Shanin Novrasli, From Baku to New York City (Album Review)

The name Shanin Novrasli might not ring a bell, though his associates on his latest album, From Baku to New York, certainly give the pianist and composer impressive creds. The native of Azerbaijan and now a New York resident became a protégé of the legendary pianist Ahmad Jamal who produced this release. In a way, Jamal also “lent” Novrasli his longtime rhythm section of bassist James Commack and Herlin Riley to complete the trio.

Novrasli, an accomplished classical pianist with a love of jazz, begins the album very much in America with a jazz take on Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” The pianist opens by playing the familiar melody straight-up until the bass and drums enter to become tonally one. The simplicity of the song lends itself well to the complexity of the arrangement and the inventiveness of these talented musicians.

Few pianists can resist diving into the unique compositions of Thelonious Monk. The group goes with his “52nd Street Theme” in high-flying fashion. Novrasli’s fingers fly over the upper piano keys while Riley’s cymbals splash and Commack is in there fast-walking his bass. Novrasli keeps the tempo way up on his original tune, “Shanin Day,” on which he startles with his precision.

The pianist displays his strong romantic side with two lovely ballads, “Night Song” and “She’s Out of My Life,” a heartbreaking melody made famous by Michael Jackson.

His musically amorous tendencies continue on “Melodies,” a tune on which he performs solo. This, along with the closer, the rather dark “Cry of Gulchura,” was written by composers from Azerbaijan and harken back to Novrasli’s classical and cultural roots.

From Baku to New York City, stands as just a small, rather unusual slice of Shanin Novrasli’s musical autobiography. Despite backing by this strong, jazz-wise rhythm section, Novrasli’s classical background sometimes obscures the desired jazz sensibilities.