A Russian jazz-classical fusion at Benaroya Hall

Hugo Kugiya,
The Seattle Times,
February 18, 2009

Igor Butman, the jazz saxophonist considered the Wynton Marsalis of Russia, will be in Seattle Feb. 20 for a date in the eight-city tour "Crossover Concerto: Where Classical Meets Jazz," with Yuri Bashmet, Igor Raykhelson and the Moscow Soloists Chamber Orchestra. 

Although he was born and raised in the former Soviet Union, Igor Butman's life was destined to have an American flavor to it. 

His father was, of all things, a drummer in a Dixieland jazz band, the best in all of Leningrad. The opportunities to listen to and play jazz were few, but the young Butman found them. 

He studied the clarinet, then the saxophone, growing up to become perhaps the most famous jazz musician in all of Russia. He is often called the Russian Wynton Marsalis and was a favorite of President Clinton. 

Butman, 47, is a true celebrity in Russia, a one-person entertainment enterprise. He is a cultural ambassador, bandleader, owner of a jazz club, television host and celebrity in his homeland. He is the face of jazz in Russia. 

But it is his recent appearance on a TV reality show that was perhaps his pop-culture Everest. A former ice-hockey player, Butman agreed to appear on a Russian show called (in translation) "Stars on Ice," in which he was paired with Russian figure-skating champion Maria Petrova. 

His performance can be viewed on the Internet, he said, "if you want to have a laugh." 

His more serious endeavors will be displayed Friday at Benaroya Hall, where he and his Russian big band will play a jazz and classical concert with classical violist Yuri Bashmet; classical composer and pianist Igor Raykhelson; and the Moscow Soloists Chamber Orchestra. The concert is part of an eight-city, U.S. tour called "Crossover Concerto: Where Classical Meets Jazz." 

The chamber orchestra will perform straight, classical pieces by Bach, Shostakovich, Stravinsky and Raykhelson. The jazz component of the concert will include adaptations of classical compositions by Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, as well as Raykhelson's "Jazz Suite for Viola, Saxophone and Orchestra." 

When he was young, Butman was not much of a fan of classical, Russian music. His grandfather once took him to a performance of Rimsky-Korsakov. 

"I almost fell asleep," Butman said. 

Raykhelson, a Neo-Romantic composer, has frequently ventured into jazz over the years. His friendship and professional collaboration with Butman goes back 30 years, to when the two were music students in Leningrad. In what could be described as irony, Butman went on to study jazz in Russia, while Raykhelson emigrated to the United States to study classical. 

Like many a Russian youth, Butman was enamored of American rock 'n' roll. His father introduced him to classic, American jazz, much of it taped recordings made from smuggled albums. Radio broadcasts from "Voice of America" were another source of American jazz. 

Butman first took lessons in classical clarinet, but they didn't last very long as he "fell in love with jazz," while listening to "Kind of Blue," by Miles Davis. 

Jazz clubs did not really exist in the Soviet Union at the time, but musicians and enthusiasts did gather regularly in small concert halls. Jazz music had caught on in Russia in the 1940s, and the Cold War did not completely vanquish its popularity. 

"The music depended on the political situation, and our country's relationship with the U.S.," Butman said. "If you wanted to study jazz, you really had to love it." 

As a result, Butman had few peers in his homeland. Well into his 20s, he finally got the chance to study jazz in the U.S., at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. He spent the next eight years playing and performing with groups in the U.S., moving back to Russia in 1995. When his country needed a jazz ambassador, Butman was an obvious choice. 

"He's an incredible musician, but he's also got this tremendous personality," Raykhelson said of his friend. "He's a convincer. He has this aura around him. He's the perfect guy to promote the idea of jazz in Russia."