Thursday, August 30, 2012

Tour Diary: Sushi in Moscow

When I was in high school in the 1980's, during my junior year, I remember that a new class was offered: Russian. I remember there were signs posted on the walls touting the new elective course: "Peace Through Understanding: Learn Russian!" This was towards the end of the Cold War; although as Americans living under the duress of the Ronald Reagan Regime, we tended to think of the Soviet Union as the Great Big Red Enemy of Freedom. And although there was one Russian family who lived on my block in Columbia, MD (I think they defected or something), my concept of "The Russians" only went about as deep as Sting's tune off of his hit 80's classic "Dream Of The Blue Turtles."
The fact that I've been lucky enough to get to see the world for free as a jazz musician is something of which  I am constantly reminding myself. I've now been to Russia a total of six times, and it's always been a learning experience. I've been to Western Europe countless times, and Eastern Europe a fair bit. Mother Russia is, as some of my Russian friends say, "special." This country has a rich, complicated history; it's still suffering from the economic turmoil of the end of Communism. However, it's also becoming very Western in some ways. That might be good or bad. (At least in Moscow, a lot of the trappings of our modern technological commercial society are slowly becoming ubiquitous. However, take a trip 4 hours outside of Moscow on a train, and you can forget about WiFi, Starbucks, hot water, and heated rooms.)Still, with great suffering comes great soulfulness, and that's what I always take away from Russia; a sense that the Russians I meet, despite their stoic exteriors, have a deep sense of joy and emotion. (Think about the great Russian classical music: Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Stravinsky....their music is some of the most passionate music ever conceived, in my opinion...)

Eugene Ryaboy
Although two of my trips to Russia were with American bands ( Lenny White, Mingus Dynasty), my subsequent trips have been with Russians. I met drummer Eugene Ryaboy on my second trip to Russia( a quartet led by Alex Sipiagin); Ryaboy was able to hook me up some gigs in Moscow and a little bit of touring in Russia a few years ago. We even went to Belarus on one of the trips.(Belarus is a former Soviet territory, not that far from Poland.) Ryaboy is a wonderful jazz drummer; he actually makes his living as a studio musician, and has the chops to play any style. He's also one of the nicest people you'll ever meet. He's extremely hospitable, and he's a great conversationalist, always having a tale or a joke at the ready. He was one first musicians during Soviet times to attend Berklee. (He said he was one of the first in Moscow to use the jazz slang word "gig.")

Karina Kozhevnikova
Last week, I made my first trip to Russia since 2008. Ryaboy booked me a repeat performance at the Hermitage Jazz Festival, which is held in a really beautiful park in the middle of Moscow. He also booked me a gig at a place called the Durov Art Cafe. This was to be a double bill with an incredible Russian singer named Karina Kozhevnikova. The last time I was in Moscow, I recorded an album with Kozhevnikova, but apparently, it has not been released yet. It's too bad, because Kozhevnikova is really talented and I hope more people will get a chance to hear her. She is greatly influenced by Ella Fitzgerald; her vocal vibrato bears a striking resemblance to Fitzgerald's. Kozhevnikova is also a really great improviser and arranger.I was looking forward to working with her again.

Russian visa, which is mostly written in Russian
I must mention that Russia is one of the handful of countries I visit where a visa is required.(Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Belarus are some others.) You have to send your passport to New York, and they have to process it in advance. I assumed I had filled out all of the forms correctly and I sent my passport Fed EX to the processing company. I got it back and the visa was stamped into my passport. I figured everything was OK until I arrived at the Moscow airport. On my way through immigration, the officer told me to wait. I waited, not knowing why. Finally, I tried to figure out the problem. Apparently, someone had put me down as "Female". The officer was pointing to the mistake, which was written in Russian Cyrillic; I speak very little Russian, and I read Cyrillic not at all. I was told that a Delta representative would have to bring my passport to another terminal, and that they would correct the mistake. I was pretty cranky after traveling for 15 hours or so; however, throwing a tantrum in an international airport surrounded by immigration officers is not what I would call a wise decision.

