Azerbaijan! What an exotic name that is! For weeks before going there I was almost boasting about it, as if the name itself would conjure remote possibilities, as it did for me. Maybe it was the word itself, a word with a Z and a J in it, like jazz, jalfrezi or Zildjian cymbals. And I’m afraid, for the first time ever, I did no research whatsoever into where I was going, didn’t even look it up on Wiki. I delighted, or lighted, in people asking me what I was doing that particular week.
“You’re not on with us that week at the Beeb are you?”
“No, I’m in Azerbaijan.”
“Oh, yes, you said before…”
“Can I book a blood test for sometime in the week of the 9th of March please?”
“Certainly. How would the 9th do?”
“Sorry, I’m in Azerbaijan that day”
“Hi Dan, it’s Geoff, it’s my 30th birthday on Monday, my mum died last week, as you know, I’m not dealing with it too well so I thought it would help see her off by having a big bash in the Dog and Duck then going up to Brick Lane for a curry, table for twelve cos I didn’t want to invite everybody, just the close ones, are you around?”
“Oh hi Geoff, you’ll never guess where I’m going on Monday – Azerbaijan! I mean, where is that? I think it’s south of Poland somewhere and- hello? Hello, Geoff? You still there?”
And various other insensitive scenarios.
I visited both countries in my capacity (which seems to increase despite my diet) as ICO Brass Tutor, and was employed to judge auditions and give masterclasses. The term masterclass is always one I’ve been afraid of, particularly as a teacher; with my lifelong shunning of being an authority figure I could never see myself either as a master or particularly classy. But in the last few years I’ve learned to assume the description of both, whether they’re true or not. All the world’s a stage. And to be honest, I still think the Master is Dr. Who’s nemesis.
It took a very long time to get to Baku, the ruggedly-named capital of exotic Azerbaijan, because I went via Turkey. The ICO orchestra had suggested flights from London to Warsaw, then across Donetsk to Baku. Yeah, OK, I said. No, not OK, said Helen, not being a political ostrich, and suggested that I might not want to fly through the airspace in which the Malaysian aeroplane had recently been randomly shot down. Good point. So that was a long day. I left the house at 8.30am, landed late in Baku and got to my room at 3.30am, with auditions to concentrate on the next morning. Funny old life.
Having done no research on Azerbaijan or Baku I obviously knew nothing. I suppose I expected some sort of ex-Soviet commune. In the middle of the night before, I’d seen some of the city through a taxi window – rather nice it was too, not big Communist city motorcadeways and huge intimidating palatial blocks – but this morning, the Old Town looked, well, like an old town. It was lovely, a fortress high in the centre of the town, and squiggly, with light brown buildings and wriggly alleys, cobblestones twisting our feet. I presumed things had moved on in Azerbaijan in general, nothing like Fiddler on the Roof, for instance, and we left the hotel to walk to the nearby Music Conservatoire. However, my preconceptions were way off. After winding through a few of the wriggly alleys, or vice versa, we came out full face into a rural village, which appeared to be not only rural but 150 years old. The floor was entirely hay, matronly women and daughters sat on doorsteps washing linen or plucking geese, a bucket of slop was thrown from an upper window, pigs raced to snuffle it, and chickens and ducks ran down the street, chased by Cossack horsemen. Surely Azerbaijan wasn’t still as backward as this? I couldn’t believe it. And this was the centre of Baku, the heart of the capital, what must the rest of the country be like?
Here was a photo to take home, Helen would never believe this. But as I reached for my phone and poised it, I was nudged by a big bearded guy wearing a Led Zeppelin T-shirt, slowly shaking his head and wagging a finger, and I finally realised that this was not Baku for real, that the central old fortress of Baku wasn’t still living in the nineteenth century, with headscarved young crones milking goats and children with weeping gunshot wounds lying dead in doorways. We’d walked onto a film set.
As we disappeared round the corner, I heard someone shout “Cut. Again” and I could see the Cossacks wheeling their horses with a sigh. The matronly women were talking on their mobiles, but the slop lady looked quite pleased as she refilled her bucket.
