Piano prodigy's secret

work hard and pick the right parents

by Paul Hodgins

The Orange County Register (MCT)

27 April 2007


Eldar Djangirov poses for portrait, April 23, 2007.
(Sang H. Park/Orange County Register/MCT)

SAN DIEGO - Eldar Djangirov has been called “the Tiger Woods of jazz piano,” and in certain respects the comparison fits. The 20-year-old wunderkind from the central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan shares Woods’ laser-like intensity, and they were both child prodigies with smart parents who carefully guided their enormous talents.

But there’s a playfulness to this kid that Woods never exhibited even as a boy wonder. Asked a photographer to smile for his portrait, he warns, “I’m not a smiley kind of guy.” After some serious poses at the keyboard, the photographer again begs for a happy look. Eldar complies by blurting out a few naughty words, made even more comical by his slight Russian accent; the corners of his mouth curve upward to form an impish grin. “You’ll make me look handsome, right?” It’s a very un-Tiger moment.

The photo finished, Eldar swivels around and starts to play the well-worn Yamaha grand piano that’s the centerpiece of his parents’ modestly furnished suburban San Diego condo. A cascade of notes fills the room - wave after wave of fast-paced, interlocking modal sequences that dazzle like sunlight reflected off an alpine lake. His style contains echoes of Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson and other greats, but it’s undeniably his own. How could this talent emanate from such a young and unassuming source?

Eldar Djangirov credits his mother, Tanya, who holds a master’s degree in music and taught at the Music College in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. “She’s kind of like the quintessential Russian piano teacher. She had such a strong concept of what to teach and how to lay down technique, and (she had) a sensitivity to different styles and aesthetics. She said that there are certain postures and sensibilities that you should include every time you sit down and play.”

His mother emphasized the importance of classical repertoire as well as technique, Eldar said. “I was taught from a very classical perspective. I was strictly a classical player for a long time. I still like classical music - it’s the source of a lot of inspiration for me.”

Eldar’s father, Emil, was also a crucial force in the development of his career, the pianist said. While not a musician, he’s a huge fan of jazz.

“My dad was a pretty prominent engineer and he got to travel quite a bit. A lot of the jazz records he bought were special. You couldn’t just walk into a store and buy them. You picked them up at shady, random places.”

These bootlegs contained some scintillating live performances by the giants of mid-20th century jazz: John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Chick Corea. “He owned everything that was important,” Eldar said. “I was exposed to it all from the time I was a little kid, at the same time that I was getting this classical foundation from my mother.”

There’s another crucial difference between Eldar and his golf-world alter-ego: he wasn’t consumed by ambition from Day One.

“I like to be honest about this. I didn’t always know what I wanted to be. When you’re 3 or 5 or 7 or 9, you live in a bubble. Kids are oblivious to the larger world. I guess I was about 12 or 13 when I really said to myself, `This is definitely what I want to do.’ That doesn’t mean that I wasn’t practicing before that. I just suddenly had this vision of a career and I knew that it was possible.”

At that point, Eldar’s family had already moved from Kyrgyzstan to Kansas City to further his studies. They had made the transition with the help of the late jazz supporter Charles McWhorter, who had heard Eldar playing as a precocious 9-year-old at a jazz festival in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk. Other early Eldar champions include Old School jazz greats Billy Taylor and Marian McPartland, who featured him on her venerable NPR show, “Piano Jazz,” in 1999 (he still holds the record as her youngest guest artist).

After six years in K.C., the family moved to San Diego. Eldar studied music at the University of Southern California, but dropped out last year; his burgeoning career didn’t mesh well with his schooling. Who wants to worry about theory homework when they’ve got a full schedule that includes dates at Ronnie Scott’s in London (May 8-9) and an invitation to play Carnegie Hall as part of an Oscar Peterson tribute (June 8)? Now he lives in New York, where his home instrument is a Steinway grand.

Eldar’s interpretations of such familiar fare as “What is This Thing Called Love,” “Take the A Train” and “Besame Mucho” on his last album, “Eldar Live at the Blue Note,” earned stellar reviews and plenty of air time on America’s jazz stations.

Eldar’s fifth CD, “re-imagination,” will be released June 5 on Sony BMG Masterworks. “It will be mostly my own compositions, but with some standards too,” he said. Also among its 11 tracks is “Place St. Henri,” a blazingly virtuosic song by Peterson, whom Eldar acknowledges as his biggest single influence.

Eldar’s “re-imagination” collaborators include hip-hop artist DJ Logic, Wynton Marsalis band members Ali Jackson Jr. (drums) and Carlos Henriquez (bass), and young guitar sensation Mike Moreno.

Another un-Tiger-like thing about Eldar is his casualness. Perhaps because he hasn’t really gotten used to his status yet, he’s completely unself-conscious, a gracious and generous host, and not inclined to cautious self-censorship like so many long-famous people are. His mother shares his personality. She’s proud to show guests her scrapbook of Eldar newspaper stories and reviews (her enthusiasm draws Eldar’s only mild reproach of the day: “Mom, please, I’m trying to smile for this picture!”).

Asked if he had a normal childhood, Eldar pauses before answering.

“As I became more aware of music being very important in my life, I started practicing eight hours a day. When I was living in L.A. and going to USC, I was practicing 12 or 14 hours a day. I had a hunger for a certain thing I wanted to get accomplished, and sometimes it would take 14 hours to get to a point where I accomplished it. I realized very early on that if you don’t do something today, tomorrow’s not going to change drastically. You have to take control.”

Despite such steely determination, the young pianist considers his life charmed and credits his parents for much of his success. Still, he says, he has his dark moods and frustrations - emotions that he channels into his playing.

“The only thing that can make me forget about the (crap) in life is when I’m practicing. The quality of life becomes significantly better for me when I’m playing. I love discovering new things.”

True to his word, Eldar told us not to return the piano to its original position (the photographer had moved it to get the right light for his shot). “No, it’s good like this. The sound is reflecting back a little differently. I think I’m going to leave it here for a while.” A few seconds after the front door closed, piano music floated out over the neighborhood, soft but insistent, rhythmic and purposeful. Eldar was already looking for the next new thing.

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