The name Anar Yusufov wasn’t unfamiliar: we had noted his progression from ‘choirboy’ image in Bari Bakh, Rauf Babayev’s revivalist jazz harmony singers, to talented, Harry Potter-ish, 16 year-old pianist founder/leader of the Orient Xpress jazz combo. It was a promising group, playing jazz festivals as well as the local halls, but without actually shattering any cocoons. Then, around 2009, it disappeared.
Earlier this year the name appeared again at Baku’s Jazz Centre. Eventually we went along, more it must be said in hope than expectation, but there had been some metamorphosis!
The new Orient Xpress have too much edge and force to be described as a butterfly, but fly they do. Jazz traces remain, mixed, merged or competing with rock, baroque, reggae, soul, rap and pop from the likes of Sting, Vivaldi, Bach, Bob Marley and James Brown, as well as their own compositions. The first viewing was enough to draw us back, the second made us drag others along for a third blast that really took off.
Appearances aren’t all, but they send signals. Anar had become a keytarist; a brave move given the instrument’s mixed press, but surely adding to his stage presence. His voice left no doubt as to his self-confidence; the smooth harmonies of his youth had given way to ache-in-the-soul power.
The effect was tripled by a saxophonist rejecting the restraint of a plaster-encased right leg to soar and swoop, physically and musically, through raunchy solos and by a guitarist equally qualified to deliver searing rock solos and deft licks behind the front line; all this above a rock-solid foundation of bass and drums. Much as we love jazz, it was a refreshing far cry from the rather more staid previous incarnation.
We weren’t the only ones to respond; they had been booked to warm up the 60,000+ crowd for the opening ceremony of Baku2015, the first European Games. But what had happened to Orient Xpress along the way? After that stunning third concert, we had to find out. They agreed to an interview, which turned out to echo their performances: a lead singer, with plenty of solos0 interjecting.
We won’t go too far into Anar’s youth; we’ll have more to say about the further progress of the Bari Bakh singers in a future edition. For now let’s just say that he and saxophonist Farid Mailov first met as founder members of Bari Bakh aged eight and nine years old on 2nd October 1995; they stayed with the group until 2007 and 2008 respectively. While Anar has remained faithful to the keyboard in one form or another, Farid studied classical violin for seven years and moved on to clarinet, before being attracted to the sound and versatility of the saxophone following exposure to jazz during his 13-year vocal career. Both finally graduated from Baku’s State Music Academy; Anar claiming to have been the first student in the Academy’s Jazz Faculty.
They joined up again last year in entirely different guises, largely at the suggestion of the other Anar – guitarist Isayev – back home after a 14-year sojourn stateside. The Anars had actually met before, during the stringsman’s 2005 visit to a sound engineer friend.
We met in the studio. We walked in to record a song and he was sleeping on the couch.
Not feeling too well and snatching a nap in the studio, Anar Isayev was woken by Orient Xpress recording an album. They had recklessly labelled one track Empty Space, tempting fate much too far; sure, they had a good opening and the round off wasn’t bad either – but what about the meat in the sandwich? In those days they didn’t have a lead guitar. The body recumbent on the bench was proof that even fate has a heart. Isayev was roused and a solo was produced for the track on their first album, Flying, Falling, Diving, that can still be heard at http://is.gd/1cGytX.
Then there was a 12-string guitar lying around in the studio and time was running out; you guys were recording a song [interjection -‘Falling’] yeah, Falling, and I said, this song needs a 12-string…(http://is.gd/B0W2Z5)
Anar Yusufov Born: Baku, 21/07/87 (28) Studied: Baku State Music Academy Role: vocals, keytar, piano, keyboards
Anar Isayev’s change of ca reer direction had been somewhat more radical: he had originally trained and begun working as a lawyer. However, inspired by the likes of The Beatles and Russian rock legend Viktor Tsoi, he taught himself guitar before following up with classical lessons. The music took hold and, aged 23, he took off for Hollywood - to study at Musicians Institute. After graduating he toured extensively, opening for groups like Twisted Sister, LA Guns, Skid Row and was for four years an instructor at the Atlanta Institute of Music and Media.
The mature rhythm section includes Vekil Nabiyev, yet further proof that you don’t always have to start as you mean to go on.
I tried classical guitar first, even went to music school, but I didn’t really like it and then I met up with Rauf Sultanov.
