Russian Jazz Star Igor Butman Celebrates 60 in Style


Igor Butman played two huge concerts in Russia to celebrate his birthday.

(Photo: Courtesy Igor Butman)

Former President Bill Clinton has called him “my favorite living saxophone player.” Wynton Marsalis, a longtime friend and collaborator, once said of him, “I love Igor Butman’s playing, and I love him personally.”

Butman is a superstar in Russia but is less well known and underappreciated in the United States. Having just turned 60 in October, he’s busier than ever, launching a new album with a distinguished international band after hosting a pair of large-scale birthday concerts in Russia that included Marsalis along with his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

Known for his passion and melodicism on tenor saxophone, Butman has earned international critical acclaim for more than two decades. After emigrating to America in 1987, he studied at Berklee School of Music (Now Berklee College of Music). His talent was noticed. In short order he was working with Grover Washington Jr., Lionel Hampton, Billy Taylor, Lyle Mays and many other A-list jazz stars.

“I was not a big fan of the communist era. That’s why I emigrated,” Butman said during an interview in July in Anzio, Italy, where he had come to play a private jazz party. He became an American citizen, ultimately deciding to return to Moscow following the fall of the Soviet Union; he retains dual Russian and American citizenship.

To say he has prospered in Russia is an understatement. He is easily the most famous jazz musician in a country where jazz is exceedingly popular, running the state-supported Moscow Jazz Orchestra, his own Moscow jazz club, a record label, the annual Triumph of Jazz festival, and the country’s first jazz industry conference, Jazz Across Borders. In 2011, he was awarded the honorary title of People’s Artist of Russia, the nation’s highest recognition in the arts.

His career has not been without controversy. Butman is a high-ranking member of United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party, and he has been known to play ice hockey with the Russian president. That relationship led to a handful of pro-Ukrainian protesters objecting to his appearance in Boston last year as part of his American tour. Butman insists his sole aim is to create cultural bridges through jazz and that, as he wrote in the Boston Globe last year, “I have never supported any war and will never do so.”

Musically, his new album, Only Now (Butman Music), displays an easy command of styles ranging from New Orleans second-line blues (Butman’s “Blues For Wynton”) to hard-driving post-bop like “Only Now.” Butman employs an exceptional small group featuring Eddie Gomez, alternating with Matt Brewer, on bass; Antonio Sánchez on drums; guitarist Evgeny Pobozhly, the Russian prodigy who won the 2019 Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz International Guitar Competition; and blind pianist and vocalist Oleg Akkuratov, whose keyboard ability is almost eclipsed by his supple jazz vocals that earned second place at the 2018 Sarah Vaughan Vocal Competition. In addition to Butman’s bluesy tribute to his friend, the album features a song written by Marsalis, “Baby, I Love You,” sung — in English — by Akkuratov.

Butman and Marsalis both celebrated their 60th birthdays in late October — they were born nine days apart — in concerts in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The Moscow event was held in the gigantic State Kremlin Palace theater with 6,000 seats; the event in Butman’s hometown of St. Petersburg took place at the 3,000-seat Tinkoff Arena. The concerts marked the second time that Butman’s and Marsalis’ big bands have appeared together on the same stage; the first was at the season opener of Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York in 2003.

“My company will produce the events — we have to sell the tickets.” Butman said back in July. But he knew he could. Ten years ago, when he staged similar events in Russia to celebrate his 50th birthday, again featuring Marsalis (minus the big band) and Natalie Cole, “We sold out,” he said.

About his relationship with Marsalis, Butman said, “We met in Russia in 1998. We felt like we knew each other since we were kids. We drank. We played chess. We had sympathy for each other.” Butman first heard about the trumpet phenom on Willis Conover’s radio program on Voice of America in 1980 or ’81. “[Conover] said there’s a new young trumpeter playing with Art Blakey. I was blown away by the way he played.” Then, with a laugh, he added, “I thought I was the best young jazz musician in the world, but then I heard him.” DB

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