‘Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration’ (Thomas Edison)
We arrive at Baku Jazz Centre and check our coats at the door. My Azeri friend has been insisting we should come. She knows something that I don’t. Tonight’s the night, she says.
Inside, the atmosphere is Vegas 1960: waiters and cocktails, tables with lamps, a hundred chic clients talking non-stop. We watch some loud band and a cheesy crooner with a beer belly. It’s not jazz, it’s tedious and after an hour I’m bored and restless. But my friend says: No, wait.
The band leaves the stage. A skinny young man in a black shirt sits at the piano, wipes the keys and starts to play, repeating one chord like a funeral march. The audience falls silent. Eventually, I recognise the music: Mahler’s 5th Symphony in C, the mournful Adagietto. But I’ve never heard it like this, with jazzy frills. He’s playing faster now so I stand up for a better view, hairs prickling on my neck. He’s hammering at the ivory keys like he’s possessed. My friend whispers: I told you, it’s like the piano is growing out of his hands. And she’s right.
He plays so fast his hands are now just a pink blur under the spotlight. He is some kind of genius, no question. The music is so complex, ferocious and beautiful that I almost want to cry. I don’t believe in angels but I am watching one tonight in this smoky club in Azerbaijan and nothing else matters. I stare open-mouthed at the stage. My God. Who is this guy?
His name is Isfar Sarabski and, next day, we meet in a café downtown for an interview with FHM. Isfar wears a leather bomber, black jeans and red sneakers. He has an aquiline nose and eyes that sparkle when he smiles. He stirs his drink with long and elegant fingers. He’s friendly, shy and modest, even though he won the Montreux Jazz Festival when he was 19 years old. Now do you believe me? Here’s our chat.
FHM: You work very hard onstage, Isfar. How do you feel after you play?
Isfar: Exhausted, but the audience reaction compensates.
FHM: Do you plan your repertoire, or do you improvise?
Isfar: Mostly I know what to play but sometimes I change direction
FHM: According to Wiki, your grandfather was an opera singer. And your parents?
Isfar: Mum is a violin teacher, Dad is an amateur singer. Music is in the family.
FHM: What’s your daily routine?
Isfar: I’m a music student on a Presidential scholarship. After class, I like to watch AC Milan on TV. I like PlayStation too. At night I go to a club, jazz, classical or house. I play with DJ’s sometimes. I play at least 1 or 2 hours each day. But sometimes I play 15 hours, or more.
FHM: No wonder you’re so good. How was Montreux?
Isfar: I was scared when they invited me, I did not feel ready. It’s not just a festival, it’s a contest and I wanted to win. For three months, I practised 16 hours per day.
FHM: Wow! What happened after you won?
Isfar: It was a difficult period. I was in a daze, thinking: Where do I go from here? It took me a while to get my head together. I was young, lost.
FHM: But bombarded with invitations?
Isfar: Sure, too many! I played in Hollywood and many famous jazz clubs in the USA, also Mexico, Germany, Austria, Norway, England, Belgium and Switzerland – lots of countries.
FHM: And the future?
Isfar: Next September, I’ll enrol at Berkeley School of Music in Boston. My manager in America sent them my tape and they invited me to study. I’ll skip the first two years and start at the third. I won a scholarship to cover the cost.
FHM: But eventually you’ll need a recording contract, to make a decent living?
Isfar: Yes, I have a plan. My CD will appear when I am ready, on global release. I compose classical and jazz. I know whom to play with. I want to put Azerbaijan on the jazz map.
FHM: Will you follow the example of your fellow countryman Vagif Mustafazadeh and fuse traditional, hypnotic Azeri ‘mugam’ music with jazz?
Isfar: We’ll see. Mugam is in my blood but it’s hard for people beyond Azerbaijan to grasp that music and hard to blend it with jazz.
FHM: I read that you like the American pianist Brad Mehldhau?
Isfar: My dream is to meet him! His every new album is a like a door to a new life for me. He is more than a musician. He’s a philosopher at the forefront of jazz, truly the new wave.”
FHM: And classical music?
Isfar: I like Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev and Liszt
FHM: Your favourite guitarist?
Isfar: Pat Metheny, he played with Mehldhau!
FHM: Here in Baku, why does everyone talk at concerts, even the opera and ballet?
Isfar: Good question! Azeris are family oriented. When they go out, they love to chat!
FHM: Except when you play?
Isfar: You noticed that, huh?
Yes, Isfar, we noticed.
And so will you, dear reader, one of these days.
And by the way, he’s on You Tube. To see Isfar performing live at Montreux Jazz, please paste this link into your browser: http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=Isfar+Sarabski&aq=f
(This article was first published in FHM Romania March 2011 and appears here by permission of S.C. Sanoma Hearst Romania SRL)