Leo Records, 2002
by William Minor
Thirteen years have passed since my wife and I traveled 9000 kilometers throughout the former Soviet Union, searching for jazz and musicians to interview. To the surprise of many people at the time, we found lots of each: jazz and musicians who performed it. Although I had heard, live in the States, two "Soviet" musicians before we set out on that trek (pianists Igor Bril and Sergey Kuryokhin), my first full, genuine source of information, in London, was Leo Feigin, the man who had fought to bring this music not only to the "West" but the world at large--and did so at a time when it was anything but "safe" to do so. Although the overt risk is far less now than throughout what history may regard as a bygone era, Leo continues to bring this music to the world at large, and that music retains the same--perhaps even greater now--significance. This can be seen, and heard, on "Golden Years of the Soviet New Jazz: Volume III."
In his book "From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present," Jaques Barzun discussed what he calls a "fallacious doctrine": the 19th century notion of dramatic or "program" music. Barzun claims that "inarticulate sounds" cannot tell a story or depict a scene, and no composer "has ever tried to make it do so; it is an impossibility." However, this "fact" does not prevent a composer who "sets words or conveys drama" from consulting his own "visceral responses" to the extent that he or she does know what to do at any point with melody, harmony, and rhythm "to move the listener appropriately." Barzun acknowledges that the human mind is "not pure," that it is filled with "ingrained responses and acquired associations that cannot be got rid of or set aside." There is no such thing as an "inert receiver," for we are constantly adding something [extra musical] to what we perceive." We are constantly finding not only meaning in objects, but often "multiple meanings."
As a test of what Barzun claims about the "purity" of music (or lack of it), try the single word "Soviet" on for size before listening to "Golden Years." A host of associations and "ingrained responses" will inevitably arise--perception of an entire era, bygone or not. And we have Leo Feigin to thank for preserving this extraordinary music from an exceptional time. Take, for example, the work of two fine musicians on the first disc that makes up this four CD set (a total of five hours of music!). The "group" Homo Liber consists of pianist (and multi-instrumentalist) Yuri Yukechev and saxophonist/flutist Vladimir Tolkachev. When I wrote about them 13 years ago (in a book, "Unzipped Souls: A Jazz Journey Through the Soviet Union," that came out of our 9000 kilometer trek), I cited their, then, isolation in Novosibirsk ("more specifically an intellectual enclave known as Akademgorodok ['little town for academics'], where they were allowed to develop their art in relative freedom while Brezhnev was boring the rest of Russia to tears"). An interview with Yukechev in the liner notes finds him expressing fears that "modern music is losing [the] vibration of novelty and sincerity," and he asserts his own desire for "fresh artistic information," a "fresh message," to move beyond mere "elaborate musical constructions" into "spontaneous, free compositions where the composer only determines the general structure and players fill it in freely during the performance." In 1981, Yukechev, classically trained, was fortunate to meet Tolkachev, who had a background in jazz, and as the former says, they "have played together since then." "Beautifully," I wrote in 1990, and nothing of theirs on "Golden Years" would seem to contradict this assessment.
"In Memory of Andrey Tarkovsky" begins with two distinctly percussive "shots," followed by sudden alto sax squalls reinforced by brutal yet elegiac organ tones, this alternating with silence. The music is dramatic, both earthy and profound (attributes Yugechev praises in Igor Stravinsky, whose legacy as "the epitome of Russian art" he respects). After the first sudden onslaught, Tolkachev's sax seems to jog alongside Yukechev's piano; then sets off on its own dissonant, fragmented configurations. In a piece called "Opus. N. 40," a fuzzed jazz sax sound is offset by prancing piano, static figures are suddenly converted into swift linear runs, rhythmic variation mixed with painful repetition, suggestion juxtaposed by statement. There's structure, or pattern, but it refuses to let you know just how long it intends to stay around. What remains constant is the interaction of two master improvisers who are totally attentive to one another, "reading" and responding constantly. "Six Plays, Jazz Suite" is made up of sections with titles that insinuate content ("program music" that works?), that retain a sense of drama throughout: the rock/shock percussive opening of "Prelude" (staccato piano chords, alto sax dancing on top, a near parody of R & B music); the autumnal equation of "Landscape" (resembling the dry, sad, unspectacular yet intensely spacious landscapes of the painter Levitan); the crisp seething bog of "Bells"; quickstep counterpoint and caroming conversation in "Duet," a solemn, aspiring "Campanelli"; the Asian/Indian flavor (deep "bamboo" flute tones alongside the drone) of "Postlude" (an alternate version of which turns hyperactive before it too floats to a close).
