Correspondence: Two Young Pianists

Rifftides reader Peter Myers writes: 

In your liner notes from the great Christmas present CD I received, The Art and Soul of Houston Person, you mentioned a gifted 19-year-old jazz musician who plays few standards. I wondered if you were talking about Eldar. I was looking forward to seeing him at the Clearwater, FL Jazz Holiday back in October. I came away disappointed for the same reason. He played mostly his own compositions. Brilliant though he may be, his choice of music almost boredered on semi classical. I think he played one number, “Straight, No Chaser,” that was recognizable, and that you could tap your foot to. I wanted to approach him at the CD sales and signing booth and tell him, in a constructive, senior citizen way, but I did not.

No, it wasn’t Eldar. it was Sam Reider, an impressively talented and tasteful young man. You can find out something about him on his MySpace page and hear him in full performances, including one standard, with the Uptown Trio. You might also take a look at a Rifftides piece posted a day or two after I listened to him and his confreres in a concert. This is the paragraph from the Person notes: 

A gifted nineteen-year-old jazz musician recently told me why he and his band play few standards. With touching earnestness, he explained that people under sixty don’t relate to standards and that his generation has no connection to the classic songs of the last century. He had just played a concert of compositions mostly written by him or his band members. It evidently escaped him that the audience, with a sizeable component of young people, gave its most enthusiastic response of the evening to an adventurous performance of Matt Dennis’s “Everything Happens to Me.” As his career progresses, it may dawn on our emerging young artist that when he provides his listeners a melody they can hold onto, they open up to him and accept considerable leeway when he goes beyond the familiar. That has been a fact of life in music at least as far back as Mozart.

As for Eldar Djangirov, the first time I heard him, in a Brubeck Institute workshop run by Roy Hargrove, I was mightily impressed. I think he was sixteen. When his records started coming


out, I heard what you’re apparently alluding to, overplaying and a tendency toward pretentiousness, also reflected in his or his handlers’ deciding that he should use only one name, a la Beyoncé or Liberace. That’s show biz. I haven’t heard Djangirov in live performance in several years and don’t wish to issue a blanket criticism of a young man who has formidable technical gifts and enormous musical potential. I hope that, ultimately, he will prove to also have taste, judgment and the ability to edit himself at the keyboard. As Miles Davis and John Lewis, among many others, have pointed out, it is important to know what not to play. 
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  1. Joel Elkins says

    I’m well over 65 (75) & I must confess, when deciding whether to purchase a CD for example, if the artist chooses to record only “originals”, I don’t purchase the recording.
    The many new compositions the later generation of musicians compose are quite unimpressive.While they may be creative in the use of harmony and such, they seem so lacking in melody & are extremely self conscious in their attempt at sophistication.

  2. says

    I was guilty of the same egocentric attitude (don’t play standards), as the two pianists you talk about today; But I am a composer who has played standards for over 60 years and developed my style by improvising on them over and over and over and over…………..!!
    This comment backs up your important point that people, any age, respond immediately to an American popular/standard tune. All upcoming jazz players MUST learn them by the 100’s and in every key; 90% of jazz evolved from learning these melodies.
    I can count on one hand jazz composers worthy of the name: Two that come to mind are Bill Evans and Horace Silver; Duke Ellington and George Russell are in another category.
    I had the opportunity to audition for Columbia records in 1963 with my trio. I rehearsed and played only my own compositions for the audition. Mid-way Teo Macero came out of the control booth and asked me to play a standard. I said “What, you can’t tell my worth on my own compositions?” He left abruptly and later I found out he told the engineer to let me finish,and give me the tape. Needless to say I didn’t get a contract. Guess who did record for Columbia? Denny Zeitlin!! He was auditioning the next day.
    The sad thing is that too many recordings by the young and new are filled with “Originals”. Yes, I mean that in a negative sense. Composing is a calling; many are called BUT few are chosen!
    BTW, I did release my first recording of ONLY my own compositions, but on my own label, UNICHROM,(Stubborn Irishman that I was!) and only much later recorded standards.
    Jack Reilly
    Beachwood, New Jersey

  3. Gordon Sapsed says

    I have been listening to Eldar since the late 1990’s , when he came to the U.S., I think as a twelve-year-old and amazed Topeka Jazz festival listeners. he lived in Kansas in his early years in the U.S. and each year, at that Festival, we saw the growth in his talent and his development in skill and originality. It was especially pleasing to see him performing alongside experienced players like Ray Brown in Festival jam session settings.
    Following his move to California and subsequent ‘Sony Classical’ record contract I have become progressively less interested in listening to him on record or live. I also notice that his CDs seem more frequently available in the ‘Used’ racks than in the ‘new’ racks.
    What a shame …..
    Meanwhile I am watching with interest the career of pianist Gerald Clayton, who is a similar age to Eldar and who occasionally was in those Topeka audiences watching his father John Clayton. Gerald has yet to release a CD or be signed by a major label – but is growing in stature, seems more interesting with each live appearance and is playing with the ‘big boys’ internationally now….
    I hope both will grow and succeed in the next decade – it will be interesting to compare their careers then.

