In jazz, first-name status is generally earned the long and hard way. There can be only one Miles or Dizzy, but even more common first names—Louis, Oscar, Billie, Sarah—can be infused with singular meaning because decades of astonishment demand it.
What to make, then, of “Eldar”, the one-name handle of a young pianist (Eldar Djangirov) who is not yet 23? His label, Sony Masterworks, would certainly prefer that he have more in common with Madonna Ciccone than with Art Tatum, outfitting and coiffing him for his cover with as much cool as he can hold. But no matter the promotional weight of Sony, this kid—discovered at nine when playing in Siberia, then a prodigy sensation at 12 after moving to the United States—is still a jazz pianist. Simply put, no matter how tricky his surname is to pronounce, he ain’t “Eldar” yet.
What he is: a technical wiz, a prodigious melodist, a compelling improviser. Also, sometimes a show-off, often an abuser of a synthesizer, sometimes a sentimentalist. But Virtue, his eighth (!) recording, is largely winning and warm. Djangirov may now be a veteran of the scene, but he still approaches his music with the I’m-Going-To-Blow-You-Away! attitude of a young man. As a result, the bulk of Virtue sets about doing exactly that.
His trio, which is the backbone of the record, relishes the kind of tricky business that Chick Corea has always been so good at, and the slick-as-a-trick drumming and electric bass put Djangirov squarely under the shadow of the great Jazz Scientologist. Like Corea, Djangirov spins somewhat baroque jazz improvisations that crackle as much as any electric guitar. When he is running the show, the young man is flat our fun to listen to. Fully on its own, the trio entertains.
But on Virtue there is more, for better or worse. The guest saxophonists mostly work out well. On the opener, “Exposition”, Djangirov enlists Joshua Redman, who can spar with the pianist like a champ, keep the complex tune feeling limber and hot. It’s probably gilding the lily, then, that Djangirov tosses in some electric piano under Redman’s solo, then follows the reprise of the melody with a ripping and echo-effected synthesizer solo. A similar pattern prevails on “Blues Sketch in Clave”, but with Felipe Lamoglia on tenor sax. The tune gets your heart rate up without the digital signal, so why bust out a blast of the ‘70s?
It makes more sense, perhaps, that Djangirov whips out the synth on “The Exorcist”, as he has no woodwind foil and wants to get another color. When the digi-horn enters the tune, it jiggers up and down the scales with a near-classical rigor, sounding less human (or course) than Djangirov’s piano. The problem, perhaps, is that it reminds us that the young pianist’s default tendency is to clutter his solos with this kind of virtuosic pattern-making. It happens again on “Daily Living”, where a charming and shaded composition is suddenly overrun by a soaring synth solo that requires the trio to bash away in accompaniment. It’s hard to hear these tunes and not feel that sticking with the trio—capable of more than enough fancy footwork on its own—would have been preferable.
When Djangirov does that, the results get deeper into some real expression. “Iris” is a ballad, and it plays to Djangirov’s strengths by incorporating the shape of a classical melody with the supple feeling of jazz. Nearly right away, electric bassist Armando Gola seeps through the melody to add delicate lines like an undated Steve Swallow, and the closing of the piece is turned over to delicate solo piano. “Lullaby Fantazia” sets up an succession of flowing harmonies that are expressed in both highly structured terms and as an impressionistic set of waves. There is nothing dull or insufficiently colorful about this synth-less trio, and some of the best moments on the recording are on this tune, when the pianist is deliberately negotiating the puzzle of his own tune—and doing it with honest invention.
The most exciting track here is surely “Blackjack”, with Lamoglia and trumpeter Nicholas Peyton. Djangirov punches out a gospel jazz groove that the horn match in a snapping attack that is contrasted with a flowing melodic line in the bridge. The leader properly solos first, but he gives most impressive setting to Peyton, who solos against a spare but funky background. When the melody returns, however, there is that synth again, and damn if it doesn’t insist on trading phrases at the end with Peyton. It’s enough to get you to throw up your arms. Djangirov is in love with that synth. A young man’s prerogative, perhaps, but still lamentable.
Curiously, Djangirov rarely integrates his digital tool into the early part of his tunes—rather, he chooses to bring in the synth at the end of these tunes as a kind of ambush. The bulk of the music here, however, sounds simply terrific on its own. Fans of straight-ahead music will find in Djangirov a brilliant new technician, but they won’t like the cold, unnecessary, and strident synthesizer. But music fans who choose to look beyond the straight-ahead will not find a pianist who is generally challenging the post-bop status quo. This is the paradox of Virtue: it is pretty much conventional in all the ways that matter even though it was made by a very very young artist.
Given the time and space to develop, Eldar Djangirov is certain to create more and more daring music—music that may ultimately find a way to make his synthesizer relevant and exciting. In the meantime, Virtue is a fun and zinging listen, even if it is only momentarily brilliant.