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How deep is your taste?

By Rumwold Leigh
Tuesday, March 10
On Thursday March 5 international jazz star Maia Baratashvili gave a concert at the Tbilisi Conservatoire. This was an invitation-only event, for partners of Bank Republic. Those of us who were there must consider ourselves the lucky few.

Bank Republic CEO Gilbert Hie introduced Maia and stated that Bank Republic supported her because she shared the values of the organization: professionalism, innovation and team spirit. How a solo singer exemplifies team spirit is difficult to fathom, but she was ably supported by her band of four Georgian musicians, to whom she paid full tribute, and her own invited guests, French Ambassador H.E. Eric Fournier, who played the saxophone for part of the concert, and her teacher Guliko Chanturia, with whom she sang two scat songs at the end.

As she opened with Irving Berlin’s “How Deep is the Ocean,” two things about Maia Baratashvili’s singing immediately became apparent. The first is the famous Baratashvili diaphragm which other critics go on about, every note being resonant, powerful and controlled. This might have been expected, but what was unusual is that it is easy to see the mechanics of her voice. Waving her hand and fingers to assure herself of intervals and always smoothing out at specific points, it was possible to see how each note was produced and where the break between her registers is. Later, sitting in a chair with one foot on the floor and one on a rung to contract her vocal machinery into the correct shape, she seemed to be singing louder in the softer numbers, as you do when you are more certain of your dynamics. This was fascinating to see, and added to the performance in the same way that seeing an Old Master up close, where the drawing underneath and the manner the paint was applied become visible, deepen your appreciation of the painting. Jazz musicians are noted for technical excellence, but it is uncommon to see it on such clear display without it detracting in any way from the actual music.

Maia is a belter who is casual at the same time. Her songs were generally louche, laid back standards by the likes of Herbie Hancock and Hoagy Carmichael rather than high energy throat-renders such as someone like George Melly would have assaulted a concert hall audience with. Maia’s versions were the sort of thing you hear in smoky clubs while drinks are being served and people are talking and moving around, and did not quite translate to the more sedate occasion, but as most of the audience were there to star-worship she could get away with anything. However the sense of occasion was enhanced by the entrance of H.E. Eric Fournier to play the saxophone, as you do not see Ambassadors playing saxophones every day of the week. His Excellency is not going to exchange his diplomatic career for a musical one but he made the most of the limelight. He soloed on Bobby Troup’s “Route 66” and on “My Funny Valentine,” as did the bassist and pianist, more obviously professional musicians. This is not the first time Eric Fournier has played with Maia Baratashvili and he did his job well as an invited celebrity, giving us something we could all tell the grandchildren about.

An index of Maia’s ability was her handling of two particular songs. “Bye Bye Blackbird” may be familiar in itself, but not in this interpretation. It sounded rather like a Thelonious Monk version, everything the opposite way round to the way tradition and logic dictate, but was apparently not if the programme, and the mellifluous piano solo, are to be believed. Such radical departures you can either do or not. Soon afterwards we were treated to Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns,” not a jazz number at all but a much-covered show tune. Everyone else has had a go at it, and how would this fit the performance? Maia’s interpretation was original in two ways. Firstly it did turn this torch song into a jazz vocal, though the two genres are far removed. Secondly it was more about Maia’s love of the song than the actual words, which may seem odd, but jazz with all its improvisations on nebulous themes, and the fulfillment of desire it thus seeks to engender, is pretty much this.

Not every artist would end a concert with scat songs with their teacher instead of loud self-affirmation, but Maia did, and as with the rest, it was most appropriate when you thought about it. Maia Baratashvili’s singing works on many levels – you can just sit back and listen or engage in other ways, as she invites any listener to do. But you enjoy it on any level, and that is why she is an international star.