Emil Ibrahim - p
Ruslan Huscynov - b
Alexander "Jazz" Mashim - d (Ibrahim systematically included the Elvin Jones-like nickname)
Natiq Shirinov - nagara
Recently, the NY Times ran an article (republished in the IHT) about European countries subsidising their rock bands' US tours. Of course, in jazz the practice is a long-standing one that is still alive today. That these kinds of gigs come with a built-in audience - the Jazz Station was full of the Azerbaïdjan embassy's guests (but there was no Ferrero Rocher pyramid) - can be a double-edged sword: when the greyer-headed dignitaries left after the first set, coincidentally or not, the music got a lot less polite.
The material was split roughly evenly between East and West, with further subdivisions that spanned those categories. The first piece was fun, lightly bluesy uptempo swing in an Oscar Peterson/Ahmad Jamal vein. The pairing of a funky "Maiden Voyage" and a romantic "Some Day My Prince Will Come" set up two poles, which "St. Thomas" connected by starting with a strong calypso beat and a slightly demented feel (Ibrahim delivered the melody in tight bunches that rushed ahead of the groove. He would do the same during the second set on a rambunctious "Caravan") but progressively let go of both to settle into a less incisive groove. The second set started with an impressive Orient-inflected take on the Brad Mehldau Trio: a very loose odd-metred rhythm ambiguously cushioned and buoyed the pianist's melodic-yet-mysterious ruminations.
On the Eastern side of the equation, there was the traditional "The White Apple From Buba," which opened with a reflective, modal piano introduction and featured Shirinov in a fluttering, colouristic role, as he tugged on the rope circling his nagara drum's body to heighten its pitch. More often, though, Ibrahim drew on powerful rhythms anchored by the drums and nagara on one side and his left hand and the bass on the other. "Zibeyda" and "Pandemus Imperator" both alernated heavy riffs, a quiet, impressionistic bridge and sing-song melodies. Ibrahim ended the concert by reaching to another geographic source of inspiration: after combining an Azeri melody and beat with a jazz harmony-laden bridge, he dove into a full-fledged Cuban descarga on the coda.
The Azeri nagara combined winningly with Mashim's drumset. It is made up of two independent, different-sounding drums (one very resonant, the other dry), sized and shaped like a drum kit's toms, but played much like a derbouka and with a rope allowing pitch-shifting on the resonant drum. As with all hand drums played with the fingertips as well as the palms, the nagara produced a huge variety of sounds and intricately-detailed rhythms. Considering the relative economy of means, hand drums do so much more elegantly than the standard drum kit. Natiq Shirinov and Alexander Mashim engaged in an absurdly fun and over-the-top duet that reached its climax when Shirinov requested the audience clap along. It was the only time Mashim didn't seem miserable.
The drummer was also showing some of his black-and-white photography in the Jazz Station's spacious back room. There wasn't much context given, but I think the subjects were refugees in Azerbaïdjan. The photos featured children and portraits of old, wrinkled faces. You can't go far wrong with those two topics, but a few were really beautiful.