Late on the second night of this year’s Kavkaz Jazz Festival – a fixture on Tbilisi’s summer arts calendar – Maria Shirshova, one of the festival’s organizers, whispered in my ear that something special was about to happen.
Plenty of special things had already happened. The festival opened the night before in the packed Grand Hall at the Tbilisi State Conservatoire, a venue that graduated and presented generations of musical luminaries during the 20th century.
Saxophonist Michael Tracy and guitarist Craig Wagner, both University of Louisville faculty members, played finely honed duos on opening night, then essayed a long, exploratory set with a Tbilisi group headed up by Reso Kiknadze, whose varied career includes success as a composer of contemporary music and a busy schedule as a jazz saxophonist who performs regularly in Tbilisi’s clubs and cafes.
Tonight, though, the Kavkaz Festival – Kavkaz is Russian for Caucus – relocated across town to The Movement Theatre, a splendid venue and a creative hub for innovative music performing arts.
The night was supposed to end with the funky, piano-driven sound of an Azerbaijani trio called J.E.F. Experiment.
Instead, festival founder Helen Mechitova, grabbed a microphone and told the audience to stay. Suddenly there were 11 Azerbaijani, Armenian and Georgian musicians on stage wielding a mix of traditional and modern instruments.
A jam session at a jazz concert isn’t exactly newsworthy. But the Southern Caucasus isn’t just any old place.
Music as political collaboration
The Republic of Georgia just celebrated 25 years of independence after a couple of centuries as part of Czarist Russia and the Soviet Union. Though the Caucasus gets little attention in the U.S. press, all of Georgia’s bordering countries are involved in simmering disputes. Turkey faces ISIS outside its borders and a Kurdish independence movement within.
Nearby Iran has only just begun to re-engage with the West after decades of economic isolation. And in early April, a long-standing border dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia flared up in a burst of violence, now dubbed the Four Day War, that according to the U.S. State Department led to some 350 military and civilian casualties.
But on stage, two keyboard players, Karen Mamikonyan from Armenia and Joshgun Gadashov from Azerbaijan were standing side-by-side sharing two stacked keyboards. It was an indelible and moving image of friendship that riveted and delighted the audience.
That collaboration through music is exactly what inspired Mechitova, Shirshova, and Nino Tsitlanadze, to create an international pan-Caucasus jazz festival that this year featured ensembles from all the nations in this complex region.
Throughout the festival, electric keyboards and amplified guitars matched up with traditional string instruments like the Persian tar and the Georgian fanduri, drum kits with the Iranian hand drum called a tombak, and saxes with reeds and flutes like the duduk, pku, zurna and shvi.
For this jazz lover, weaned on the sounds of Basie, Bir, and Coltrane, the exotic scales and pulsing rhythms on the Festival stages were exotic delights that night after night bowled me over with free-wheeling visceral intensity or drew me into the sphere of their spare, simple poetry.
Teaching by Day
Some of the most moving moments of our two-week visit to Georgia played out during the day as I watched Tracy and Wagner engage in a quite different cross-cultural exchange – two weeks of morning and afternoon private lessons and ensemble master classes focused on ensemble jazz performance.
The idea for these classes originated when Mechitova, the Kavkaz Jazz Festival founder, visited Louisville last year on a visit sponsored by the international arts exchange organization CEC ArtsLink.
During a meeting with Tracy, director of the Jamey Aebersold Jazz Studies Program at U of L, she broached the idea of a series of jazz workshops coinciding with the festival. And Tracy, whose jazz advocacy and teaching has developed into a global portfolio (he’s taught and performed in dozens of countries), jumped at the opportunity to build a new musical alliance.
Funding resources in Georgia were tight, but support came from the Fulbright Senior Specialist Program, the Georgian Ministry of Culture, the University of Louisville School of Music and an enthusiastic network of anonymous Louisvillians who love supporting jazz diplomacy. The Tbilisi saxophonist (and Conservatoire Rector) Kiknadze endorsed the project, and the workshops, scheduled for two weeks around the schedule, were on.
“Our primary reason for going,” said Tracy, “was to offer these students an opportunity to study jazz in a structured environment. Of course, we had no idea what to expect from these students – and they had no idea what to expect from us.
“Quite frankly, Craig and I were surprised at how well the students played and how quickly they picked up the things we worked on. They came to us with strong musical backgrounds, whether in jazz or something else. They were confident in playing their instruments and adapting those skills to the things we worked on.” Some of the students might have been apprehensive at first, said Tracy.
“My job is to push them, to get them past their fears, and to meet them where they are musically,” he said. “And once they understood that our goal was to give them opportunities to apply the musical skills they already had, they loosened up, and it was easy.”
A rich history of Jazz
Jazz has a rich – and perhaps unlikely – tradition in the Caucasus. Armenian music critic Armen Manukyan, who was in Georgia for the Festival, told me that for decades, Willis Conover’s “Voice of America Jazz Hour” inspired musicians and listeners behind the Iron Curtain. And Soviet censors, never quite grasping that for some listeners jazz was more than mere dance music, never bothered blocking the signal.
But those censors may have missed something. Time and again when I asked students, Festival performers, or fans in the audience what attracted them to jazz, I heard variations on the same two ideas: “freedom” and “connection.”
One night, when Tracy and I walked into a dimly lit café, an engineer named Rezi Tavarashvili rushed over to tell the sax player how moved he had been by the jam session he’d heard a few nights earlier. He was new to jazz, he said, but the music had affected him emotionally, and he felt that its distinctive mix of individual liberty and collective collaboration spoke to something in the Georgian spirit.
Iranian vocalist Sanam Pasha, whose Iranian ensemble Arte Music Group was part of the Festival lineup, sat in for some of the workshop sessions (as did a number of the festival participants).
After studying classical music, then rock and blues, she had come to jazz because, “I like the freedom, the way you can change your movements, the way you can make a fusion of Iranian music and jazz.”
Bero Matchavariani, a talented young guitarist who attended the workshops, said “jazz is a way to express yourself. It is part of American culture, but I think that we are all human beings and we have feelings. Every kind of person, no matter where he is from, can play this music.”
Azerbaijani and Armenian musicians offered similar views. And from them, as well as visiting critics, teachers and performers, I heard another repeated refrain: there is a huge demand in this part of the world for professional jazz instruction.
The Baku-based Azerbaijani music critic Turan Mammadaliyeva said, “We have great jazz musicians in our country, but there are things about this music that have to be taught face-to-face by people with extensive experience.”
During a private lessons, I watched saxophonist Dimitry Lekveishvili’s face light up at a sudden epiphany about an inefficient fingering – and over the course of the two weeks, I listened as his tone grew more confident and his ideas more ambitious.
During the Festival’s closing jam session, I watched him take the stage and improvise a series of joyful choruses that served as an exclamation point for two weeks of intense work.
We documented nearly every workshop, and parts of the Festival on Facebook Live. The archived streams are available on the Facebook page Tracy In Tbilisi – and though the video is sometimes shaky or far removed from the stage, if you have the patience, the workshop videos are fascinating studies in jazz pedagogy.
And if you dip into the early sessions and late sessions (or watch Lekveishvili’s performance during the last Saturday night jam of the Festival), you’ll be surprised at how much progress these students made over the course of two weeks.
Author: Marty Rosen Special to the Courier-Journal