Igor Butman

Eric Nemeyer,
JazzInside Magazine,
June, 2011

Igor Butman, saxophone virtuoso and bandleader, is Russia’s number one jazz personality today. Born in 1961 in Leningrad (now St.Petersburg), Igor Butman started playing the clarinet at the age of 11. In 1976 he entered the Rimsky-Korsakov College of Music, where during his second year he dropped classical clarinet for jazz saxophone. In the mid-eighties Igor started playing in renowned Soviet jazz bands: Oleg Lundstrem’s Big Band, and “Allegro”, and soon after that received wide recognition in the USSR. Igor became known as the best tenor saxophonist, placing first in the Soviet Critics’ polls and recorded some albums for the “Melodiya” label. After Igor Butman immigrated to the USA in 1987, he went on to Major in Performance and Composition at Berklee College of Music. While he was still in the USSR, Igor was invited to tour with Dave Brubeck, Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, Gary Burton, Louis Bellson, and Grover Washington Jr. so, by the time Igor arrived in the United States he already had friends among the US’ most respected Jazz artists. In 1998, а great trumpet player Wynton Marsalis invited Butman to be a guest soloist with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, and soon after he and Marsalis combined their respective groups to tour Russia. Since then Butman has played with some of the biggest names in the business and acts as a bridge between the USA and Russian for Jazz. In 2009, Butman launched his own record label—“Butman Music.” Visit him on the web at www.igorbutman.com. 

JI: Igor, thanks again for taking the time to share your time with us. Why don’t you begin by talking about some of the things you are doing now that you are excited about and what is on the horizon for you?
IB: We’ve just did a very nice concert in Moscow’s International House of Music where we have performed a new piece by our great arranger and composer Nick Levinovsky that was based on music of Rimsky-Korsakov “Sheherezade” with special guests from US: Peter Bernstein-guitar, Sean Jones- trumpet, James Burton-trombone and Kathy Jenkins-vocals. Also at this moment I am preparing a speech for the meeting with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev on problems in Russian Culture and how we musicians and especially Jazz musicians could help in changing the image of Russia and Russian people for better in the world. I will be talking about creating Jazz centers similar to JALC and of course I’ve got gotten a lot of good advice from great musician and my dear friend Wynton Marsalis. 

JI: Congratulations on your new label – “Butman Music”! What kinds of artists and CDs can we expect to hear on this label?
IB: We would love to present the best Russian talents in jazz who live either in Russia or outside of the motherland as well as international talents. I know that we could create some of the greatest music having an amazing musical history in Chaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Rimski-Korsakov, Glinka, Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Stravinsky. Many of the greatest American composers have Russian heritage. So we would like to keep our history going in Jazz music as well. Also we have been combining Russian talents with some great American talent and this is one of our ways to get into Western and Eastern markets. So far we have five releases and are ready to launch five more. Stylistically we won’t be putting borders and will look into creativity and excitement. 

JI: Can you talk about how jazz was received/perceived in your country before the information age and many political changes? When you were young, how did you first discover jazz, and was it easy to find like-minded individuals who shared your passion?
IB: There were moments in our history when we had as much jazz as any country in Europe or even more. People remember Sydney Bechet coming to Russia and many others. But many people remember times when officials wanted to bend saxophones, jazz was anti-soviet music and you could go to jail by playing or listening to that kind of music. My father, an amateur jazz drummer had introduced me to jazz by playing Louis Armstrong and Leningrad Dixieland Jazz Band records and was talking to me about how it would be great to become a great jazz musician like Benny Gutman (Goodman) who is similar to my last name. My first contemporary recordings I’d received from my saxophone teacher, a great saxophone player himself—Gennady Golstein. It was The Immortal Charlie Parker and Cannonball Adderley in San Francisco. It was pretty easy to find young jazz musicians in my college where as soon as I’d started playing saxophone I’d joined the college jazz orchestra. Very soon I’d become the loudest and speediest saxophonist in college and then in Leningrad and then in USSR. One of my partners since college trumpeter Alexander Berenson is a Butman Music artist. I would love to record Eugene Maslov who was the first artist on Mack Avenue records and a member of my quintet back in soviet days. 

JI: Can you talk about the current state of jazz music in your country?
IB: It is totally different than it was before in the soviet era. We are now an open country where we have many jazz festivals and concerts in different cities. Many great artists are coming to perform in Moscow and other cities from all over the world. We have many colleges where they teach and learn to play jazz. I see many young people at the concerts who are interested in jazz music. 

JI: Historically speaking, you are thought of as someone who has created a bridge for jazz between the USA and Russia. Can you talk about this role of yours, and how you were able to accomplish this?
IB: I remember every time it was a great experience when I was meeting an American musician and the music we were creating together. I wanted to share this joy with my fellow jazz lovers in Russia. I knew that there was a need for real jazz in Russia and I had convinced people from different companies to help to bring some of the best jazz musicians to Russia. Plus many of my New York and Boston friends wanted to come to Russia because of curiosities and finding new fans. Many times musicians have trusted my word and with all the scariness were coming and performing and were having the best time of there lives. Russian audiences are great and as Pat Metheny has said, have the lowest percentage of bullshit and can appreciate great musicianship. 