At the Conservatoire that day, Azerbaijan had produced a grand total of four applicants to join the ICO orchestra, two violinists and two cellists. We had four auditions to judge. It’s a slightly difficult political game, this one, because if they weren’t good, and therefore if Azerbaijan had no representatives in the orchestra, then the country would pull their financial contribution out of the project. Although the orchestra is funded, directed, administrated, and the actual Courses are held in Poland, each of the other six countries obviously has some financial input, and if the players of two or three of the countries aren’t up to what is intended to be an improving youth orchestra, then those countries might well lose interest, culturally and financially. It’s tricky. Ideally, some players from the remoter countries, Azerbaijan, Moldova and Armenia will be outstanding, and well deserving of a place in ICO. But the standards of playing and teaching don’t seem to be up to those of the others (Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, and Poland. I remember the seven countries by the mnemonic Apparently Alban Berg’s Grand Mother Played Ukelele). So it’s tricky. I don’t remember how the two violinists and cellists were, I hope one of them was good enough.
Just one note about how these auditions work: it’s a bit strange in that an ICO tutor has to be there, usually two (in this case my colleague was Leon, a fantastic double bass player who I’ve known for a long time), but you don’t necessarily hear anyone play your own instrument, in fact that’s never happened to me yet, in five years of doing it. But to fly each relevant tutor out to each relevant venue would be utterly impractical and budget-busting, so in January, all tutors are asked which venues their schedule allows them to attend, and we do it that way. Every audition is videod by ICO, and then sent to the relevant tutor at home, for them to judge online. The notes Leon and I made on the day are an aid, but of course it’s up to the, in Baku’s case, violin and cello tutors to make the ultimate decision. How I feel I can help by being present, is often to ask if players can play excerpts in a different way. Brutally, if a player comes in, plays their piece badly and then doesn’t know the excerpts, they’re dismissed with an encouraging “Thankyou”. But if a candidate has prepared well – it’s so easy to spot this – then after playing an excerpt, unless it’s perfect, I would ask them to play it differently. That’s what a conductor would do after all, and happens all the time in every orchestra in the world. Adaptability is SO important. Faster, slower, quieter, more forceful, more dramatic, ‘can you lead to this phrase please?’; if they play it exactly the same way forget it, if they adjust, they might be in.
After the auditions, it was straight into a masterclass. Two years ago, in Chisinau in Moldova, I’d had three trombonists and a tuba to teach. I know what I’m doing with those, I can deal with that, but I wouldn’t even pretend to tell other musicians how to play their instruments, of course not. In Baku, I had a flautist, then a clarinettist. Assuming the mantle of ‘master’ (though I hate that), I knew that all I could do was advise them on musical points, nothing technical. Frustratingly, they were both lovely players, thoughtful in their interpretations of their pieces, so that didn’t help. But of course experience does count, and the half hour with each of them was controlled in a masterly and classy way.
Then a few brass players turned up, though none of them trombone players, not one. I was full to the teeth of advice about slide technique, legato across harmonics, orchestral excerpts, yet only a trumpet, a horn and a tuba player turned up, the last of which was difficult. I generally adopt a positive, reassuring attitude to pupils, motivational yet straight-talking if needed; this guy needed all of those things. Yet as he was trying to play on an instrument whose key was dubious (I actually had to ask him at one point, to be sure myself) and whose history was long (I think it may have been a survivor of the Crimean War) there was some back-stepping and thinking to do. What do you do when someone turns up at a music conservatoire and none of anything he’s playing has a discernible pitch? So I stepped back, asked him to play his Bach Cello Gigue (!) again, and we managed to spend a fruitful lesson on his not being able to distinguish between extreme staccato and slurs.
In the horn player’s slot, I learned a lesson myself. Before he got very far, we were talking about something, and an interruption came from the audience (there are audiences to all these east European masterclasses. A teacher from the West is a rare event). A teacher at the Conservatoire had a question about breathing, and as I was explaining my ideas, his voice was joined by a student in front of him. The student turned out to be the trumpet player who was on next, and by the end of it, both he and his teacher had come up on stage. It took a while to sort the whole issue out, whilst trying to involve the horn player, who was supposed to be the focus at that time, and eventually they went back to their seats. Returning to the hornist, and the piece he’d played, on which there was plenty to work, I was dismayed when he said that he’d had enough, and stepped down. We had done some good work on one aspect of his playing, but in hindsight I realised that the poor guy had been intimidated by the intrusion, and didn’t want to carry on. Note to self: Don’t let that happen again. Questions from audience, fine, infiltration, no; be fair to every student and give them their own time without allowing that much of a distraction. He might have practiced for months for that day.