  4. mrebks says

    As a listener, sadly no player, i’d just like to add this not-very-original thought… the entropy of ignorance tugs, but standard time has no ending.

  5. G.Petranich says

    re Joel Elkins’ comment,
    Dear Joel,
    On you can sample Jack Reilly’s all original cd, BLUE SEAN GREEN, (rec. 1968) and eleven others; you may just hear sublime melodic invention, harmonic richness surpassing Brahms, Tatum and Evans; plus rhythmic acuity of genius.
    Open up your ears even if you’re 75!
    With respect,
    Torino, Italia.

  6. says

    Your item on pianists and originals reminded me of something the great pianist Tardo Hammer said to me when I asked him why he did not write/play more originals: “The old tunes are better.”

  7. Medrawt says

    I assume it doesn’t bear saying that “a melody they can hold onto” doesn’t have to actually be the melody of “a standard”; I do agree that most original compositions I hear are unmemorable and unmelodic and have little hope of being played by somebody other than the composer or perhaps some loyal former sidemen.
    As a 26-year old, however, I don’t “relate” to standards, just as Sam Reider said, and I don’t have any connection to the popular music of my grandparents. 98% of my exposure to the Great American Songbook has been listening to Great American Jazz musicians contort those works into masterpiece improvisations, and although I know I’ve heard vocal renditions of “All the Things You Are,” I couldn’t tell you anything about the lyrics. I don’t respond to this music as popular music because I only know it as jazz, and have never had any reason to distinguish “All the Things…” from “A-Train” or “Epistrophy” or whatever.
    Whether it’s enough for jazz to offer memorable melodies (which I think it should) or, as with the jazz musicians of yore, offer *recognized* melodies mixed in with original compositions, I don’t know. Most modern popular music is less conducive to mainstream jazz improvisation than the pop music of my grandparents’ era.

  8. Orrin Keepnews says

    There is no system or logic of any kind connected to what I see or don’t on all of these boards and blogs and whatever, but I have just stumbled upon your Eldar comments of January 8/9. I am struck by the fact that you may have hit on the only viewpoint (the importance of knowing what not to play) that can properly be attributed to both Miles and John Lewis!

  9. Sean Murphy Ortega says

    Keepnews should realize that blogs are not supposed to be logical; they are of the moment like a good jazz solo, Orrin!
    And you left out the master of all time, Bill Evans, who NEVER BTW had to worry about what to leave out! Why? Because the inner logic of his playing and improvisations were complete. A master NEVER edits; They just PLAY.
    There is NO TIME to think of what to leave out when improvising; Miles and John Lewis never played thinking of what to leave out! Only critics or producers like yourself invent fatuous theories for the jazz public. It gives the music an esoteric/mystical/mysterious flavor.
    Define your terms first, Orrin, aka “Re-Person I Knew;” what does it really mean ‘what not to play’?
    With Respect,
    Sean Murphy Ortega
    Deansboro, NY
    (In fairness to Mr. Keepnews, I must point out that it was I, not he, who mentioned Davis and Lewis in the context of economical playing. Orrin merely commented. — DR)

  10. Petter Pettersson says

    I agree that in mainstream jazz a performance of originals often tend to give an impression of sameness and be a collection of indifferent themes. What I often miss, however, is some creativity in picking good tunes that are not the most regular ones in The Great American Song Book, but good tunes written by jazz musicians like Clifford Brown, Ornette Coleman, Tadd Dameron, among others.
    Scott Robinson some years ago released a great CD with Louis Armstrong compositions, reminding us that Satch too wrote some good tunes deserving wider recognition.
    Brubeck and Monk, of course, have their tunes played quite regularly by others, deservedly so – I mean “Blue Rondo a la Turk” and “Round Midnight” are great tunes – but even re Monk and Brubeck it would be wise to investigate their work further – beyond the obvious. There are so many great, half-forgotten tunes out there – I wish more musicians would go searching for them.