With the release of Re-imagination, his third CD for Sony BMG Masterworks, jazz pianist Eldar documents his transition from youthful prodigy to a creative artist with something to say. The release follows the 2006 CD 'Live At The Blue Note,' which featured Eldar and his working trio with jazz trumpeters Chris Botti and Roy Hargrove as guest artists, and cemented Eldar's position as one of the most formidable jazz musicians of his generation.
"[Eldar's] velocity is astonishing: totally clean two-handed unison lines at wind-spring tempos, single lines that twist and pivot through jagged harmonies, bass rumbles that erupt and explode into complex passagework in the mid or upper register," wrote Robert Doerschuk in a 4-star Downbeat review of Live At The Blue Note. "Other pianists have made similar impressions over the past several decades... Nobody, though, has quite reached the impossible, Conlon Nancarrow-like blizzard of stride, parallel chords, embellishments and general fireworks that Eldar ignites in his unaccompanied two-and-a-half-minute rampage through the closer, Take the A-Train... Few musicians on any axe swing like Eldar...his groove is intense and overwhelming. It's not the flash and fire that should stir interest in Eldar. It's what he does when the razzle-dazzle dies down and we sense substance within and beyond his pyrotechnics."
Live At The Blue Note and Eldar's self-titled 2005 Sony Classical debut were recitals, on which the pianist interpreted and presented serially a mixture of originals and well-chosen standards from the American Songbook and canonic jazz composers, revealing, as the New York Times noted, a "formidable technique wedded to a mature grasp of musical structure." But on neither album was he able to focus fully on expressing his own emerging musical vision.
On Re-imagination, recorded last December, Eldar, then six weeks shy of his twentieth birthday, had something more ambitious in mind. He conceived the project as a sort of suite, weaving together nine originals, the songbook standard Out of Nowhere and Oscar Peterson's rollicking Place St. Henri into a narrative arc. Joining him are three different trios (bassists James Genus, Carlos Henriquez, and Marco Panascia and drummers Terreon Gully, Ali Jackson, and Todd Strait), while guitarist Mike Moreno and turntable guru D.J. Logic augment the sonic palette.
"This is the first record I've done where I focus more on composition than playing standards or working in the standard setting of a trio," says Eldar. "Unlike anything I've done in the past, it's a very personal statement rather focusing on a certain tradition or vibe, or on genres or labels. It's more an enhanced version of a piano trio that's just making music."
"Of course, it's a very pianistic record," Eldar adds, "It states certain things that only a piano player would say, because of the way piano is laid out—horizontally, like a symphony orchestra—and the way the ideas flow. Compositionally, I didn't want to restrict myself. I wanted to write in a more rhapsodic way, compositions with freer forms where you make the puzzles fit within a free-flowing expression.
"Many jazz records are made as a snapshot, a document of a moment that's been captured, and because of their intrinsic honesty and expression they become classics that people listen to for a long time. I wanted to cross the lines—to present very organic tunes, things with a more produced sound, and also some solo piano songs. It's meant to be a journey, not a departure."
Eldar accesses a wide range of references to tell his stories. As always, he draws on the legends—Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum and Benny Green for orchestral swing and impeccable technique, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Kenny Kirkland for harmonic palette. But Eldar's heady 21st century brew incorporates information from a broad range of late 20th century sources. Among the pianists he cites as heroes are Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Danilo Perez, Brad Mehldau, Bill Charlap, Esbjorn Svensson, and Jason Moran. Composer-improvisors like Pat Metheny, Michael Brecker, and Kurt Rosenwinkel enter the mix. So does the jazz-hiphop synthesis of Roy Hargrove; the sophisticated pop of Radiohead, Bjork, Sting, Soulive and the Beatles; the classical pianists Evgeny Kissin and Arcadi Volodos.
It makes sense that Eldar feels a particular affinity for the latter pair, both ethnic Russians, and for Rubalcaba, who was trained in Cuba by Russian teachers. Himself of Russian descent, he spent his first ten years in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, a province on the eastern border of the then-Soviet Union, where his father, Emil, was a mechanical engineer and his mother, Tatiana, was a professor of music studies.
"There's a very direct correlation between the way I approach the piano—the way my parents shaped my approach from a very young age—and the Russian school of music," he says. "It comes from a formal tradition of classical music and classical training. From day one, my mother taught me to form a perfect arch with my hand, as though there's an apple in there as you play. I was told how many inches I should sit away from the piano on the stool, the pressure points on the keys—all the little details that make it art.
"My father worked all around the ex-Soviet Union, and every time he went to Moscow or St. Petersberg, he found a way to get records—that's how I first heard Oscar Peterson, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Bill Evans. In the old USSR, when he was 13 or 14, he heard jazz at night on Voice of America and BBC, and he fell in love with it for life. So from my earliest years, I was constantly hearing music; it was part of the atmosphere, and it became a part of me."
Eldar's path from Bishkek to the United States is the stuff of jazz legend. At nine he performed at a jazz festival Novosibirsk, in Siberia, and impressed the late Charles McWhorter, a New York based jazz patron. McWhorter obtained a scholarship for Eldar to attend summer camp at the prestigious Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan, where he spent each summer between 1998 and 2001. In 1998, he and his parents moved to the U.S., beginning their new life together in Kansas City.
During these years, Eldar continued to develop and impress everyone who heard him. Marian McPartland invited Eldar to appear on her NPR series Piano Jazz after McWhorter sent her a tape of his playing. Dr. Billy Taylor encountered him at a Charlie Parker symposium in Kansas City and booked him for an appearance on CBS's Sunday Morning. Also in Kansas City, Eldar played for the Jazz Musician Foundation, before Michael Greene, then head of the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences, who booked Eldar to play on the 2000 Grammy Awards telecast. In 2001, Eldar participated in the jazz piano competition of the 2001 Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival and won the top prize. The following year, he won first place in the Peter Nero Piano Competition.
From then until now, Eldar has performed on the international festival, club, and concert circuits, while pursuing his education in jazz harmony and improvisation with Kim Park and John Elliott. His family moved to San Diego in 2003, and in Fall 2005, he matriculated at the University of Southern California, where he studied improvisation with pianist Shelly Berg.
Now a full-time musician, Eldar is happy with the trans-genre approach. "I'm not looking at labels," he says. "I've never heard music as one style or another—as bebop or swing, or the Romantic or 20th century period of classical music. It's more about whether music connects, whether it has a message. The message is the most important thing. I want to be a musician and I want to be an artist—not just a piano player.
"I'm going to be playing jazz, or some form of it, for the rest of my life. It encompasses so much; there's so much room for self-expression."