Time for lunch. Not having looked up where I was going, I had no idea what Bakunian food might be, I imagined rustic Turkish, I suppose. (And not having looked up where I was going, of course I had no idea where I was. This has happened before. When CLS went to Dubai I thought I was going to somewhere near Iran, at most. I had no idea we were flying most of the way to India). Jakub, or Kuba as he’s affectionately known in ICO was the Polish manager in charge of the auditions in all seven countries, and having been so before, led us to his favourite lunch spot; I was delighted to follow. Also with us on this trip was Marta, general language genius and long-time ICO staff stalwart.
It had been a long morning’s work, and now to sit on cushions and embroidered bolsters while crimson-Nehru’d waiters brought me pomegranate juice and coriander was bliss. The coriander was stuffed inside soft puris which were utterly transporting. For other starters we (Kuba) had ordered plates of mixed local cheeses and a salad, which largely consisted of local cheese. Kuba, I learnt on this trip, likes cheese. He also likes Azerbaijani dolma, vine leaves stuffed with minced pork (so often it’s just herby rice, not interesting enough for me), various meaty kebabs and chops, and a veal stroganov, laced with cheese like a French onion soup. It was, of course, all gorgeous. For me the highlight was the coriander puri, give me that for breakfast every day of my life, and the pomegranate juice, of which I had about nine glasses.
After lunch we wandered down to have a look at the Caspian Sea, something I never thought I’d ever see, despite not knowing where it, or I, was. It was an exotic, Russian/eastern name I knew from maps, childhood encyclopeadias and Geography classes, I never thought I’d sit on its shore.
Unfortunately the pomegranate juice was being impudent, and I was glad when we returned to the hotel. Strange really, I used to have and be proud of an iron stomach. When everyone else was dashing off stage in Mexico City twenty years ago from a bowl of soup they’d daringly had the night before while I was flying into the steak fajitas, I now seemed threatened by a few doses of pomegranate juice. Shame really.
We didn’t have a meal that night as we flew straight off to Georgia, to land mid-evening in Tbilisi. To me, the road from the airport to the town was reassuring, increasingly run-down and non-motorwayish. At one point we swung round two hairpins and then down a street that could have been in the lesser part of any south American village, mostly dark with a few broken lights above bars and shops; I vastly prefer this to ex-Communist grandeur. It has character, a more dangerous feel.
Since I’ve first been involved with the ICO orchestra, the place to go, by the accounts of all the tutors who’ve been there, is Tbilisi, so I was delighted to have landed the gig this year. I’ve done the roughest one, Chisinau in Moldova, a cinder-block city of wide empty boulevards and grey square parks with trees that look like they’re made of firegrate ash, so to go to the Mayfair of the ICO circuit was a treat. And it turned out to be so.
They made us work hard, but the city was worth it. We spent the entire first day auditioning players, thirty this time, a much healthier turnout than Baku, though still not a single brass player for me to comment on (but I’ll be sent the videos from wherever brass players did surface in other cities). At the last minute (as happened in Yerevan three years ago) a percussionist decided they’d like to audition, so we shifted our operation, tutors, translators, notes and camera down to the basement where the percussion trolls seem to live. And like Yerevan, it wasn’t worth it. This girl seemed to imagine that because we weren’t percussion players, we’d forgive, or not notice her inconsistencies. I’m afraid a lot of budding percussionists are like that, they think they’re solely responsible for any reliable rhythm that goes on within an orchestra, and unfortunately it’s sometimes the opposite way round, they can be very wayward, but still convinced about their own inner metronomes. The Tbilisi girl wasn’t good at all, couldn’t maintain regularity from 4/4 to 5/16, for instance, and wasn’t too pleased when I picked her up on that. That sounds arrogant of me but I was just doing my job.