Disc Two is deservedly devoted to Vladimir Chekasin who, having established his international reputation with the Ganelin Trio, went on, on his own, to become an institution in his native Lithuania (a country which, hoping to interview Chekasin and percussionist Vladimir Tarasov, I was not allowed to visit in 1990, the then troubled city of Vilnius removed, as if it no longer existed, from our itinerary--and passports--by Liquid Paper Correction Fluid, along with our hotel reservations). In the liner notes for "Golden Years," Leo Feigin cites the "very special place" that Chekasin occupies in the history of this music. Chekasin has been consistently voted "best Soviet jazz musician," has taken part in innumerable projects (with innumerable artists), and given unstintingly of his time as a teacher ("at all levels starting with six-year-old kids through the Conservatoire"). Superb saxophonists Petras Vysniauskas and Vitas Labutis number among his former students.
It is not generally known that, along with the dramatic legacy of a Stravinsky or Shostakovich, a rich tradition of Absurd Comedy existed in the Soviet Union (precariously, like so much else, at least for its practitioners: in literature, the writers Daniil Kharms and Alexander Vvedensky, in satire the two Mikhails: Zoshchenko and Bulgakov), of Nonsense in the best sense (what Max Eastman defined as approaching "sense" anticipated yet failing to arrive, our incongruous world constantly falling short of "closure"). In music, Vladimir Chekasin is the Heir Apparent, the epitome (as Yukechev found Stravinsky with regard to "Russian art" in general) of the tradition. The first of two extended pieces offered by Chekasin's Big Bands (one piece clocks in at 38:44, the second at 40:13) is called "Pathological Music," and its particular brand of pathology would appear to be flatulence: a sort of collective or ensemble farting contest that provides the primordial sounds of the universe in creation: Earth (after its fiery intergalactic flight) taking its sweet time to become what it eventually will, gases trapped within its inner core, that primeval storm--a symphony--brewing and bubbling, "explosive" to say the least, but great good fun in the process, at least as music. The voice of Elvira Shlykova, both shrewish and supportive, skat-chats with the boys in the band, sax solos (Chekasin and Labutis) backed up, or challenged, by section riffs, heavy drum accents, and sometimes steady bass, straightahead bop (the changes here not so much chordal as dramatic or even "narrative" or mood-based) mixed with parade ground brass band marches, carnival laughter, and cacophonous onslaughts.
The second piece, "New Vitality, Live in Vilnius," first appeared on an LP I still have (the present version reduced by eleven minutes from the original concert that lasted seventy) and it provides an extended tour of the history of jazz music, making use of classic swing (4/4 straightahead--this mood or tempo sustained for a surprisingly long time), slow drag, and familiar tunes (such as "Basin Street Blues" and "C Jam Blues") mixed with sudden acceleration and New Music techniques (used in "Pathological Music" as well), aleatoric effects, friction sounds, micro-tonal inflection, etc. The piece offers a generous dose of solos (Chekasin and Labutis joined by Petras Vysniauskas) and serves as homage to every big band style (from Ellington and Basie to Sun Ra) and all such music has evoked, especially in the Soviet Union where, depending on the political climate at the time, it could be hard to come by. Leo Feigin writes that Chekasin hoped to display the full range of his "affectionate, and often humorous, use of jazz heritage," his amazing versatility.
When, 13 years ago, I first heard the voice of Sainkho Namchylak, I could not believe that it--and she--were "of this world." At the time I wrote that her "truly amazing voice" was "eerie, outrageous, otherworldly," and that you had "to hear it to believe it." Sainkho's career has flourished since that time (to the extent that she is now identified by a single proper noun) and the wonder at what she can do with her voice (influenced by but not strictly replicating Tuvanian throat singing) is well represented on "Golden Years." She continues to employ the staples of her vocal technique (lip pops, glottal clicks, whispering, multi-phonics or "overtones"), but it's the overall effect, not just the particulars, that is truly astonishing, transcendent.
The pieces--"miniatures" that range from three to six minutes--have titles that tend to suggest small stories ("Hymn," "Transformation of Matter," "Lullaby,""Personalities,""Freedom to Bondmaid Izara") or dramatic content, as in her wild and wonderful domestic quarrel with tenor saxophonist Sergey Letov, simply titled "Sainkho with Sergey Letov.""Hymn" contains a reverent but urgent tone, enforced by Alexandr Alexandrov's bassoon; "Personalities" has cohesive, defining whole tones laced with skittery falsetto; "Transformation of Matter" contains spoken pain, distinct recitation (and not just "scat" but actual words, such as Russian "napryazhenie": exertion or stress). Other pieces find her voice supported or offset by everything from combative bass clarinet to pastoral flute. The first track on Disc Three even turns up a surprise appearance (in 1985) with Sergey Kuryokhin and Pop Mechanics. From that time on, Sainkho has remained a genuine original, her voice a source of wonder.
