Butman, Moscow Jazz Orchestra Impress at Russia’s Triumph of Jazz Festival

Ted Panken,
March 11, 2015

The Triumph of Jazz Festival is the brainchild of Moscow saxophonist-bandleader-label head-clubowner-entrepreneur Igor Butman. For this year’s 15th edition, which ran Feb. 20–22, Butman booked five bands in addition to his 17-piece big band, Moscow Jazz Orchestra, whose members, on salary 365 days a year, play a large book of original compositions and arrangements.

Two bands were all Russian; one band paired a Russian trio with the Kansas City-based singer Lisa Henry; and two bands were eminent units from America—the Yellowjackets and Terence Blanchard’s recently formed E-Collective.

That this transnational jazz event transpired during the weekend leading up to the “Defender of the Fatherland Day” national holiday on Feb. 23 (the American equivalent would be Memorial Day) at a time when deep tensions dominate Russia-U.S. relations added a certain pull to the proceedings.

Still, to paraphrase Art Blakey, the music washed away the dust of everyday life from opening night in St. Petersburg, at which the Yellowjackets and Blanchard were featured, through two subsequent evenings in Moscow at Butman’s eponymous jazz club (the Igor Butman Club at Taganka) and the International House of Music (Dom Muzyki), a circular, acoustically pristine space of 1,735 seats. At least 1,730 of them were occupied on Feb. 21 for a bill featuring the Russian bands and the Yellowjackets.

First up was a unit co-led by pianist Evgeny Lebedev and acoustic and electric bassist Anton Revnyuk, joined by drummer Ignat Kravtsov and a string quartet comprising violinists Asiya Abdrakhmanova and Svetlana Ramazanova, violist Antonina Popras and cellist Alexandra Ramazanova, supporting the new release Open Strings (Butman Music).

The group rendered Russian raw materials—Slavonic folk songs, motifs from Russia’s classical canon—with harmonic vocabulary drawn from Wayne Shorter and the post-Bill Evans piano trio lexicon and straight-eighth grooves, refracting such European models as E.S.T., Enrico Pieranunzi and various piano units affiliated with ECM. An attitude of High Romanticism suffused the notes and tones.

A Beethoven-esque refrain by the strings opened Lebedev’s “Nebylitsa (Fairy Tale),” establishing the mood for a flowing piano cadenza, which led to a section on which Lebedev unleashed whirligig chops over Kravtsov’s odd-meter, rockish beat. However pyrotechnical, Lebedev’s improvisation was melodic and crisp, executed with nuanced touch and dynamics. A strings passage and a long piano vamp over a drum fanfare concluded the piece.

Lebedev’s programmatic “Sea” was an ethereal refrain, evocative of waves and cycles; an arco bass passage, the piano’s gradual move to forte and stormy strings denoted tidal passions and heightened feelings. Revnyuk soloed on electric bass to Kravtsov’s rubato sound-painting; an arco cello solo emerged from the strings, followed by a chromatic, turbulent piano passage that decrescendoed to denote the passage of the storm.

Echoes of Scriabin’s piano music informed “Broken Tango,” which transpired in 5/4. Lebedev addressed the shifting tempos and pulses of the opening motif with immaculate touch and precision, then soloed through the form over a swinging vamp, building to another torrential climax, followed by a flashy drum fanfare.

The violins and pizzicato cello stated the theme of Lebedev’s elegiac-yet-affirmative “No Tears,” before the composer played the meditative refrain. A bass line emerged from the strings motif; yet again, Lebedev opened with delicacy before ratcheting up the intensity, showcasing his classical technique; Kravtsov channeled Jon Christensen. The strings reentered at the trio’s crescendo; a concluding arco cello passage wound down the journey.

Revnyuk played electric bass on the pianist’s “One For Anton,” a fast, folkish piece with a Keith Jarrett-Pat Metheny feel, highlighted by coruscating strings, a brilliant piano passage and a sensitive electric bass solo that increased in velocity and intensity as the strings entered with lovely countermelody. Although the tropes of tension-release and straight-eighth grooves had by now become predictable and tiresome, there was no denying the erudition, high craft and melodic imagination of the players.

The next set featured Estonian contralto Sofia Rubina-Hunter with Horsepower, an aptly named ensemble with Jason Hunter on trumpet, Nikolay Moiseenko on alto saxophone, Anton Khabibulin on guitar, Sergei Geier on bass, Vladimir Vysotski on keyboards and Peter Ivshin on drums. Propelled by Ivshin’s deep pocket and backbeat-focused grooves, she addressed five songs that primarily referenced rhythm-and-blues, disco and funk with a powerful, supple voice complemented by boundless energy and charismatic stage presence.