Each day we had lunch in the same place, a few minutes walk from the conservatoire. And each day we (Kuba) ordered virtually the same things, because they were excellent. The big Georgian speciality is khinkali, which are dumplings. These are small, you can eat five easily. Though when I say easily that’s a little misleading as there’s a fair amount of liquid in them. Best to eat them in one really. In this restaurant they came filled with cheese (virtually no juice in there), mushroom, or meat, and the last two you really have to try not to spill everywhere. But for me, the local dish that I couldn’t get enough of was thin slices of soft fried aubergine, served cold and rolled round a walnut pesto called bazhe. The walnut filling was sublime, and I use the word pesto in its meaning of a crushed paste; nothing to do with basil. It’s probably finely-whizzed up walnuts with a little tahini and garlic, but with the aubergine a wonderful and so-moreish combination. Kuba ordered all our meals as general plates for us all to share, so along came a salad very similar to that in Baku, cucumber and tomato with another tasty paste slathered all over it, and the main feature, veal ribs. Veal is extremely popular here, more so than lamb, beef or pork, and they cook their ribs with ajika, a spicy bright red sauce that sticks to the meat. Absolutely gorgeous, and this is why we ate virtually the same meal every day, only the quantities were different: they increased. But what Kuba clapped his hands with glee at when ordering, he loves it that much, was a pastry boat with egg and cheese. The boat is a sort of small round skillet shape, with a bread handle at each end, and in the middle is simply a gushy mixture of the salty local soft cheese, melted with a few fried eggs. You generally just tear away at the whole thing till it’s gone, which isn’t long. There was a fascinating drink with all this, if you didn’t want wine: tarragon lemonade. This was also delicious, and as green as mouthwash.
The first night in Tbilisi, after the auditions day, I’d been given directions to the Old Town, about half an hours walk from the hotel. This is when I love touring best, and when concerts always get in the way! But we’d done our work for the day, and I was free to wander in the dark through the alleyways of a new foreign city. It wasn’t a rough place, though nice and rustic, it felt like ancient trackways, removed from the bustling metropolis of the upper town. This was down by the river (where of course virtually all old towns start, either that or high up, in the most defendable position) and I ambled along looking at menus or wandering into touristy booths – one sold mugs with pictures of Stalin on them, I was amazed. There were a lot of wine shops, but I’m afraid I didn’t stop, as I wasn’t drinking on this trip. I like this sort of atmosphere I could so easily have sat down for a long Georgian meal, accompanied by whatever local beers and wines they cared to throw at me, but with a masterclass the following morning I just couldn’t. Sometimes you can’t. I’ve certainly always thought that teaching and alcohol shouldn’t mix. Not even smelling vaguely of the stuff the following morning.
But I had to eat something, and I found a sort of caff that only sold boats. The pastry boat we’d had at lunch had been full of eggs and cheese, here was an entire menu of variations, and I picked one that was full of meat and beans. Taking it off back towards the hotel, I still had to eat my way through the surrounding dough to the flavoursome filling, it was a hefty supper and I didn’t quite finish it, but it was perfect for what I wanted.
The following evening, Marta had friends to meet, so the three boys (myself, Kuba and Leon) set off again to the old town, a little further this time, to a restaurant Kuba had been before. Here we ordered our obligatory walnut-stuffed aubergine and veal ajika ribs, along with a few extras and as much cheese as Kuba could lay his hands on. Also some more veal, served with tomatoes, chicken wings in a thick and heady garlic sauce, and some lamb in a lamb broth.
On the way back we stopped at a bar and I tried something I’d never done before: shisha. I’d seen old men in the souk in Oman sitting at shisha bars, puffing on long hosepipes which twisted into the giant pepperpot on the table, and a lot of Edgware Road is taken up with the same sort of bars, and it all looked exotic and rather Indiana Jones. But it’d never occurred to me to try it. It had to Kuba though – what a young lad he was turning out to be on this trip! – and he led us somewhere he’d been the previous year. To be honest, I didn’t really know what the stuff was, and as an ex-smoker, presumed it was off limits for me. However, I didn’t know there’s no nicotine in it, and Kuba settled down to a discussion of flavours with the waitress. I had no idea there was fruit involved. He settled on a combination of watermelon and strawberry, whatever that meant, I couldn’t see any fruit anywhere, but there were further things to be decided on.
