Russian Sax King Igor Butman Wants to Be a Name Outside Moscow

Patrick Cole,
December 13, 2007

Walk down a street in Moscow and you'll see the Russian sax player Igor Butman on billboards promoting his latest record. Here in the U.S., though, he's lucky if his name isn't mispronounced (it's BOOT-mun). 

Russia's best-known jazz sax player now wants to be known as a great jazz saxophonist, period. 

He thought it might help if he went into the recording studio with a batch of A-list players, so his latest album features real titans: pianist Chick Corea, bassist John Patitucci, trumpeter Randy Brecker and former Miles Davis cohort and drummer Jack DeJohnette. 

The new CD, ``Magic Land,'' (Sony BMG Masterworks) not only features Butman in top-notch company. It also flouts convention: Instead of original compositions or jazz standards, Butman recorded jazz versions of songs from popular Russian cartoons. 

``I hope this is the record that shows what I can do,'' said Butman, 46, clad in a black pinstriped suit and black T- shirt. He was in Manhattan recently for a stand at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola. ``I know, though, I'm still going to be Russian regardless of who I play with.'' 

For nearly two decades, Butman has been a local hero in his hometown of Moscow on the verge of breaking out in the jazz world. He was a co-owner of Le Club, a jazz venue that hosted top names such as Corea, vibraphonist Gary Burton and guitarist Pat Metheny. He started a jazz festival in Moscow and achieved fame as the host of a popular television show, ``Jazzophrenia.'' Former U.S. President Bill Clinton said he ``may be the greatest living jazz saxophone player, who happens to be Russian.'' 

Marsalis Connection 

He also became friends with Wynton Marsalis, the Grammy- Award winning trumpeter and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York. Impressed with his playing, Marsalis asked Butman to be a guest soloist with the Jazz Orchestra in 1998. In the past year, Todd Barkan, the artistic manager of Dizzy's at the center, has booked Butman twice.

``He has a great sound, sense of time, a great sense of feeling and unbelievable technique on his instrument,'' Marsalis said in an interview. ``He can play up and down on the tenor saxophone. He's soulful.'' 

Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, Butman attended the Rimsky- Korsakov College of Music as a teenager and listened to Voice of America's nightly jazz broadcasts to build his knowledge. In the 1980s, after playing with composer Oleg Lundstrem's big band, he joined Allegro, a critically acclaimed Russian jazz group. 

Lionel Hampton 

From 1987 to 1989 he studied at Boston's Berklee College of Music. He moved to New York two years later and began working with Lionel Hampton's orchestra. 

His first solo recording, ``Falling Out'' (Impromptu, 1993), failed to make a splash. But ``Prophecy'' (Universal) made Jazz Times magazine's list of top CDs released in 2003. Yet Butman still felt he needed to raise his profile and wanted a major label behind him. 

``I was very close to really breaking through,'' he said. ``When I perform and play, people really like it but I didn't get a really good record deal.'' 

Butman pursued major labels until Sony BMG Russia finally offered him a deal. 

``They said they would sell the album around the world,'' Butman said. 

With the deal he's always wanted in hand, Butman said he's already composing music for his next recording. 

``When you get a break, you have to stay focused and develop yourself in a wider, deeper way,'' Butman said. ``I'm a little wiser, a little older now, but I'm very happy.''