Building the Russia House

Will Friedwald,
The New York Sun ,
November 30, 2007

At Igor Butman's early set Wednesday at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, the great St. Petersburg-born tenor saxophonist played only one brief lick that seemed, at least to Western ears, remotely Russian: This was the main phrase from "Peter and the Wolf" (and, to be fair, the Prokofiev melody has also been recorded by American jazzmen such as Benny Goodman and Jimmy Smith). Otherwise, Comrade Butman's playing only sounded Russian in the sense of his virtuosity: He plays the tenor like one of those Borodin bassos who displays an entire range beyond most opera singers. Mr. Butman plays so much tenor that, at times, you're almost afraid he's going to run out of horn.

The most celebrated jazzman of the former USSR, Mr. Butman is generally regarded as the Russian Wynton Marsalis: Like the Jazz at Lincoln Center artistic director, Mr. Butman was born in 1961 and is a well-known personality and pundit who currently operates his own performance space and leads his own big band. Even though he studied jazz in America (like several of the Marsalis brothers, he studied at Berklee College of Music) and appeared several times under the auspices of Mr. Marsalis and JaLC, virtually none of his many recordings have been widely heard in the West.

But that's due to change with the release of "Magic Land," on the well-distributed Sony Classical label, which represents an astute detente between American and Russian ideals: Mr. Butman is backed by an all-star, largely New York group, including Jack De-Johnette on drums, Stefon Harris on vibraphone, and, in a rare appearance as a sideman, Chick Corea on piano. At the same time, the music is strictly from Russian pop culture, being a collection of themes from locally produced animated films, reinterpreted in the same way that Americans such as Don Byron and Steven Bernstein recast the music of Carl Stalling and Raymond Scott.

At Dizzy's, however, where Mr. Butman plays through Sunday, it is quite disappointing that, although he has been given the chance to work with the stellar threesome known as Manhattan Trinity (Cyrus Chestnut, piano; George Mraz, bass; Lewis Nash, drums), he is for some reason presented only as a special guest star, and thus only plays on half the set. Of course, on Wednesday he more than got his point across in his four allotted numbers.

The first was a minor, Muscovite waltz, framed by unaccompanied cadenzas and a tenor-bass unison passage; it was so sad overall that I thought it had to be written in protest of the imprisonment of Garry Kasparov. (Surprisingly, it turned out to be a dedication to the saxist's wife.) Mr. Butman moved on to "Summer Song" (from a Russian cartoon about Santa Claus), which, on the new album, he plays on soprano and with the trumpeter Randy Brecker sharing the frontline. I preferred the Dizzy's treatment, done just on tenor as a Sonny Rollins-style calypso, joyous and free, while Mr. Chestnut laid down a rapid 2/4 piano part as a foundation for the polyrhythm. Next came another minor ballad, Mr. Butman's 1997 "Nostalgie," with a haunting melody reminiscent of both "Autumn Leaves" and "I'm a Fool To Want You."

This was announced as the last tune, but Dizzy's majordomo Todd Barkan came out and asked the crowd if we wanted an encore. After we chanted "Da!" in unison, Mr. Butman obliged with another cartoon tune, the Raymond Scottlike "Water Skis," which called for the saxist to do some fast and furious showboating. This is the musical equivalent of juggling, throwing three flaming sabers and a potato in the air and trying to keep them aloft — and swinging all the while. By now the crowd was on its feet and cheering, as well it should: It was the first good news we've heard from Moscow in some time.