“What would you like it over?” asked the waitress. I had no idea what she was talking about. Was she going to tip a load of strawberries over his head? Or maybe this was some sort of kinky lap dancing bar, but instead of a girl grinding, you get a pile of watermelons dropped in your lap. They’d better be chopped up, a couple of watermelons on a delicate area could be painful.
“Gin, vodka, whisky?” she asked.
“Just water, I think” said Kuba, and I was starting to get the picture. Of course, it’s just some fruit-infused tobacco burning above a bubbling water bowl, and you inhale the result through a long waterpipe, which is passed between whoever is at the table. But, as the waitress suggested, you can also have the bowl filled with spirits, which would mean you were smoking alcohol. Which didn’t sound too appealing at all, so I’m glad we went for the innocent version. It was extremely nice, gave me just a slight light-headedness, and it was satisfying to try and exhale the billowing clouds of smoke that others in the bar seemed to be able to produce. And of course it’s all so aromatic, the air and your lungs being filled with a mellow fruity waft; it was great fun.
After the auditions day, Leon and I both had two mornings of masterclasses, and a session with sections of the conservatoire orchestra in the afternoon. Both my masterclasses were fairly casual affairs, though a very enthusiastic young trumpet player turned up on both mornings. But unlike Moldova and Baku, there were very few people in the room. Maybe two or three students, and a couple of the conservatoire teachers, oily-haired 60-year-olds who reminded me of old bandmasters in Scotland. All the eastern brass teachers I’d met so far looked like this.
But the sectional sessions in the afternoon were much more busy and involved affairs. I was looking forward to these, as I had to take the entire Tbilisi conservatoire wind and brass section through the New World Symphony (I’ve never conducted a symphony before, that’s the bit I was looking forward to), and also the Overture from The Marriage of Figaro and the Mozart Clarinet Concerto. On the first day I ran through the Dvorak, movement by movement, trying not to stop, then going back and rehearsing the bits that hadn’t worked so well, which was a highly selective process. I had a superb translator on my side, a flautist at the conservatoire called Tamar, who’d done an audition on the first day, and was happy to sit at my side and relate whatever brief instructions I had for the rehearsal. When we got to the famous ‘Hovis’ Cor Anglais tune in the second movement, there was no solo, no Cor Anglais player. I was told that the Rector of the conservatoire was going to play this solo himself, on the saxophone! Apart from this novelty twist of orchestration (which I found out later Dvorak himself sanctioned, it is the New World Symphony, after all), I could imagine the greasy old communist Rector sitting there like Napoleon in Animal Farm, taking the solo with piggy eyes and hogging all the glory.
The playing in general was, not unexpectedly, not great, but the discipline was worse. Several times I had to tell them that we were getting half as much work done because I couldn’t either hear what was going on or even start various passages to rehearse because people were talking. Tamar was perhaps one of the more mature students at the conservatoire as when translating this she clearly agreed with it. And to be fair, so did the angelic row of two flutes and two oboes closest to me, who were also helpful with the translating, and were always ready to play. The trouble came from further back, and it was fast becoming clear exactly from where. The trumpets weren’t well behaved, and missed a lot of entries (in fact I found myself yelling “TRUMPETS!” at one point when they were silent during a fanfare they should have been playing. My shouting was inadvertent, but in hindsight something I’ve always wanted to do…); the second bassoon was a stroppy chap who, like the percussionist the day before, thought he could fool me with a couple of wrong notes. Not in this symphony, sunshine. The bass trombone inexplicably blamed his missing of an important bass line on his mouthpiece (in fact this was a common trait, unfortunately; a lot of students blamed other factors for their own blatant mistakes. I wasn’t having that. I squarely told him that it wasn’t the mouthpiece, it was him. I mean, come on.).
