Even a quick listen to Eldar Djangirov’s blistering new track “Point of View Redux” (download it for free at http://soundcloud.com/keyboardmag/eldar-djangirov-point-of-view) may send you back into the practice room indefinitely! One of 11 infectious songs on his new jazz release Breakthrough (Djangirov has a brand new classical album out entitled Brach/Brahms/Prokofiev as well), the track is an eight-minute snapshot of a prodigious pianist with a near complete keyboard command. Featuring everything from rumbling bass ostinatos, breakneck piano runs, and near telepathic band interplay, “Point of View Redux” is a fitting opener to an album that constantly surprises. On the eve of a string of East Coast performances to celebrate the album’s release, Eldar spoke with me via phone to talk about his continuing musical evolution.
Your new album Breakthrough is your first jazz trio album in over three years. Can you talk about the process of writing and recording for this new project? Well, since we last met in 2009 after I had recorded the trio album Virtue and the solo album Three Stories, I’ve had the chance to study, develop, travel and write more. So this particular album is definitely a continuation of that journey. It’s a bit of a growth from the last record, but there are a lot of the same musical priorities.
The album opens with “Point of View Redux,” a track that seems to encapsulate your expansive pianistic persona. You’re able to conjure a myriad of sounds from the instrument, from roaring bass register vamps to cascading right hand lines and beyond.
Yeah. There’s also another element that’s less talked about but equally, if not more important, which is phrasing. The ability to control dynamics, time and touch can make music sound distinct and undeniably right. I strive for a consistency and evenness in my piano sound. I think that’s something that listeners will be able to recognize in my playing. So the presentation of the music is as important as the content. If you transcribed that song and gave the exact same notes to another piano player, it’s not going to sound the same because every musician phrases differently.
The new album is your second outing alongside your working band of bassist Armando Gola and drummer Ludwig Afonso. How has the band evolved since your last time in the studio together?
We’ve certainly changed over the years. As a unit, I feel we play better today than we have ever played. There’s definitely been an improvement because we listen to each other in a different way. It’s almost as if the three of us are in a boat, and the boat is rocking from left to right. Our job is to stabilize and try to support each other so we almost sound like one instrument.
“Point of View Redux” is actually a re-imagination of a track from another album of yours. How did you go about re-inventing it here?
I wrote that particular tune for the late, great saxophonist Michael Brecker to play on my album Eldar in 2005. When he passed away, I wanted to write something as a tribute to him, because working with him meant a lot to me. So I decided to rework that tune. I took the dramatic elements from it and did a reinvention of it. And that’s exactly what it is. There’s a musical development to it, and a human one as well, since it’s a tribute to Michael.
When we spoke after you recorded your last trio album Virtue, you told me that you do something different than a lot of other composers and bandleaders, which is to tour new music before you go into record it, rather than record an album and then take it on the road. Did you do that again on Breakthrough?
Yes. Pretty much 90 percent of this record has been toured before we recorded it. We would integrate new tunes into our concerts as they were written, and the project evolved from there. I don’t like to write things in the studio – it’s too expensive! I like to prepare music and work at it at home, so when we go into the studio it’s just a performance. I’ll often stay on one tune in the studio, so for example, we’ll play a track down and then I’ll immediately go listen to it. If I like it, I’ll keep certain things, and if not, I’ll go do another take. I really want to get something I’m happy with. That way when the record’s done, I can put it on and truly enjoy it.
What was the inspiration behind the title Breakthrough for the new album?
Well, besides it being the name of the title track that features saxophonist Chris Potter, I feel like as a musician, you always want to reach for certain heights. For me, everything begins as an experiment. It’s easy to get to a point where you’re just coasting on autopilot, playing things that you’ve already learned. But I like to learn new things and learn them well. So I spent a lot of time meticulously learning new things for this project.
What kinds of things were you learning?
I was writing more, and I was also learning quite a lot from classical music, as I also have a new solo classical piano album that just came out called Bach/Brahms/Prokofiev. I’ve always felt that when you actually read great musical texts, you understand what great melodic and harmonic development is. Great music has an inherent sense of logic to it - there’s logic to the melody as an idea builds and expands towards a climax. And there are certain harmonic resolutions that also impact human emotion. Learning about these devices not only enriches your musical vocabulary – it also helps create music that can impact other human beings.
Besides classical music, what other kinds of music did you listen to and play while preparing to record the new album?
It was a wide range of things. I was listening to a lot of Billie Holiday and was tremendously taken with how she could phrase ideas. That was a huge point of interest for me, and I ended-up recording the song “Good Morning Heartache,” which she recorded as well. I was especially intrigued by how she sang ballads, and that propelled me to look through the repertoire of ballads when I was looking for material for the album. I wanted to record a jazz standard, but not something that was done too often. That’s how I ended-up choosing the tune “What’ll I Do” by Irving Berlin. It has a beautiful melody and really spoke to me.
You’re someone who’s known for having a great deal of technical facility at the keyboard. What do you having that kind of technique allows you to do?
Technical command is a default attribute after a musician spends time learning their instrument. So is melodic and harmonic understanding, as well as having a command of time and being able to execute ideas fluidly in it. There was never a time that I spent endlessly practicing Hanon exercises for hours on end. Never. My technical ability just comes from the sheer amount of time I have spent at the instrument playing – from the standards I learned as a kid, to playing Bach or learning scales, or learning new compositions. I think it’s important that people understand that this kind of technical facility is simply a default attribute of spending time at the instrument.
Sometimes you’ll hear someone say, “This musician has tremendous technical ability, but this other musician has creativity.” I think that’s totally subjective. I’ve always been a student of music, a student of the piano, and I genuinely enjoy playing the instrument and connecting with people. I care about the music I play, and I want to enjoy it as much as I want other people to enjoy it. For me, everything comes from a place of passion and respect for the music.