Rubina-Hunter displayed her range on Hunter’s “Friday Night,” an r&b line that featured nice horn lines and crisp solo exchanges between trumpet and alto sax. The lyric to Moiseenko’s “It’s Good To Be Home,” which moved from a disco feel to slow-burn funk, was less than memorable, but she delivered it with husky, enticing timbre, smiling and dancing, then followed Moiseenko’s intense solo—the cyclical breathing reached the point of overkill—with a section on which she revealed her jazz roots (Rubina-Hunter is an alumna of Berklee’s Global Jazz Institute), placing playful twists and turns on the lyric.

After energetically rendering Ryo Kawasaki’s “Trinkets And Things,” featuring a gritty guitar solo by Khabibulin and Ivshin’s fierce pocket, Rubina-Hunter sang “Dienda”—Sting’s elegy for Kenny Kirkland—with nuance and creativity. Vysotski moved to acoustic piano to address the melody; Rubina, whose previous numbers had sold the audience on accepting a touch of abstraction, deployed her voice as an instrument, scatting syllables and sounds, using birdlike tonalities to articulate the rhythms.

She ended with Chaka Khan’s disco hit “Naughty,” featuring Moiseenko’s long Kenny Garrett-influenced alto solo over the locked-in rhythm section.

After a creative, swinging set by singer Lisa Henry with a tight trio led by drummer Oleg Butman, with pianist Natalia Smirnova and bassist Igor Ivanushkin, all world-class practitioners (to be reviewed in the next installment), the Moscow Jazz Orchestra played a half-hour program with guest tenor saxophonist Bob Mintzer of the Yellowjackets, who would perform the evening’s final segment.

MJO’s book covers a half-century timeline of musical expression, from the Swing Era to post-Coltrane. Igor Butman decided to open with pianist-arranger Nick Levinovsky’s complex, poetic treatment of Herbie Hancock’s “The Sorcerer,” featuring a crisp trumpet solo by Pavel Suyazov, a beautifully paced solo by Mintzer, a pithy turn by Levinovsky and a thematic drum solo by Eduard Zizak.

Piquant voicings in the brass section, sometimes generated by deft deployment of mutes, introduced “Naima.” Mellow trombones stated the iconic melody, setting up Mintzer’s soulful solo, which showed his personal conception of John Coltrane’s language. Levinovsky’s chorus featured an ingenious reharmonization, before Mintzer’s concluding cadenza.

They finished with Levinovsky’s “Homage To Duke,” a tour de force contrafact of Billy Strayhorn’s “The Intimacy Of The Blues” that you could imagine the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra playing circa 1968. Bassist Vitaly Solomonov opened with a bass line in lockstep with Zizak’s brush-stroked shuffle, introducing a section in which three flutes played the theme in unison in counterpoint to the trombones, before the brass section played the melody against a sax section counterline.

After Pavel Ovchinnikov’s swinging trombone solo, a flute solo by Alexander Dovgopoly and a bass solo by Solomonov, a big brass chord launched Mintzer into an extended, surging declamation. Butman riposted, double-timing in the tenor’s lower regions with a “sheets of sound” approach. A tenor battle of eight exchanges of eight-bar and four-bar phrases ensued, setting up a final shout chorus that was more Basie than Duke.

Following Blanchard and Lisa Henry on Sunday night, MJO eschewed the conceptual range of the previous evening for repertoire that Butman considered more palatable for the audience, performed with force and conviction.

After a set-opening “Homage To Duke” (Azat Bayazitov’s Michael Brecker-esque tenor solo set up Butman’s lengthy, hoarse-toned declamation), Butman—observing the death of Clark Terry the day before—called Levinovsky’s lovely arrangement of Benny Golson’s “I Remember Clifford,” here a showcase for trumpeter Alexander Berenson’s beautiful tone and melodic imagination.

To close, MJO played “Butman Plays Goodman,” a Levinovsky-arranged flag-waver comprising a medley of six Swing Era hits by Benny Goodman. Edgar Sampson’s “Stompin’ At The Savoy” was a brief overture, before a transition into Sampson’s “Don’t Be That Way,” illuminated by Butman’s large-toned, Johnny Hodges-esque alto saxophone solo. “Soft Winds” opened with succinct solos by trumpeter Zhulin, alto saxophonist Ilya Morozov, trumpeter Berenson, tenorist Bayazitov, pianist Levinovsky and bassist Solomanov, foreshadowing Butman’s long, torrential solo on soprano sax.

After a fanfare, Butman launched another creamy alto solo on “Moonglow”; on a dime, MJO switched to “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen,” swung inexorably by Zizak, who emulated Gene Krupa style drum rolls on a climactic duo with Butman on soprano.

—Ted Panken