But it was pretty clear where the big disruption lay, in the 1st Horn seat. He was a loud, selfish lad who talked through other people’s solos and then literally stopped to shout at others if they talked during his. He was a problem. Tamar quietly said to me “He’s mad” and apologised to me about him several times, and she was clearly speaking for the majority; the guy was a disaster and a real hindrance to the sessions on both days. He was so bad for the orchestra that I felt I should say something to him if I got the chance. To give him an all-out talking-to in front of the rest of the wind section would be, I felt, almost as unprofessional as he was being, and besides, that was still on his territory, he wouldn’t listen and would just shout his way indignantly through it. But the chance did arrive just after we finished the sectional on the second day. I was in the corridor outside the rehearsal room when both he and Tamar appeared from different directions, the very two people I needed. I quickly explained to her that I wanted to speak to him, somewhere private if possible. I think she sensed (with some satisfaction) what was coming, and we soon found an empty practice room. Or rather a practice room with about five students talking in it, but when we went in and Tamar asked if we could borrow the room for a moment, they saw the situation and left, also with apparent pleasure at the impending retribution. Boy had this guy pissed people off. He’d gone very quiet by now, by the way.
I simply wanted to tell him, via Tamar, that he was becoming a real liability to his colleagues, he was holding everyone back. And that being a professional is not just about being paid, it’s having respect for your fellow musicians, and treating them in the way that you’d expect to be treated yourself. I don’t think any of this had occurred to him. Tamar translated all this seriously for him, also as if a teacher, and I could tell she agreed with every word. I was aware that this was not some six-year-old I was talking to, though he acted it, and that I too ought to give him the respect of being a fellow musician. Also, that he’d already shown himself to be volatile, and I didn’t want to make things too harsh or worse for him, so I said to Tamar “Tell him I hope he doesn’t mind me talking to him like this but it has to be said” and she just said “Oh no, it’s OK, he doesn’t need to know that”, and didn’t bother to translate that bit for him. Not a popular guy.
And that was that, our work in Tbilisi was done. Back to the hotel for an hour or so, then out for the evening with the Rector of the conservatoire, who we’d not yet met. After meeting the frankly scary and forbidding Direktor of the Armenian conservatoire a few years ago in Yerevan, and my knowledge that this one was going to steal the big solo in the Dvorak Symphony, the slicked-haired Napoleon, my hopes weren’t high for the evening. But we were to eat at a restaurant high above the city, to which we had to get a funicular railway, so that was to look forward to at least.
We met the Rector at the bottom of the hill by the train. He’d climbed off his motorbike, had two saxes slung over his shoulder, and wasn’t piggy-eyed or an oily old bandmaster; he wasn’t even old, my age if that. A solid, earnest face with a twinkle, slightly overweight, and the fact that he said he couldn’t stay too long as he had a gig to get to nailed him for me as one of us: a muso, not an ignorant dictatorial manager of them. The funicular sailed up through light ferns on this summery evening, and the city spread out beneath us. Almost before we’d set off, it was clear the Rector, Reso, was a chatty and friendly host, and with his clinching statement that he had a gig in an hour or so, I warmed to him instantly. You recognise one of your own immediately. At the top, we stepped off and straight into the wide restaurant, with long windows all across the front, looking out onto a terrace from which to watch Tbilisi; it reminded me of Koks restaurant in Torshavn in the Faroes.
At lunch earlier, Ewa, the popular head of the whole ICO project had arrived from Warsaw – she was to spend 11 hours here, with a flight at 3am in the night – so the three Poles gathered at one end of the table and caught up excitedly while Leon and I chatted easily with the Reso at the other end of the table. And of course this was the first time on this trip I’d allowed myself something to drink, so I was on fine form. Reso proved to be a driven yet extremely astute man in charge at the conservatoire, he had lots of plans, he identified exactly where things had to change, though he was hampered by government funding, but he had plans for that too. A very impressive guy. Too soon, he had to leave us, but not before I’d got out of him the name of the jazz club he was playing at in the Old Town; I said I might come and find him later. Hoisting his saxes onto his back, he headed for the train back down to the city and left us to finish our meal.
The meal was variations on familiar themes, with the main meat being veal, and bazhe-slathered salads, chicken, garlic, aubergine. One feature that had appeared on every table as standard, including in Baku, and I remember it being served in Armenia a few years ago, was a plate of fresh herbs. Big, uncut ones, like a bouquet of flowers. Long stems of parsley, mint, coriander and tarragon were laid in a bunch across a small plate so that the herbs overhung the edges, and if you wanted a quick burst of a particular herb to enhance a particular mouthful, all you did was reach out. What a wonderful idea, and right up my street. After we’d eaten enough we wandered outside to the terrace overlooking the now-dark city, a sprawling mess of lights with a glowing golden cathedral in the middle.