So I sat down on a nearby bench and watched a movie on  my ipad and ate almonds for a while. I had to call Ryaboy, who had said he would pick me up at the airport, to tell him the situation. (I'm guessing that a 2 minute phone call in Russia with AT&T roaming was probably 30 dollars!) It was weird not having a passport and sitting in this holding area; I felt like the guy from that movie "The Terminal." Finally, they came back with my passport and everything was fine. This is one of the potential pitfalls of being a jazz musician; we have to travel internationally to work, and things like visas and work permits have to be dealt with correctly. otherwise, you might find yourself in hot water.(I've heard horror stories of folks being sent back to the U.S. at their own expense, being questioned by local Police for 6 hours, and I've heard of folks being banned from entering various countries for a year or more-some have even been banned FOR LIFE! The moral of the story is to take the visa or work permit stuff seriously, and obey local laws and customs!)

Andrei Dudchenko
After a long drive in Moscow traffic, Ryaboy dropped me off at the Golden Apple Hotel. I caught an hour or 2 of zzzs and then got picked up to go to the Durov Art Cafe. It was a bit of a jet lagged haze, but we had an excellent performance and an welcoming audience. The bass player(who also played with us on the Hermitage concert) was Andrei Dudchenko, who is Karina Kozhevnikova's husband. He's a solid bassist; he's got a nice swing feel and surprised me with some slick improvised solos. It was a good warm up for the Hermitage "gig."

The bulk of the musicians performing on the Hermitage Festival are local Russians; however, there were a few outsiders besides myself; Hendrik Muerkens was performing, as well as a band from Austria which featured pianist Renato Chicco playing Hammond B3 Organ. There was also a band called Opus 5, which was almost like the Mingus Dynasty without any Mingus tunes; this group featured saxophonist Seamus Blake, trumpeter Alex Sipiagin, pianist Dave Kikoski, bassist Boris Kozlov, and drummer Donald Edwards. It's a nice mix of local and international talent. I think they've been having this festival for about 10 years.

Our performance went well, although we had some sound issues in the beginning. Here's a clip:
I'm hoping that they will post some more clips soon.

Eugene, Natasha, and Shura
After the performance, I had a delicious Japanese meal with Ryaboy and his wife Natasha and his daughter Shura. They told me that Japanese cuisine is a very recent development in Russia; it's only been within the last 10 years that you could find sushi, and then only in Moscow(again, venture outside of Moscow and it's a very different world-in someways, much of Russia hasn't changed in over 100 years.). I remembered that there was a time when we didn't have sushi restaurants on every corner like we seem to now in America; in the 80's sushi was only a special occasion. Now it seems like every grocery store has sushi.

Oleg and Natalia Butman, eating Japanese food
I had a day off in Moscow. I thought I would sleep after our dinner, but the 11 hour jet lag was working it's evil spell on my sleep pattern. I tossed and turned, did some reading, and then went down to breakfast. The gym in the hotel was a very lonely room with a treadmill, a elliptical, a stationary bike, and two dumbells that didn't match. I ran hard on the treadmill( I did three runs during my stay here; I wouldn't dare run through the streets of Moscow. I'd probably still be there now, trying to find my way back to the hotel...) and then went upstairs to pack. My plan was to check out of the hotel, but leave my luggage until the wee hours of the next morning; my flight was at 5:30 am , which meant I would not be sleeping in the hotel-I would be leaving for the airport at 2:30 am. So I had a few lessons scheduled, then dinner-more Japanese food- with drummer Oleg Butman (and his wife Natalia and a guitarist named Alim Nastaev), and then I would go hear Opus 5 in the park.....then go to the jam session.

Kikoski, Blake, Sipiagin, Edwards
Most jazz festivals have jam sessions after the main gigs. It's usually a pretty cool hang; sometimes it's a cool way for the international musicians to meet and play with the local cats. When I was in Moscow in 2008, the jam was pretty raucous. I'd say it was a bit more low key this time, but I did get to play a few tunes on piano. On one of the tunes, I happened to look up to see Dave Kikoski over my left shoulder. Kikoski's one of the baddest jazz pianists on the planet, so I must admit, I was a little nervous in front of him. Later, I got to play a tune on drums while Kikoski played piano, which was a thrill.

The jam session was led by a pianist named Yakov Okun; he's one of the best pianists in Russia. He's got a great feel for jazz, and he's not a bad drummer, which is probably why his time feel is so good. Here's a youtube video of Okun:
It's a long way to go for such a short stint, but it was satisfying to get a chance to play and see old friends. I hope to go back next year. Hopefully they will not make any mistakes on my visa next time.


  1. Hi George, it's me again! I'm not sure if you have heard Niels Lan Doky's album 'The Russian Album', which is the Russian classical greats arranged in a jazzy way. It's worth listening too. Hope to see you sometime if you ever get to do a gig in London one of these days! Take it easy


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