Somewhat disappointing to me were four pieces by Tri-O, the group made up of Letov and Arkady Kirichenko (euphonium, voice, "umbrella," tuba) joined by Arkady Shilkloper on French horn, a group I have much enjoyed previously, elsewhere. The four pieces represented on their portion of Disc Three alone (without Sainkho) seemed--in spite of the interesting instrumentation-- somewhat flat, mannered, or too spare, somehow lacking the flesh she provides the dry bones. And I felt the same way about cellist Vladislav Makarov, but for a different reason. His "Psuedofunk" is one of the more "experimental" pieces in the CD box set, and reminded me of something else Jacques Barzun wrote in "From Dawn to Decadence": how the work of Schoenberg first appealed "to the mind rather the ear" of listeners, liberating dissonance and demanded "of the listener a perceptiveness nothing had trained him for." Stockhausen went even further and spoke of an "inexhaustible fount that floods us with vibrations and thereby transmit not a music, but the vibrations that come from a higher region of direct attack," but Barzun reminds us that the word "experimental" is frequently misapplied, for it suggests method and requires "rigorous conditions" (even of exploration). In a sense, all of the music on "Golden Years" once demanded a perceptiveness listeners had not been trained for, and it still may, but the sustained effort required is more rewarding in some cases than others.
One of the most delightful surprises for me on "Golden Years of Soviet New Jazz: Volume III" was becoming re-acquainted with the music of Andrew Solovyev. I met him in Moscow in 1990 and, a lecturer in philosophy at Moscow University, he gave me a monograph he'd published, plus an LP, "New Music: Ensemble Roof," on which, standing with Igor Grigoryev (guitar) and Mikhail Zhukov (percussion), Solovyev appears in the guise of a choirboy. Three pieces from that LP ("Rix,""Terror," and "Clavier") appear on the current CD, along with work Solovyev recorded with two other groups, Moscow Improvising Trio and Asphalt. I found the pieces on "Golden Years" unique, bright, artful, fully engaging. Similar to Sainkho's work, trumpeter Solovyev's pieces are small or short, running anywhere from 2:12 minutes up to 5:35. Although not as "laid-back," Grigoryev (who appears with all three groups) reminds me of Bill Frisell, providing a rhythmic "bass" or format into which the trumpet player introduces himself with sudden panache; and the combination is smooth, sharp, spirited. "Terror" is surprisingly user-friendly at the start, and then suggests but never really overtakes you with a runaway state. There's more irony here: "Little Bird" sports a barking drum kit; and "Dactyl," while it does make use of a beseeching meter also contains a host of other engaging rhythms. "Quiet Song" is just that, with the added irony of Solovyev's fidgety or even howling horn over foreground guitar arpeggios.
As a bonus, Leo Feigin has added a piece called "Process (for four trumpets)." I suspect that the four trumpets are all Andrew Solovyev, in which case "Process" is a genuine tour de force: an 18 minute "suite" that rounds the complete CD set off handsomely. All of the music represented on "Golden Years of the Soviet New Jazz: Volume III" can stand by itself, and survive, but it's impossible, even now, not to be reminded of the "Soviet" context (Barzun's "ingrained responses and acquired associations"), and that's not a bad thing. That such lasting music emerged from a world so pre-determined (politically), isolated and deprived of possibilities for free, open creativity (at least not without considerable risk and perhaps even impending insanity: Sergey Kuryokhin, asked about living in then Leningrad--now St, Petersburg--said that "no sane person could live in this town," commenting further on the "natural feeling of a kind felt by Dostoevsky"); that such music could thrive and survive speaks well for those "visceral responses" Barzun also wrote about: the ability to convey drama and "to move the listener appropriately," the novelty and sincerity that Yuri Yukechev felt was necessary to carry a "fresh message." There may or may not be a distinct or different "soul" behind this music, but its depth and passion (a "pithiness" and "ascendent spirit" Yukechev associated with the Ganelin Trio and what he felt set Soviet free jazz apart from other similar forms) suggests to me there is.
This article originally appeared in Coda: The Journal of Jazz & Improvised Music; Issue 309, May/June 2003.
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