Saxophonist Butman Jams in the Moscow Midnights

By Michael Jackson,
Downbeat magazine,
June 2011

It wasn’t until the close of a call with saxophonist Igor Butman (at his dacha near Moscow) that I realized our conversation had been scheduled for 3 a.m. in his time zone. Being active at such an hour is nothing new for the Leningrad-born saxophonist, who can claim two jazz clubs in the Russian capital named after him. In 1999 at a renowned earlier venue, Le Club, where Butman was artistic director, Wynton Marsalis jammed with him one time until 6 a.m. “Wynton and I are great friends, and he kept his word that night,” Butman said. “He promised to invite my big band to play at Lincoln Center, and four years later it happened.” 

Butman’s stature as Russian jazz ambassador and spokesman parallels that of Marsalis in the United States, and the trumpeter has advised him in the development of an equivalent facility to Jazz at Lincoln Center in Moscow. Plans for that center are in early stages, and Butman is busy disseminating Russian jazz. “It’s a fight to convince the world we export more than ballet, classical music, arms and missiles,” Butman said.

Along with leading a 16-piece big band and quartet, Butman recently launched his own label, Butman Music, after Sony BMG dragged its heels with the followup to his fine 2007 release, Magic Land.

Butman Music has released recordings from pianists Andrei Kondakov and Ivan Farmakovsky; drummer Oleg Butman (Igor’s brother) and Oleg’s wife, pianist Natalia Smirnova; and trumpeter Alexander Berenson. Trumpeter Vadim Eilenkrig’s Butman disc, The Shadow Of Your Smile, moves markedly in the direction of smooth jazz, but Butman, whom Grover Washington Jr. mentored, is unapologetic. “Vadim is Russia’s answer to Chris Botti. I don’t want to stay mainstream. People criticized Freddie Hubbard under Creed Taylor’s CTI production, but now Red Clay is a classic.”

Butman emigrated to the United States in 1987 at the behest of Gary Burton and took a scholarship to Berklee College of Music. He moved to New York from Boston in 1989, then back to Russia in 1995. The son of an engineer and part-time musician, Butman secured early lessons with renowned saxophonist Gennady Goldstein. He also heard jazz in the Soviet era through Voice of America’s late-night radio broadcasts and a handful of overpriced LPs imported from Bulgaria. Switching from classical clarinet to jazz saxophone at The Rimsky-Korsakov College of Music, he devoured the music of Cannonball Adderley and Hank Mobley, and stole licks from Gary Bartz, Johnny Griffin and George Coleman. But Michael Brecker’s influence was the most significant. “I loved Mike from when I heard Heavy Metal Be-Bop and transcribed all his solos,” Butman said. Years later, Butman called Brecker to play alongside him on a recording. “He told me to call him tomorrow at noon: I waited with my watch. Since I had done so much with Randy, he agreed to play on ‘Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,’ but refused payment.”

Butman’s mellow-then-ferocious, turn-on-a-dime technique and musicality caught the ear of Marsalis (who guests on Moscow @ 3 a.m., Butman’s big band album) and President Bill Clinton. “Friends of Bill invited me to play at his birthday party, but I’d organized a birthday party for myself for the day before and members of the Kremlin were to be there,” Butman said. After jamming past dawn at his own bash, Butman hopped a helicopter to a late-morning classical gig 150 miles north of Moscow, then jetted to New York just in time to surprise Clinton.

Despite such world-class notoriety, Butman recognizes the challenges of broadening the appeal of Russian jazz and floating his clubs, label and annual Triumph of Jazz and AquaJazz festivals, along with his ambitious Moscow jazz center. He’s clearly borrowed strategies from Marsalis and the New York scene. Just as Marsalis colluded with Willie Nelson and Eric Clapton, Butman made connections with Russian rock star Sergei Mazaev and pop/jazz singer Larisa Dolina, and he toured widely in a classical collaboration with viola virtuoso Yuri Bashmet and pianist Igor Raykhelson.

A man who’s as tireless as his playing style, Butman is set to celebrate his 50th birthday the same month as Marsalis in October. A long night of executive jamming seems guaranteed.