Russian sax king brings his band to Mumbai

Alexandra Katz,
Russia and India Report,
October 29, 2014

Igor Butman is back in India and this time he brings his 16-member Moscow Jazz Orchestra. Ahead of a concert at Mumbai’s NCPA, the jazz musician tells RIR why he loves coming back to the country.

Igor Butman started his journey as a Jazz Musician in the 1970s when studying at the Rimsky-Korsakov Music College and then the Mussorgsky Music College in what was then Leningrad.

The Russian jazz musician immigrated to America in 1987. While working for the Lionel Hampton Orchestra in New York, he shared the stage with prominent jazz personalities such as Dee Dee Bridgewater, Kevin Mahogany, George Benson, Gino Vannelli and Wynton Marsalis.

 

In the mid-1990s, Butman moved back to Russia, where he founded the Igor Butman Orchestra, also known as the Big Band. The orchestra, which has been touring the world ever since, became the Moscow State Jazz Orchestra in 2012.

Butman first performed in Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata in 2003 as a part of the Days of Russian Culture in India initiative. Later in 2012 and 2013 he was invited to play at the Jus’ Jazz festival co-organized by the NCPA and Jazz Addicts, an association of jazz enthusiasts lead by Pradeep Bhatia, Sunil Sampat, Farrahnaz Irani and Apurva Agarwal.

This year it was an initiative by Jazz Addicts’ Pradeep Bhatia and Evgeny Griva, Chief Executive of SIBUR Petrochemical India, a joint venture between Russia’s petrochemicals major Sibur and Reliance Industries, to organize the performance of the Big Band in Mumbai and Delhi.

While talking to RIR on the eve of the concert at Mumbai’s NCPA, Igor Butman was wearing a black T-shirt with a portrait of Vladimir Putin on it. The conversation went beyond jazz.

 

This is your fourth time in India in almost a decade. Do you see the audience changing in India where jazz has a relatively small following?

It’s difficult for me to notice whether the audience has changed because we have been always getting amazing feedback in India. Either we play so well (smiles) or the audience is so well prepared, but the people are so open, so welcoming, and they can appraise the mastery of musicians. That’s why we feel like coming here again and again. Although till today many people abroad are really surprised to hear that I am going to India for work, not for vacations.

Do you have to customize your program for India, comparing to what you are performing in America, or Europe, or Russia?

As we finally brought a full orchestra to India, we will be playing the best from our wide-ranging repertoire. Once we understand that there are people here who like what we do, if we come next year we will be able to change the program, add new compositions. We had an idea to experiment with some Indian music but when we looked deeper we understood that it requires more time and better understanding. We didn’t want to humiliate ourselves.

But you use Russian folk elements in your music actively. Will you play this kind of music here?

 

 

Definitely. We will play the most interesting pieces where soloists can give a taste of their quality, where the orchestra team work can be seen. In Russia we are able to play new items, experiment, because we perform frequently there. For India or say America tours we prefer selecting the best hits.

Have you met Indian jazz musicians or even played with them?

I had played with known Indian pianist Madaf Shafi, we met in US. There are many Indian origin jazz musicians in America, but I could not meet any local musicians here in Mumbai unfortunately. Although, our bass guitarist Alex Rostotsky has been working with famous violin virtuoso L. Subramaniam for a long time.

Do you think the government should be actively involved in promoting Russian culture in India? Or is it business that should take care of it? In case of your Indian tour, it was Russia’s Sibur company that sponsored it which is probably the first time when a Russian company working in India does so by its own wish...

 

It was rather a personal initiative by Sibur’s India CEO Mr. Evgeny Griva, my old friend and our producer in India Mr. Pradeep Bhatia and another friend, an American philanthropist who made this tour possible. We as Big Band were also interested in bringing the large orchestra here because for us Indian tour was important, so we contributed as well.

I believe government should support but its budgets are not unlimited. Secondly, there should be a clear understanding on whom to bring and what collectives to support. Russia is traditionally associated with some particular cultural formats. Many say what is the use of bringing a Russian jazz collective to America, it is like bringing snow to Siberia. It is difficult to break stereotypes.

As for the business, one should give it its due. Business does support us, although this support could be larger. As of now all the support from business is based solely on my good relations with people and not on the interests of the companies in the countries where we are going or their own initiative. Even having good personal relations, I still have to prove very often who we are and what we are doing.

 

You are wearing a T-shirt with Vladimir Putin’s portrait. Is it kind of a political statement?

I respect President Putin as well as many other people in the Government. Russia is in a difficult situation today. If it has reached this stage it means we were probably doing something wrong in our relations with Ukraine and the world, because now the world does not understand us. I support Vladimir Putin and believe we are doing the right things. But I believe we should find some other ways to explain to the whole world why we are doing so and so, without taking offence. We should establish contacts with many people from different spheres abroad, we should bring our position to their ears, we should understand where we were wrong, what the world wants from us, what we could change.

How do you see you role, as a jazz musician, in helping people from Russia and the West overcome antagonisms?

We play music which is not specific to Russia or not associated with Russia. Our country is associated with Rachmaninoff, the ballet, war songs and dance. Jazz is more associated with modern culture and the West. We are showing the difference face of Russian culture. We are not the only ones who represent this new culture. We are just breaking the ice to give the way to many other musicians who can show that Russia lives in today’s modern world and is not stuck in the past.

I am working on establishing a Jazz Music Academy in Russia where not only jazz but rock and pop-music will be taught. We have so many talented people in Russia who can represent pop-culture on the higher level than today. It is important as pop-culture as an instrument of soft-power really has a huge influence.