As ever, the opinions contained in this post are the sole opinions of Gabrielle Straveli, not the opinions of the US State Dept and/or American Music Abroad. Our ensemble is: Jim Ridl, piano, Pat O'Leary, bass and Jordan Young, drums. All photos by John Ferguson.
Our time in Azerbaijan began exactly the same way as in Moldova- on our first day we did a morning TV show appearance, then a masterclass followed by an evening concert. It felt something like being shot out of a cannon, plus, we were jet lagged again, having travelled further east from Moldova, losing another hour or two in the process. Hello, under eye bags!
We stayed in the capital city, Baku, which is a very interesting place- located in the east of the country right on the Caspian Sea, it's a real mash up of older, more ornate/classical architecture and hyper-modern construction (which I was told is in the "Dubai style"). They have oil, so there's money in this country and we could definitely feel and see the difference in wealth compared to the poverty of Moldova.
Our first workshop was at the Baku American Center where we were joined by a small group of instrumentalists who worked with us on jazz technique (Swing feel, groove, blues progressions) and jammed with us on some standard tunes. After that we went directly to Park Bulvar- a shmancy shopping mall in a very shmancy section of Baku that reminded me of Fifth Avenue in NYC. For reasons I won't go too deeply into here, we performed only in privately owned venues in Azerbaijan as opposed to any place that is state-run. I am honestly not exactly sure what the relationship between the US government and Azerbaijan is at this moment in history, but I can say that we felt ZERO Anti-American sentiment. On the contrary, everyone we met was extremely friendly. I think so often, the actual people in any given country don't really care where you're from- especially when you're a musician. We are lucky to do what we do, as it offers a common ground for people to meet us on, totally devoid of politics. And that's why music is awesome.
The pics below are of Pat O'Leary and Jordan Young working with musicians in our masterclass at the Baku American Center.
So our first concert was in a shopping mall. I'll admit, I was skeptical of this set up. I figured it would be noisy and that we would essentially become background music, but as per usual, my preconceptions were wrong. We had a great crowd that gathered around the performance area and listened attentively for over an hour. They sang along with some of the more familiar American tunes we did and someone even requested "Moon River" at the end of the show! Azerbaijan is a very cosmopolitan place- many major musical acts have toured there, so I figured out by the end of our time there that it's a pretty sophisticated audience. Yet again, I felt my spirits lift through the experience of singing and through sharing music with people. It had been a tremendously long day, but I felt completely energized at the end of the concert..."Dr. Jazz" (as it's sometimes called) to the rescue.
After a rest day on Sunday, our busy schedule continued. On Monday we led a combination workshop/jam session at Khazar University in Baku and performed a concert for the students there in the afternoon. In our concert we were joined by the Khazar University Chamber Orchestra and I owe a huge shoutout to Pat O'Leary and Jim Ridl for this- for our performances in AzerB we had created an arrangement of a beautiful Azeri folk song called "Lacin" and the orchestra had prepared their own version of it as well. On the spot, in a matter of minutes, Pat and Jim created an arrangement that fused both versions so that we were able to perform the song together. Thanks, guys!
Monday evening we were honored to perform a few songs at the home of the US Ambassador to Azerbaijan, Robert Sekuta. It was a really lovely evening (despite having to duck out a little early thanks to an awesomely heavy head cold I came down with) and I was really struck by something the Ambassador's wife said to me. When we arrived at the house, I said something like "thanks for having us here tonight" and she said to me "This is YOUR house". Before this tour I had no idea how much access Americans (and people of all nationalities) have to embassies and that's been a great discovery. These institutions are open and here for the purpose of engaging with the public, so there's no need to feel like it's the Emerald City and you'll never get in. It's your house.
On Tuesday afternoon we taught a masterclass at the Baku Music Academy where we worked with classical music students, exploring some of the fundamental differences (and similarities) of playing jazz music. Tuesday evening we had a packed house for our concert at the gorgeous National Art Museum. The arrangement of Lacin with the Khazar U Chamber Orchestra had worked so well that we invited them to play with us again on Tuesday night. I felt really good about this concert- the crowd was very diverse, with many young and older folks joining us, as well as the Ambassador and staff from the US embassy. Even though we were in an art museum, the vibe wasn't stuffy at all- it felt intimate and informal in the best sense of the word- there were a few young girls in the back who I remember were swaying to the music and people hummed along to the songs they recognized. Check out the video below! Someone in the audience created it and I think it conveys the very warm feeling in the room that night.