Shahin Novrasli Trio, Pizza Express Jazz Club, London – review

It’s not another New York yet, but Baku’s jazz scene has grown healthily in recent years, helped perhaps by Azerbaijan’s burgeoning oil wealth. The annual Baku International Jazz Festival dates from 2005, and a thriving jazz centre showcases local musicians blending jazz with Mugham, the country’s traditional folk music.

In this, the locals are following in the footsteps of the extraordinarily gifted 37-year-old Baku-born pianist Shahin Novrasli, who has been lacing his jazz with Eurasian inflections for more than a decade. At this jazz club one-nighter, part of a Europe-wide promotional tour, short clumps of dissonance fizzed and cracked and mournful melodies hung tantalisingly over surges of rhythm.

But most impressive was Novrasli’s highly personal approach to jazz, which stays within tradition while avoiding the obvious. If anything, his quickfire, spidery lines remind me of the late 1950s modernists who broke from showtune harmonies and edged towards the avant-garde.

The pianist set out his stall in the long unaccompanied intro to the first set. Novrasli’s virtuosity reflects classical training from an early age – a child prodigy, he delivered a prizewinning performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No 2 when he was 18 – and both clean articulation and two-handed independence were displayed on the florid cadences and counterpoint lines that opened “Nocturne for Natavan”. The band joined for a light Latin groove, with Chris Higginbottom urging on Novrasli’s scampers up the keyboard with a brittle roll of drums.

“Insomnia” followed, its theme a snatch of drinking-song that broke into a run and ended with a thump, “Misri Blues” swung, “Saz” was a ballad, and the furiously fast “Baga” was a rampaging mix of Mugham and swing. Each composition went through twists and turns and showcased the solid support.

The second set’s highlights included the ominous low-register rumble that introduced “1001 Nights”, a lovely reading of Chopin’s Prelude in E Minor, and the brooding and stately intro to “Bayati Shiraz”, the title track of his excellent new CD. But he saved the best until last, when he burst into song on “Fir & Giz”, his voice a mix of Caspian blues and call to prayer, his accompaniment a thrash of modal chords and dazzling runs.

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