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Local musicians met jazz promoters from around the globe and bridges were built at the third annual Jazz Across Borders conference in St. Petersburg, Russia.
The brainchild of tenor saxophonist, bandleader and Russian jazz entrepreneur Igor Butman, the event gave hundreds of local musicians hungry for exposure the chance to hobnob with, and play for, jazz festival producers, club owners, promoters, label managers and journalists from all over Europe and from as far away as North America.
The conference, part of the multifaceted 8th St. Petersburg International Cultural Forum—which included theater, classical music, visual art and dance—was held Nov. 15–16 at Freedom Space, a palatial museum and exhibition hall in the city’s downtown area. Simultaneous translation into English and Russian was provided at workshops, panel discussions and master classes. In addition, showcases presented a dozen jazz groups selected by an international jury from several hundred applicants, eight from Russia and one each from Armenia, Switzerland, France and Estonia.
Butman, who is Russia’s best-known jazz musician, has a long resume: In addition to leading the Moscow Jazz Orchestra, he owns two jazz clubs and a record label, and he produces the annual festival known as The Triumph of Jazz, which attracts top U.S. and international players. His talent, combined with his high visibility and organizational skills, explains why he often is referred to as “the Wynton Marsalis of Russia.”
The use of the word “triumph” in Butman’s own festival is not accidental: Jazz in Russia has had a difficult history, according to longtime DownBeat contributor Cyril Moshkow, a jazz scholar and editor of jazz.ru. “[Jazz] went from an underground movement to a cultural reservation,” Moshkow said, explaining that jazz gradually was accepted in the country in the 1960s. In 1926–’27, two African-American jazz bands, Benny Payton’s Jazz Kings (featuring Sidney Bechet on clarinet) and the Sam Wooding Orchestra, toured the country, playing before large, enthusiastic crowds. But in the 1930s, the Communists clamped down.
“Jazz was frowned upon by the authorities, if not outright prohibited,” Moshkow said. “It was considered an artifact of American capitalist culture.” Things began to loosen up in the 1950s. Then, in 1962, a remarkable thaw ensued when the Benny Goodman Orchestra became the first American jazz group to tour Russia since the 1920s.
“By the end of the Soviet era, jazz was accepted by the government, which allowed jazz programs in 29 Soviet colleges,” he said. After the fall of the USSR in 1991, as state financial support for the arts began to disappear, “we started to get out of the ‘reservation,’” he said. Today, it is not gone completely: The JAB conference is partly state-funded, with the remainder of the budget coming via private sources, thanks to Butman’s fundraising.
Among the dozen or so panel discussions, “Why Is Your Music Not On The Radio Yet?” featured Evgeny Petrushansky of Rainy Days Records (a new private Russian jazz label); two representatives from state-sponsored Russian radio stations; and, for a Western perspective, WBGO radio host and author Sheila Anderson, who offered practical advice on how Russian musicians might crack American radio. Anderson emphasized making connections with “the people at the station who actually choose the music” and “the importance of having a story” (i.e. something for the DJ to talk about other than the track credits).
A panel on “The Festival As Institution” featured Montreal International Jazz Festival co-founder André Ménard; Norwegian jazz presenter Jan-Ole Otnæs, managing director of Nasjonal jazzscene and president of the European Jazz Network; and Mikhail Green, founder of the Moscow International Jazz Festival.
A highlight of the weekend was the Saturday night gala concert in The Grand Hall of St. Petersburg Philharmonia, an ornate, 1,500-seat venue, featuring Butman leading the Moscow Jazz Orchestra with guest trumpeter Till Brönner, the biggest-selling German jazz musician of all time. After opening sets by the modern, acoustic Euro-jazz LRK Trio and a fusion-oriented electric quintet led by trombonist Sergey Dolzhenkov, Butman’s 17-piece big band took the stage, wearing their distinctive red-white-and-blue-striped ties.
The program alternated between the Butman band’s post-bop charts, in a pocket reminiscent of the Woody Herman and Thad Jones/Mel Lewis orchestras, and selections from Brönner’s repertoire, including a medley from his 2002 album, Blue Eyed Soul. The musicians were well matched, Brönner’s sensitive trumpet and flugelhorn playing functioning as a mellow foil to Butman’s fiery tenor playing. Although often compared to Marsalis in his importance to Russian jazz, the saxophonist is closer in style to Gato Barbieri, which is meant as high praise. The orchestra’s pianist/singer Oleg Akkuratov, a blind prodigy, nearly stole the show with a soulful, Stevie-influenced Latin-jazz version of “Nature Boy,” rendered in perfect English.
The most unbuttoned, joyous music of the weekend, however, was heard at two late-night parties. One took place at La Cucina, a local Italian restaurant, featuring Butman and stellar Russian players like altoist Alexander Dovgopoly, guitarist Gasan Bagirov, pianist Andrei Kondakov, and the Sinatra-inspired vocalist Dmitry Noskov. The other was a post-gala jam at the White Night jazz club, featuring a rotating rhythm section, notably including a piano whiz named Konstantin Khazanovich. The vodka, JAB’s own house-labeled “Jazz Standart,” flowed freely as talented singers took turns testing their mettle with the band, while Russian, European and American attendees forged new friendships through the common language of jazz. DB
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