We took the train back down through the trees, yellow lamps by the tracks like Olympic torches, and took two cabs back to the hotel. These took off at the same time and zoomed off in different directions. We screeched round sharp corners in narrow lanes before coming out onto a wider city road, where we speeded up. The driving in Georgia had generally been a race with the devil, and crossing any thoroughfare seemed thoroughly unfair to pedestrians. Yet old people ambled out into the streaming traffic, with bus lanes and cars going at all different speeds, and it seemed to work. I never saw anyone in danger, perhaps the drivers are so used to speeding and slowing that that’s how the system works. Our walk to the conservatoire each day was safe enough, as there are underpasses, small, low-ceilinged, dark enclosed tunnels which have tiny shops along the sides. It seems we’d all observed the success of the old folks above ground, slowly crossing the main drag, a cross between Oxford Street and Brands Hatch, as one day we all made our way separately to the music conservatoire in the morning to start work.
“I actually crossed the street just now” I said proudly.
“So did I” admitted Kuba, slightly guiltily. In the end it turned out we all had.
Anyway, talking of dodgy decisions, when we got back to the hotel, I had a simple choice: call it a night and simply go up to my room, or venture out into the Georgian night and go and try to find Reso’s jazz club. Easy really. Well, it was only about 9 o’clock, if that, to be fair, so off I went. I love adventures like this.
Having wandered down to the Old Town, I went into a wine shop to ask for directions.
The guy in there was unbelievably helpful, went over to his computer, looked up the club and found it in 10 seconds, then took me outside the shop, leaving it empty and unguarded, and pointed exactly where I should go. It was even more of a back alley than the rambly main street, which like the road from the airport had reminded me of a Mexican village at night. This back alley was a more ramshackle part of the village. Still, off I went, the Old Town isn’t a big area, and presently I came to a fork in the road. To the left lay an alley which would take me down to the main old area, where the shisha bars and restaurants were, the right fork led to a dark, deserted-looking square. But some instinct took me that way. Walking slowly round the square, thinking that this couldn’t possibly be the site of a swinging jazz club, I was about to turn back towards the busier streets when I heard a saxophone, a few noodles drifting out into the night air from a first floor window. I’ve often used my ears instead of a map to find a venue, or the sound of an orchestra before, but this was the best time. In an unlit square in the darkest corner of Tbilisi, music had told me where to go. I pushed through the decrepit double door under the window, went up a peeling-paint stairway like a south London snooker club, and tentatively opened the heavy door at the top. Suddenly I was in an opulent dining room, with plush chairs and a high roof. Diners sat in the long room chatting quietly, while about a yard away, there was Reso, setting up his bandstand, his alto slung round his neck while he unfolded music stands; I’d virtually walked onto his stage. Handshakes all round, I think he was surprised, but pleased that I’d actually turned up. His bassist and guitarist were there, boomping a few bass notes or picking fluid chromatic phrases.
“We’re just waiting for the drummer” said Reso. Typical.
He wanted me to sit at the empty table directly in front of the band, almost part of it, but that was too close for me, so I spotted a table for one perched by the half-open window, and hailed a passing waitress. What a lovely hour or so, listening to the band (once the drummer had arrived and set up), drinking a couple of local beers. They were good too, the band and the beers. No frivolous renditions of pandered-to standard jazz rep, these guys played tunes I didn’t know, and dealt with them in quality fashion, improvising and reacting and expanding and contracting, developing each piece as they went along with real class.
After their first set they took a break, and I joined them round the table directly in front of their playing area. Sitting on his own there so far had been a surly-looking student, at least I presumed he was a student (and so it turned out), with a beard and, when he talked to me, antagonistic attitude. When Reso explained who I was, the hippy immediately said “What are you doing here then?” I presumed he meant Georgia, not this particular club, and explained my duties at the Reso’s music conservatoire. Slowly he thawed, my warming to him helped by the fact that, like the roadie on the film set in Baku, he was wearing a Led Zeppelin T-shirt. I pointed this out and we had a bond. He was proud of the fact that he’d been to an Iron Maiden concert recently, and that their lead singer had talked to him in the crowd, asking him where he was from. He claimed that this could be seen on YouTube.
