Press Release: Now in its third edition, the Sunnyside Jazz Festival in Reims – produced by Jazzus Productions – is rapidly evolving into one of the foremost French showcases for the world’s great jazz musicians. Established with the “desire to open the public to various original forms of music” and to prove that “jazz is a living music”, the festival constantly pushes the boundaries between different genres of jazz and what is considered by many to fall under the criteria of ‘jazz’. This was particularly evident on the afternoon of 5 November, which featured two groundbreaking musicians performing before a capacity audience of 450 jazz aficionados. The first was Azerbaijani pianist–composer Isfar Sarabski, winner of the 2009 Solo Piano Prize at the Montreux Jazz Festival, whose appearance was made possible by the Paris office of The European Azerbaijan Society (TEAS). He seamlessly combines jazz and funk with the mugham of his homeland and influences from the classics.
Isfar, aged 28, played a dramatic solo set on a darkened stage with his back to the audience, the emphasis being on his dextrous fingers and octave-spanning hands, introducing each piece in English from the piano stool. Gilles Gautier, Co-director of Jazzus Productions and Co-founder of the Sunnyside Festival commented: “For the third successive year – thanks to TEAS – we are being given chance to discover a new international-standard artist from Azerbaijan.”
For those who are familiar with Isfar’s work, the set marked something of a departure from the funky grooves that he has carved out in darkened clubs over the past few years. The attentive audience instead was treated to a rhapsody of virtuosity that initially indicated that he may be adopting the Third Stream – a mixture of classical and jazz – and throughout placed the emphasis on melody. The set began with a delicate interpretation of March by Vagif Mustafazdeh, the father of jazz-mugham, who took the harmonies of mugham, which originated in the currently Armenian-occupied Azerbaijani region of Nagorno-Karabakh, and combined them with jazz in the 1960s and 70s. All were amazed by Isfar’s mellifluous approach and dexterity of execution.
This was followed by G-Man, Isfar’s most popular composition, which was at one moment replete with melodic invention, and then full of funky driving chords that sent the audience into a frenzy. Next on the bill was a heart-stopping and richly-textured rendering of the jazz standard ballad Blame It On My Youth – most famous in its version by doomed trumpeter Chet Baker – but also memorably recorded by piano maestro Keith Jarrett, who had a major influence on Isfar. The final piece on the programme was Isfar’s Planet, composed just three weeks ago. This used repeated left-hand figures combined with a gradual crescendo to represent the glories of the Cosmos.
In an interview, Isfar recently commented: “Azerbaijani jazz is developing year by year. The evidence is the international competitions, festivals, and concerts by world-famous jazz performers taking place in our country. Jazz has always taken a special place in our culture. At one time, Azerbaijan received the epithet of ‘Jazz Capital of the Soviet Union’.
“I spend long days working in the studio. I usually play in different genres, trying to find something new. If you have a talent, you must work hard to improve your skills and become the best.”
To date, Isfar has performed in some of the world’s leading concert halls and jazz venues, including the Royal Albert Hall and Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London, the Asphalt Jazz Club in Berlin and Le Duc des Lombards in Paris. He has also participated in the A Great Night in Harlem charity fundraiser in the legendary Apollo Theatre in New York, organised by the Jazz Foundation of America, where he shared billing with such luminaries as Quincy Jones, Elvis Costello, Macy Gray and Long John Hunter. Most recently he has been touring Europe with an ethnojazz band led by Tunisian oud player Dhafer Youssef.
The following concert by Israeli bassist/singer/composer Avishaï Cohen saw him perform with pianist Omri Mora and drummer Noam David, which took him draw in a multiplicity of musical genres, including Arabic-Andalusian and Latin music, to captivating effect, ending with three encores.
This was a memorable afternoon, demonstrating that the spirit of jazz invention is alive and well, two of the greatest contemporary innovators having demonstrated the breadth of their creativity in Reims.