JI: Can you talk more about your experience as artistic director for “Le Club”?
IB: Many people in Moscow have tried to open a jazz club. Clubs had jazz on Wednesdays or Thursdays or other days and for different reasons were not successful musically and financially. I had a very good experience of playing in clubs in Boston and New York. I was watching how the club owners run their business and handle relations with musicians and jazz fans. I was noticing how musicians were creating their mailing lists and recruiting new fans. Everything was part of the business. I’ve also believed that big names in Jazz could draw a very good crowd in Moscow and people will be willing to pay good money to see their favorite musicians. I had to work with sponsors as well and for a long time I had great relations with Philip Morris and Hennessy who have sponsored bringing such great artists as Joe Zawinul, Ray Brown, Ivan Linz, The Brecker Brothers, Roy Hargrove, Kenny Garrett and many others. It is a very hard business and I had to be on both sides of it being a musician and understanding all needs and problems and a club owner and artistic director dealing with some artists that don’t understand anything besides how to put a few scales and patterns together. 

JI: Can you talk about your experiences playing with such legendary musicians as Dave Brubeck, Pat Metheny, Gary Burton, Wynton Marsalis, Louis Bellson and Grover Washington Jr.? How did these experiences impact your musicianship and the direction of your career?
IB: Chick Corea and Gary Burton were the first jazz stars that I met in my life. It was a concert at American Consulate in Leningrad in 1982. I went to Chick and said that there are a few musicians that would love to play one blues so they will have something to tell there grandchildren in the future about that. It really was fantastic. Chick had said that they had about two hours before their train and he and Gary would love to play a jam session and not only one blues. In about five minutes we deliver the drums and bass. I had my alto sax and we had played for two hours straight. Then it was Grover Washington Jr. who came to Russia as a part of Chataqua institute for the peace conference. Unfortunately his concert was canceled in Leningrad and Grover invited me to come to Riga, Latvia where my adventures began. Because I was not on the list of the guests for the concert and all the activities were controlled by KGB, it was practically impossible to get in. But Mark Taplin, a cultural Attache' of the Ameri- can Embassy had offered his help and went to talk to Grover. When he came back he said that Grover would not play a note if Igor Butman won’t be in the hall. I went inside and got into Grover’s dressing room and there were his three amazing saxophones. I forgot to say that Grover had never heard me play, and he offered me to try his soprano. I’d played a few notes and Grover had picked up his tenor and we played an incredible duo. Five minuets later CBS cameras were there and I became a star and friend of a great musician and human being. We have played together all the times Grover was in the USSR. We were friends till Grover’s sudden death. I’d called him a week before he died and we went through our memories—laughing. Dave Brubeck was next who came to Leningrad and Moscow with official concerts. We’d met at a jam session at Union of Composers in Moscow. After I had played a solo Dave had jumped out of his piano chair to shake my hand. I was thrilled and almost lost my mind. I went to the airport to meet Pat Metheny and his group. Then me and Pat went for a walk on a beautiful day and we were talking about music, politics, books, history and so forth. I’ve mentioned that there will be a great jam session with Russian cats and he said that that will be fine, but we will have to provide food for his musicians and stuff. I remember I’m playing a solo on “All The Things You Are” in a very fast tempo and then hearing Pat Metheny’s road manager is whispering in my ear that they need a few more steaks and a bottle of vodka. I took out my mouthpiece, gave a waitress a sign and continued to play. It was the best pause I’ve ever did in my solos. Pat was great and so was Lyle Mays and the other guys from the group. On the next day lady interpreters who had worked with Pat Metheny’s group were telling me that they don’t know if it is good or not that Pat and the musicians were calling me the bad motherf@#%er. 

JI: I know Bill Clinton was a big fan of yours. Did you actually have dinner with Putin and Clinton?!
IB: I have performed several times for President Bill Clinton. But the first time was in 1995 when he came for the 50th anniversary of a victory in World War II. We had to perform one composition but after we’d played my “Nostalgie” we were asked to play some more. After the performance I was invited to join the presidents for the dinner where the chief of KGB had poured me a full glass of vodka. It is a Russian tradition if you do something good that they will award and salute you with vodka. The second time I performed for Bill Clinton when Vladimir Putin was the president and that was a special Jazz concert for the American president and may be the first official jazz concert on such a high level. Later Bill Clinton had described this event in his book “My Life,” and I think it was one of the best concerts I’ve ever played. I have performed for Bill Clinton a few more times and I’m very honored that such great man considers me his favorite jazz musician. 

JI: What is a typical day in the life of Igor Butman like?
IB: It is always different. Sometimes I’m a normal lazy guy and sometimes like today I wake up at 8:30 am then practiced for about two hours then went to my big band rehearsal from 11 am to 3pm than I had a meeting with one of our sponsors than had a corporate gig with my big band from 7pm-10pm then had a nice dinner with Nick Levinovsky and his wife where we had a long talk of what we will do next and which directions we should go. We did not succeed and haven’t found anything and probably will talk tomorrow. 

JI: What is the greatest compliment that you have ever received as a musician?
IB: You are bad motherf@%*er. 

JI: Even though you had already attained a level of success as a musician, you decided to get a degree from Berklee. Can you talk about what went into this decision and what that experience was like for you?
IB: Berklee was a great experience and I knew that there were so many things I did was by intuition but I wasn’t sure. I’ve met so many great players and great teachers. I’ve learned a lot about every aspect in life there and some English. 

JI: What is it that inspires you to continue playing this music day after day and year after year?
IB: The magic of music is what inspires me every day. I feel I can make people happy by playing music. When I’ve played for presidents I was inspired by the idea that if they will enjoy our music they will want to understand each other better and will reduce nuclear missiles even more and won’t be stubborn as they could be with other important issues. 

JI: What do you think it takes for someone to achieve the level of success you have as a professional musician? What are the necessary ingredients?
IB: Love for music and people and hard work. 

JI: Does it get easier or harder as you get older? Why so?
IB: I think it is easier because you are more experienced, but it is also harder because you are more experienced! It is harder to make yourself do something that you have been doing for so long.