Soon, the band had to do their second set. Reso had highly recommended a Georgian wine ever since I arrived, so I ordered a goblet of that and sat at my window seat again. I enjoyed a few more numbers, the wine was excellent, then decided that it was time for me to leave it there. I edged to the bar to pay for my drinks and was told by the waitress that they were already paid for. Reso had covered it. I felt honoured. When the band finished their next number I held things up for a few minutes while I shook his hand many times, thanked him profusely for his generosity – “You are my guest” he said proudly – thanked the band for their brilliant music, waved goodbye and opened the heavy door to the stairs. How humbled I felt, to be treated like that. A thoroughly satisfied walk back to the hotel, it had been quite an evening. And there was quite a day tomorrow.
Incredibly my flight out of Georgia wasn’t till about 5 in the afternoon. After the 19-hour day getting to Baku, the time difference would be reversed, and after leaving Tbilisi at 5, and going via Istanbul again, I would get to Heathrow at only half past 10, with plenty of time to get the tube home. Surreal. So I had a whole morning and time for a lazy lunch if I wanted. The only thing I would have visited in the upper, modern town was the central cathedral, lit up the night before in the view from the terrace above the city. So the charms of the Old sector drew me back once more. I headed down to the river, taking a new route (which always ends up with me walking nervously around some run-down ghetto where everything’s gone quiet) but getting there in the end. What I was eventually heading for was a castle on another ridge, high above the Old Town this time, and to get there I knew there was a cable car.
I came to the bank of the muddy river, where there was a large flea market going on. People in the nearby park and along the bridge over the river had blankets laid out, on which they displayed the most soulless stuff. A few people had rather hopeless touristy things, badly-stuffed dolls, plastic bracelets, that sort of thing, but most of it was for the locals, and what dreary stuff they offered. Spare parts for washing machines, piles of plugs, used car radios, television aerials, chipped mugs, it was all stuff that surely nobody had wanted for years, yet there it was, being sold. I crossed the river, as the cable car started from that side, and this is where I did my ghetto thing, but it didn’t last long, and I found my way down to the waterside. It was a lovely morning, quite hot in fact, and I was in a good place (now that I’d left the ghetto anyway), with a couple of hours sightseeing on my own in front of me, including a cable car flight back over the river, sailing up to the castle ramparts high above, then a saunter down to the Old Town area again to find a nice local lunch. Then a mid-afternoon cab to the airport and I’d be on my way home. So the walk along the river was slow and relished. The cable car was a gentle waft up and over the city, like Mary Poppins and her umbrella. There wasn’t a whole lot of the castle that you could get to, but it was an impressive fortification, and it certainly was in a great position to repel any ancient attack. Just along the top from the castle was the Mother of Georgia. This is a huge Libertyesque metal statue, eighty feet tall with her plinth, of a maid guarding the city grasping her sword, and welcoming friends with a bowl of wine in the other hand. She gazed out for miles around, a symbol of the city and country.
Walking past the bottom of her skirt, I came to a long flight of stairs, leading down through a gentle wood (similar countryside to that through which the funicular had ghosted the night before) to the Old Town below. Time for lunch. A few nights ago, when I ended up with a boat of beans, I’d walked along a street just off the main, which was full of restaurants, so I headed there now. It was pretty hot by this time, so I sat in the covered outside area of a virtually empty but friendly-looking place, and ordered the menu and a large cooling beer. Of course I ordered the aubergine bazhe and the ajika ribs as usual, and as you already know the schedule for the rest of the day and the journey home, let’s leave me there, in the sun, with my ribs and beer, Georgia on my mind, and a fun job well done in two exciting eastern cities.
PS One last thing though, I checked YouTube when I got home, the Iron Maiden concert. And before a song called Blood Brothers, Bruce Dickenson spies someone in the front row, points, and says “Bloke down here. You’re from Georgia are you?…”