The pulsating sounds and vibrant sights of Azerbaijan come to Colmar

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The historic Alsatian town of Colmar – which has ratified a friendship and co-operation agreement with the ancient Azerbaijani town of Sheki – has played host to a photographic exhibition and performance by leading Azerbaijani jazz pianist Emil Afrasiyab at the opening night of its jazz festival on 7 September.

Azerbaijani jazz pianist Emil Afrasiyab

The Emil Afrasiyab Quartet captivated 300 French jazz fans

We are welcoming one of the greatest Azerbaijani pianists – Emil Afrasiyab – who combines jazz with elements derived from mugham that, like the Pyramids, has been recognised by UNESCO.

Emil Afrasiyab, one of Azerbaijan’s leading jazz musicians, headlined the opening of the 20th edition of the prestigious Festival de Jazz de Colmar on 7 September. His appearance was complemented by 'Azerbaijan Through the Lens' – an exhibition of 30 stunning images of Azerbaijan – submitted by amateur and professional photographers from across the world for a competition run by The European Azerbaijan Society (TEAS). These are now on display at the Pôle Média Edmond Gerrer, which receives more than 700 visitors each week.

The events were organised by TEAS France in co-operation with the Mayor’s Office in Colmar and come in the wake of the historic signing of a friendship and co-operation agreement between the ancient Azerbaijani town of Sheki and the historic French town of Colmar – the third-largest in the Alsace region – in May.

At the opening of the jazz festival, Gilbert Meyer, Mayor of Colmar, recalled leading a delegation to Sheki: “This is a special evening, as this concert remind us of the friendship and co-operation agreement that was signed with the town of Sheki in Azerbaijan. We are welcoming one of the greatest Azerbaijani pianists – Emil Afrasiyab – who combines jazz with elements derived from mugham that, like the Pyramids, has been recognised by UNESCO. Azerbaijan and France are great friends, yet they have quite different cultures, and Sheki is the Pearl of the Caucasus.

“Colmar and Sheki are towns of equal importance in their respective countries. This agreement is playing a critical role in strengthening relations between France and Azerbaijan. Tonight, the Azerbaijani government is represented by Ayaz Gojayev, First Secretary, Azerbaijani Embassy to France.” The audience also included H.E. Emin Eyyubov, Permanent Representative of Azerbaijan to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg.

At the exhibition opening, Marie-Laetitia Gourdin, Director, TEAS remarked: “Azerbaijan is a member of the EU Eastern Partnership and is aiming to develop understanding from European countries, notably through cultural exchange. After Colmar hosted the Days of Azerbaijan in 2012, the dynamism of these exchanges increased, culminating in the signing of the friendship and co-operation agreement. TEAS’ collaboration with the Mayor’s Office of Colmar in arranging tonight’s jazz concert, photographic exhibition, and the reciprocal exchange of books between schools in Sheki and Colmar is indicative of the warm relationship between the towns.”

Emil performed before a packed house of 300 enthusiastic jazz aficionados at the Salle de Spectacles Europe, in addition to being broadcast live to an audience on local TV channel TV7 Colmar. For the past two years he has been studying at the Berklee College of Music in the US, and it was there that he began to collaborate with the three talented French musicians who now form his quartet – Raphaël Pannier (drums), Antoine Katz (bass guitar) and Alexandre Madeline (tenor saxophone).

The set included Emil’s self-penned 'Two Worlds', composed to demonstrate the relationship between Eastern and Western idioms, rhythms and scales. After a rhapsodic solo introduction, replete with classically-influenced romanticism, Emil increased the tempo, running up and down the piano keyboard, his music incorporating the Eastern harmonies and microtones found in mugham. The propulsive polyrhythmic drumming of Raphaël Pannier carried the music along and his intuitive musical dialogue with Emil was notable throughout the concert. The improvisations even included a brief nod to J.S. Bach and his 'Air on the G String'.

Emil’s version of Azerbaijani jazz-mugham pioneer Vagif Mustafzadeh’s 'March' included Alexandre Madeline on tenor saxophone. This began with Emil’s impressionistic introduction, after which Coltrane disciple Alexandre gave an exploration of the main theme prior to its deconstruction. Emil and Raphaël then took up the challenge, daring each other on to more tangential improvisations, Raphaël abandoning his drumsticks to use his hands when necessary. Emil’s evermore complex improvisations inspired Raphaël to further demonstrate his abilities before the tempo receded – after spontaneous applause from the audience – with Emil and Alexandre returning the main theme. Emil then ended the piece in a romantic manner that owed much to Rachmaninov. The audience remained in reverent silence for a moment before showing its ecstatic appreciation.

After a standing ovation and much shouting the audience was were rewarded with a passionate and dextrous introduction to a series of exciting variations on the main theme of the Azerbaijani traditional dance Shalakho, written in the challenging time signature of 6/8. This saw Alexandre’s saxophone take on the role of the traditional balaban flute, even deliberately overblowing his instrument to distortion levels when wildly entering the realms of free jazz and call-and-response dialogue accompanied by the rock-influenced percussion of Raphaël. The piece concluded in a furiously powerful and percussive manner, seeing Raphaël break the end off his drumstick. The concert ended with a wildly enthusiastic standing ovation.

The concert marked the end of a three-date French festival tour by Emil’s quartet – sponsored by TEAS – that began on in May with a performance at the inaugural Sunnyside Festival in Reims. Nearly 400 fans attended his concert at the Festival Jazz à Saint-Germain-des-Prés in Paris.

Emil also continues to perform classical repertoire, and will be giving two performances at the famous Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. As part of the Silk and Fire Festival, organised by composer Pierre Thilloy, he will play his own transcription of jazz-mugham pioneer Vagif Mustafazadeh’s Piano Concerto on 13 September, accompanied by l’Orchestre Lamoureux, and he will perform Chopin’s Piano Concerto No.2 in February 2016.

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