The respected veteran jazz bass player recognised a potential recruit to the fellowship of four strings. Advice was offered, gratefully received and Vekil has walked the bass line since then, first with a short spell in Anar Isayev’s pre-States combo and, like the rest of the band, often as session back up for many of Azerbaijan’s glistening pop stars.
Anar Isayev Born: Baku, 24/10/77 (37) Studied: Musicians Institute, Hollywood Role: guitar, backing vocals
Emil Aliyev is the group’s odd man out, in starting out and staying behind a set of drums. This seems to be a family trait: his father Sabir had wielded the sticks behind orchestras before him, sometimes moving aside to let his seven-year-old prodigy son sit in. After formal classical training, he had spells in metal bands in St. Petersburg, worked with jazz and electronic groups, and has been playing with Orient Xpress from 2004. He wasn’t with us for the interview, otherwise engaged, but the group were keen to extol his skills. They were especially complimentary about his imaginative use of the special qualities of an electronic drum kit - as a synthesizer, not just an electric version of the acoustic set.
CHANGE OF SCENE
Now let’s get back to that disappearance in 2009. This seems to have been the first crack in the chrysalis for Anar Yusifov. He left Baku for Prague, reinventing the band to freshen up and get on the map, feeling that in Baku it had hit the ceiling. He also studied a second degree course in IT, which no doubt helped with his growing interest in electronic music. There were distinct expat and Czech (very Czech) scenes in Prague that opened some opportunities, including the transformation into Keytarman, but ultimately they didn’t go much further than the Czech borders.
So it was back to Baku last year to find that things had changed over the five year interval and there were venues other than pubs to play in. Linking up again with drummer Emil, he also met Anar Isayev, back from his stay in the States, who rooted out Vekil to complete the rhythm section. They were playing in a club one night when the owner suggested they needed an extra musician – he wanted a trumpet. But by this time Farid was well underway on the sax. We should note here the influence of another veteran turned teacher, Arif Jahangirov who, says Farid, gave a big push to his development. Never mind the trumpet, the sax wasn’t the band’s first idea either, but Farid fitted in well and they liked his drive; he played a few major gigs with them and thus was formed the present incarnation of Orient Xpress.
As for direction, well, with sound knowledge and experience of classical, jazz, rock and pop, they are well-equipped to enjoy their exploration of an expanding range of music, including electronic.
Why limit yourself? Each one of us brings whatever he has.
PREPARING LOCAL, THINKING GLOBAL
Now in a period of mainly writing and re-charging, they are working on an album of their own songs; four mastered so far and their aim, as with all popular musicians, is global fame. They realise that their eclectic approach may be a headache for record labels still living by the pigeonhole, but they believe the trends are a-changin’ and that people are tired of ‘one track’ listening.
If you’re a musician with a strong background and you can play just about every style you can think of, why would you stick to only one?
The expanding range of venues in Baku is a great help as they build material and group identity and they appreciate the opportunities offered by Facebook, YouTube etc.:
We live in awesome times, technology-wise, and you can actually connect with the people who listen to your music… Each person who likes or watches your video, each of them has a story. It’s so much more personal, so much nicer.
So why play the less lucrative venues like the Jazz Centre?
For fun! Why not?... The Jazz Centre’s a very good place for this – see what works, what doesn’t. It’s not like a posh club where people just come to listen to Pharrell Williams covers.
As for their home city’s influence;
Baku has always been a very interesting place where music fuses together… the first rock music festival in the Soviet Union was held in Baku….Golden Autumn in 1969, the headliner band was Express 118. But the influence is more in temperament and character than directly musical.
Here Keytarman Anar went out on a limb:
You know, I don’t really like the idea of Jazz-Mugham, or Rock-Mugham…. Mugham is a very deep and interesting music on its own; it doesn’t need something on top of it and you have to do it well or better not touch it. You have to understand mugham very deeply; you have to know both sides of the story very well…It’s become too easy to just say ‘look at our folk music’.
But while they prepare to take on the world they are grounded enough to look after the daily bread; as well as playing sessions for popular singers, they produce music for computer games and commercials.
For all their expertise and experience, Orient Xpress are refreshingly open-minded in their musical taste - We love pop music! - and play for the audience and for fun.
Energy, expertise and fun – look out for the world tour, and don’t miss a concert by Orient Xpress!
Photos: by Camilla Rzayeva