandbluescompany.com.