With the release of re-imagination (2007), his third CD for Sony BMG Masterworks, jazz pianist ELDAR documented his transition from youthful prodigy to a creative artist with something to say. Nominated for a Grammy as “Best Contemporary Jazz Album,” this release followed 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,” wrote Robert Doerschuk in a 4-star Downbeat review of Live at the Blue Note, which also won Best Instrumental Jazz Album of the Year in London. “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... 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 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, Eldar 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.
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, Björk, Sting, Soulive, and the Beatles; and 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.
“My father worked all around the ex-Soviet Union, and every time he went to Moscow or St. Petersburg, 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 in Siberia, and impressed the late Charles McWhorter, who 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, Eldar and his parents moved to the U.S., beginning their new life together in Kansas City. Marian McPartland invited him 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.
From then until now, Eldar has performed on the international festival, club, and concert circuits. 2007 was a banner year that honored him with a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Jazz Album for re-imagination, and saw him perform on CNN, the CBS Saturday Early Show, Jimmy Kimmel Live, and at both Carnegie Hall and the Hollywood Bowl. He also toured Europe, Asia, and South America.