“There is a certain kind of freedom in playing solo piano,” the progressive jazz pianist Eldar tells me just minutes after finishing a fierce, live solo recording at Manhattan’s Hammerstein Ballroom. “There’s nowhere to hide. I like that challenge.”
Eldar has been making a habit of challenging himself — and preconceived musical conventions — since bursting onto the worldwide jazz circuit in his early teens. Signed to Sony at the age of 16, the now 22-year-old Russian-born pianist has released three acclaimed albums as a leader, including 2007’s Grammy-nominated Re-Imagination. With a technically dazzling command of his instrument, and a genre-bending penchant for everything from stride piano to metrically modulating contemporary fusion, Eldar forges ahead into new aural territory with every project he takes on.
Virtue, his latest trio-centered release on Sony Masterworks, finds Eldar again pushing new sonic limits. Joined by acclaimed artists like Joshua Redman and Nicholas Payton, and elastically supported by bassist Armando Gola and drummer Ludwig Afonso, the album melds Eldar’s astonishing keyboard technique with his ever-expanding approach to composition and band interplay. Bebop lines, mutating bass ostinatos, and synthesizer flourishes all converge on a virtuosic set of Eldar originals. Make no mistake — this is no sleepy jazz record.
A few weeks before the release of Virtue, (and midway through the recording of his upcoming solo album), Eldar and I sat down in midtown Manhattan to talk about the new album, and the conception that went into it.
Your new album Virtue has an astonishing degree of group interplay on it. It sounds like a real working band, versus hired guns for a record date.
With Armando Gola on bass and Ludwig Afonso on drums, there’s a certain synergy that exists, partly because we had several months to tour the music before we actually recorded it.
That’s almost the reverse of what happens a lot of the time, where you make the album and then tour it.
I think it’s better to tour the record, or do a certain amount of evolution of the tunes, first. When we went to the studio to eventually record the album, everything had evolved. We had freedom. We knew when to stretch, and when to play things exactly as they were written. So we had gotten to the point where, by the time we got to the studio, we knew exactly how we wanted to sound.
What was the concept behind Virtue? Did you finish the tour for Re-Imagination and set out to write a new album that took the music in a different direction?
Well, there was a period of time when I moved to New York that there was a certain sound that I heard in my head, that I wanted to achieve with the band. I guess it was a certain kind of vocabulary, and this band has certainly helped me transform and develop it. We have a chemistry, especially when it comes to melodic syntax and the harmonic color that goes under it. Also, the rhythmic subdivision that the band plays — a lot of the tunes are in odd time. A lot of those compositions are based on musical impulses, rather than saying, “I’m going to write a tune in 9/8,” or something like that.
Where does this newfound conception come from? Was that just a natural evolution for you? Because when you burst onto the scene you seemed to be coming out of very traditional jazz piano – Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans. Then as you developed, your sound opened up and became more, for lack of a better word, modern. What were the impulses behind this evolution?
I think the music itself is changing. The art form that people actually refer to as “jazz” has changed, and has evolved from certain key points in history. I talk openly about Oscar Peterson being the first piano player I ever heard. He captivated me and his music convinced me to begin to pursue the instrument. I was three or four, and I didn’t really understand what he was playing, but it captivated me enough that I vividly remember hearing him for the first time then — it was actually that tune “Place St. Henri.” [Plays the song’s melody.]
I’m so happy to be playing with my band now, because they inspire me. So much. And it’s one of those things where you compose specifically for those musicians. You know the way they play, the nuances they have. You know them so well that you write for them.
It seems like a really interesting time in jazz now, where the floodgates have opened and the new generation of musicians are really creating a language of their own, instead of simply playing bebop trio gigs. You have guys infusing hip-hop rhythms and Latin textures into the music. It feels very fresh and very now.
In recent years, I’ve put more time and dedication towards the art. I started playing classical music, and it’s something I still do to this day. It’s a huge part of my everyday practice routine. There are so many things you can learn from that — the most basic being technique, control of the instrument. The knowledge that music has to offer is so vast, from a musical and technical perspective. I owe a lot to that. As far as the evolution of jazz, there are so many different kinds of music that people are exposed to nowadays. . . .
Do you listen to all kinds of music?
It’s funny, there were certain periods in my life where I was listening to different kinds of music.
And now, I tend to listen mostly to jazz and classical. I dip my ears occasionally into what’s happening in pop, but I feel like with a lot of the pop things that are happening right now, the art form gets degraded. With every year I’m living, I feel like [the standard] is going down. But the thing is, there are certain elements of music, of art — what’s considered jazz — that are staying intact. Certain traditions are being carried on, and certain new directions are being created.
Are there contemporaries of yours, or even older musicians, that you still go to check out and that you consider yourself influenced by?
Sure. There are a lot of different cats. I always love to talk about Oscar Peterson, because he was my first one. There are so many different musical situations that you can learn from. They don’t have to be the greatest — you take the positive energy that you can from [each experience]. So there are different artists that will inspire me, that will attract and connect me. But at the end of the day, when I make music now, I do things that respond to my personality the most.
It seems like you’re content to follow the path that you’re on, regardless of what may be going on around you. The thing is, I live in New York, and there
The thing is, I live in New York, and there are so many different things going on here. And not just the music, the vibration from New York City is, in itself, a huge push for me to do things a certain way — now more than ever. There’s a certain edge and energy here that changes people’s perceptions and music. You end up taking ideas and expanding on them.
What kind of keyboard gear are you using at home and on record, besides the acoustic piano?
This is the craziest thing to say, but the only keyboard I use now is the Korg M3. It has everything I need on it. I program it and use the sequencer.
Was that the keyboard sound on Virtue? It sounded like an old Moog.
[The M3 is] the only thing that’s on the record. I changed the envelopes on it — it’s a hobby of mine to do that. I program and make sounds on it, and use it for lead lines live.
Do you use the Korg M3 for writing as well?
No, I write at the piano. I write everything down. I’ll use the M3’s sequencer for demos. Believe it or not, the first gig we did as a band for this music, we never rehearsed. I sent the band MIDI files — there were solo sections in them, and the charts were complete. And we played the tunes live. That’s how we started our relationship as a band, and it’s been really rewarding to keep pushing our shared vocabulary. When you have that way of communicating within a band, it’s unbelievable.
What’s on your plate for the future? You’re planning a tour to support Virtue, and then you’ll release a solo album as well, right?
Yes. We’ll tour as a trio for the new record. And then the solo album will happen in Europe, but not until next year. And I’ll tour that as well. The two projects will actually intersect at some point. I will be opening for Dave Brubeck in New York solo — but 90 percent of the gigs I do are trio. Solo is something I enjoy doing because of that freedom and intimacy. It’s a whole new world.
Selected albums (all on Sony): Virtue, Re-Imagination, Eldar Live At The Blue Note, Eldar.
Keyboard editors think he sounds like: Art Tatum, Errol Garner, Hiromi, Chick Corea, and Oscar Peterson.