We all remember how Wynton Marsalis excelled with classical and jazz recordings during his 20s, approximately 30 years ago before finally committing full-life to Duke and them. Well, there is another young phenomenon, 24-year-old, Kyrgyzstan-born pianist Eldar Djangirov, who also has prolific chops in both worlds as displayed on Three Stories (Sony Masterworks Jazz).
Upon first encounter, one may think that Three Stories is only going to be a technical showcase where Eldar’s perfection, precision and rapido are going to rule. His take on the opener, Sammy Cahn’s “I Should Care,” bounces with a brightness that grabs your ears and respect. Eldar succeeds here because his accompanying bass notes are just as prominent as his hard-charging melody and improvisation. “I Should Care” really serves as a snapshot, though, as it shows how he can romp and roll on up-tempo toons (as Branford Marsalis calls ‘em) by taking freewheeling flights off its basic melody. An additional snapshot happens on the next track, Bach’s “Prelude in C# Major.” Here, Eldar’s precision is simultaneously assertive and controlled. His mastery with this classical composition as displayed on the opener, shows how Eldar’s ability to provide accompaniment that is equal in its intensity to his melody, playing and soloing keeps this program energetic.
Bach’s prelude is followed by “Darn That Dream.” This interpretation is vital as it is the first—but certainly not the last—performance where Eldar proves that he can listen and play, and not just push the 88 to 100-miles-an hour. Here, Eldar begins in the high register before balancing his interpretation with bass notes in the middle register. This interpretation, at its best moments, resembles a duet between two contrasting registers.
Eldar’s approach on Three Stories also relies on space and subtlety. With his very careful touches, he seems to will the notes into the silent areas. Eldar also takes melodies and plays multiple variations upon them, while making sure his pacing allows for a passage to be savored, not blurred, into the next plunge. Take, for example, the way he explores the sublime melody that is Chick Corea’s “Windows.” Eldar highlights this track by addressing the composer’s and this song’s machismo, while closing quietly with a softness whose contrast provides much surprise.
On the title track, Eldar begins pleasantly enough, as his medium tempo runs from middle to high registers are rather pristine. These pleasantries, as you may have guessed, do not last too long as Eldar then carefully segues into an improvisation that offers a pointed contrast to the mild-mannered start. It is almost as if Eldar is setting you up with what a jaded listener might expect from a solo piano performance, you know, pleasant melodies and improvisations that blend into each other and go by unnoticed. But here, the pleasantries are interrupted by the performer himself. The clouds take on a darker, deeper hue, and the wind’s swirl gets an attitude as the notes take a stand that offer an alternate take on the melody presented just five minutes before.
“Russian Lullaby,” Eldar’s second original composition, evokes poignant feelings. This reading seems to be a reflection on something that has, perhaps, been lost. Only once does Eldar explore this song’s loud, angry dynamics, before returning (retreating?) to its conclusion/the situation’s reality. It is almost as if a mourner has her last, loud cry at the gravesite before someone with much understanding touches the mourner’s shoulder and quietly leads her away.
For this album’s magnum opus, Eldar arranges and performs an extended, 15-minute “Rhapsody in Blue.” (As a 15-year-old, Eldar performed this Gershwin composition with the Independence Symphony Orchestra.) This performance is where Eldar challenges himself to deliver multiple variations on the song’s melody, and in turn, challenges the listener to stay with him on this very adventurous ride. Sure, the performance begins pleasantly enough, as Eldar gives the melody straight; it is as if he is moving one foot around in the pool before immersing himself all at once. At each rest, Eldar comes up for air, before another plunge into improvisation begins. At these moments, you can almost imagine him saying, “You ready? Dig this!”
At first glance, one might wonder how a pianist can handle one song for nearly a quarter-hour. Good question. Well, Eldar has seemingly arranged this song into sections where the bass notes from his left hand set up the variations. Eldar also, at other points, delves into a stride section that then segues into an intense free-for-all before returning to the silence and subtlety noted before. There is also a lively, Latin-feel in this performance’s homestretch that he then employs before finishing with a high-stepping close.