A Jazz Leader for the New Era

Frederick Berna,
"Russia Now"/"Washington Post", "Daily Telegraph",
March 27, 2009

Hailed by none other than President Bill Clinton as one of the world’s greatest living saxophone players, Igor Butman is an icon of Russian musical life. Born in St. Petersburg in 1961, he took up the instrument at 15 with encouragement from his jazz aficionado father, a musician who worked by day and gigged by night. 

“My father told me about jazz. I hadn’t actually heard much, because I’d been listening mostly to Soviet pop, but my dad was an amateur drummer and singer who often played at weddings and in restaurants,” Butman explained. “He was really the person who got me into jazz music, and music itself.” 

Jazz in Russia goes back to the 1920s. According to Butman, it has been through various stages of development, as well as confusion with classical music. The Soviet regime’s strict control of artistic liberty presented both opportunities and challenges: “As soon as I started playing, I was able to perform in jazz clubs around St. Petersburg. I traveled to places like Moscow, Latvia, Lithuania and Ukraine, but I wasn’t allowed to go abroad because they thought I might escape.” 

“In Soviet times, the state owned booking agency would provide you with concerts – it didn’t matter if you sold out or had two people in the audience, they would still get you 14 concerts a month,” Butman said. Despite supplying a steady stream of work, this closed system placed considerable constraints on creativity. “I put together my own band, but I couldn’t get a job as I wasn’t in the state booking agency. It wasn’t easy to get professional status and be able to travel. So I decided to go to the United States and try the normal way.” 

In 1987, Butman arrived in Boston to study at the renowned Berklee College of Music. “I was the best in the Soviet Union and I knew my limitations,” recalled the saxist. “I had to study, play and be in competition with the best in the world. After graduating, I moved to New York for a few years, before coming back to Russia in 1997.” 

When he returned to Moscow, Butman’s career really took off. He began to establish himself as the leading light in Russian jazz, recording several CDs – including his most recent, Magic Land, which features theme tunes from Soviet cartoons and an elite group of American players. 

Russia’s jazz scene today is a far cry from its state in the former U.S.S.R., when you could be thrown in jail for holding unauthorized concerts. Butman is quick to acknowledge how “everything has changed,” especially in terms of healthy competition in the musical world. “It’s a harder life for us in a way. There’s a lot of competition between groups, which I like. You have to keep improving, provide something unique and think about what you can give to venues or concert halls.” 

“Now there are a lot more good young musicians. Things are happening all around Russia – it’s not only Moscow, but Novosibirsk, St. Petersburg, Vladivostok, Rostov-on-Don, Yaroslavl. There are a lot more jazz clubs competing, able to bring in the best musicians from all over the world.” 

The sense of anticipation when a big act hits town is exciting for Butman, who has been organizing his own jazz festival for nine years. “It’s called Triumph of Jazz. I’m trying to find new names and give them the opportunity of playing here, as well as bringing old stars who made a revolution in jazz.” 

“I think there’s a big market for that in Russia. People are interested in jazz, and they’ve heard about me – they can place trust in what I’m going to play or the people I’m going to bring, even if they don’t know who it is. There’s a big sense of curiosity, because it’s not every day we have something so special. A lot of different people come to the concerts.” 

Butman’s status as a Russian jazz celebrity stems from many talents, not least his powerful and distinctive voice on tenor saxophone. In addition to running a club and the Triumph festival, he hosted "Jazzophrenia" on national TV. 

Recently he embarked on a U.S. tour with the Crossover Concerto, a collaboration featuring classical maestro Yuri Bashmet and composer Igor Raykhelson. “We have my big band and the Moscow Soloists chamber orchestra, conducted by Bashmet. It’s a combination of music: they play classical pieces, with a little jazz influence, and we play some classical in our jazz way. It’s challenging, but it sounds so good – for us it’s just incredible.” 

The current vitality of Russian jazz receives no better endorsement than the fact Butman does not see a reason for returning to America: “I don’t have to live there. Of course I really liked it, but I like to live in Russia just as much.” Habitually sold-out gigs indicate this feeling is mutual.