Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Big Band Jazz From St. Petersburg … Russia!

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

From viewing occasional photographs of its beautiful buildings, castles and canals and its many parks and open spaces, over the years, I had a limited awareness of St. Petersburg, the charming Russian city often called “The Venice of the North.”

But I had very little idea of how the city came into existence until I received Robert Massie’s Peter The Great: His Life and His World [New York: Ballantine Books, 1980] as a Christmas gift.

I had been very impressed with Massie’s earlier biography, Nicholas and Alexandria, a book that was meticulously researched, definitive and yet, at the same time, extremely readable.

Massie is often referred to as a “popular or narrative historian,” a group that has come to include such distinguished writers as William Manchester for his books on Churchill and J.F.K, David McCullough for his books on Truman and John Adams, and, most recently, Robert Caro for his monumental four-volume biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson.

All have deservedly won Pulitzer Prizes, National Book Awards and many other major literary honors.

Massie’s book on Peter The Great [1672-1725] is a fascinating story about how Peter yanked Russia into the then “modern” world by in effect leading a cultural revolution that replaced the traditionalist and medieval social and political system with a modern, scientific Europe-oriented and rationalist system of government.

The “Window on the West” through which he viewed this transformation was St. Petersburg which Peter created in 1703 on the marshy swamps where the Neva River drains northward into the Gulf of Finland on the Baltic Sea.

Peter The Great: His Life and World is a riveting recounting of the journey of one of the World’s Great Souls. “Impetuous and stubborn, generous and cruel, tender and unforgiving, a man of enormous energy and complexity…,” Peter The Great almost single-handedly transformed Russia into a modern world power before his death at the age of 53.

Almost ten years to the day later, I was once again put in touch with the splendors of St. Petersburg, this time courtesy of the release of the movie The Russia House on Christmas Day, 1990.

This beautifully photographed film is based on writer Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of John le Carré’s book by the same title.

Directed by Fred Schepisi and starring Sean Connery, Michele Pfeiffer, Klaus Maria Brandauer, Roy Scheider and a host of great character actors, the movie was one of the first to be shot on location in Moscow and St. Petersburg by a US film crew.

Topping it all off is a magnificent film score by Jerry Goldsmith, one of the true masters of movie music, that emphasizes the talents of Branford Marsalis and the gorgeous tone that he gets on the soprano saxophone, pianist Michael Lang and bassist John Patitucci.

The closing credits are screened over seven minutes of scrumptious scenes of Moscow and St. Petersburg with Branford, Mike and John improvising in the background following the orchestra’s statement of Jerry’s main theme for the movie.

I was so overwhelmed by the magnificent photography, particularly of St. Petersburg, Jerry Goldsmith’s score and Branford, Mike and John playing that I put together my own video montage using this music in conjunction with selected images of St. Petersburg.

This may be difficult to believe, but the Alexander Orloff photographs of St. Petersburg that I use in the video were drawn from Dimitri Shvidkovsky’s St. Petersburg: Architecture of the Tsars [New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 1996] which was given to me as a gift on Christmas Day - 2000!

The next interregnum in my involvement with St. Petersburg was to be longer than ten years, but only just, as the city once again entered my life this time in the form of a big band Jazz CD that was recorded there and sent to me by an internet friend who resides there.

His name is Serge Bogdanov and he is one of the driving forces behind and the principal arranger for The Jazz Philharmonic Orchestra, the resident Jazz Big Band in St. Petersburg, Russia!

The CD is entitled The Jazz Philharmonic Orchestra Letter to a Friend [Art Beat Music AB-CD-11-2012-038] and it contains six original compositions, four of them by Gennady Golshtein and three standards, all arranged by Serge. Gennady is Serge’s mentor and some of you may remember a tune that Victor Feldman recorded on his Plays Soviet Jazz Themes entitled Gennadi which Golshtein composed and gave to Victor when he was part of the Benny Goodman Orchestra that toured the USSR in 1962.

Interestingly, the Jazz Philharmonic Orchestra’s Letter to a Friend has a CD release party scheduled for February 27th 2013 at the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Jazz Hall.

Three weeks earlier on February 6, 2013, a concert to celebrate the book Russian Jazz: 90 years of history in two volumes was held in the same venue.

It would seem that Russia has an almost a century-old involvement with Jazz and the Jazz Philharmonic Orchestra’s Letter to a Friend CD is a facet of the continuing evolution Jazz in St. Petersburg and in Russia as a whole.

Printed in 2012 by the Planet Music publishing house based in St. Petersburg, its publication was timed to coincide with the 90th anniversary of Jazz in Russia.

Included in the two-volume collection are materials covering the early stages of Jazz’s development in Russia, a review of formative period of Soviet Jazz in the second half of the XX century and biographical information about current masters of Russian Jazz and young stars of the national Jazz scene.

The book’s chief editors are Alexander Peterson and Kirill and Anna Moshkov Filipeva - founders of www.Dzhaz.Ru [a Russian Jazz portal with news, reviews and festival information]. The work includes essays by leading jazz journalists and critics including Vladimir Feiertag, Alex Batashev, Michael Mitropolsky and many others. 

The concert in honor of the book’s publication included a musical program by Gennady Gholstein and his Orchestra, the "Saxophones of St. Petersburg," trumpet and flugelhorn player David Goloshchekin’s band and vocals by Ella Trafova.

Both Gennady Gholstein and David Goloschkein have played major roles as mentors and patrons to both Serge Bogdanov and the Jazz Philharmonic Orchestra.

Serge’s arrangements reflect a kind of brief history of modern Jazz orchestration. They contain elements that were characteristic of the first three Woody Herman Herds when Ralph Burns, Neal Hefti and Al Cohn were doing the writing for those bands. The lightness and clarity of Neal Hefti’s later writing for the Count Basie New Testament Band [1959-1960] is also apparent in Serge’s work as is the linear writing of the charts that Gerry Mulligan did for the Stan Kenton Orchestra, as well as, Mulligan and Bob Brookmeyer’s scores for the Gerry Mulligan Concert Jazz Band of the 1960s

But as Serge himself notes, the most dominant influence on his writing is that of Thad Jones’ conception which had its most complete expression in the orchestra that Thad co-led for many years with drummer Mel Lewis and has right through to the sound of the current Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. I also hear strains of the late Gil Evans in Serge’s voicings. Perhaps these come through Thad who had great respect for Gil’s unique ability to use instruments in unusual combinations.

While myriad influences are discernible in his style, Serge’s orchestrations have their own stamp, their own distinctiveness that make them different than anything you’ve hear before.

For one so young, Serge has developed great skill as an orchestrator. His charts have a particular emphasis on the middle register and a relaxed and easy swing.

He often carries the lead voicing with the soprano sax wrapped in the warm sound of mellow brass played in unison; no screeching in the upper register or bass pedal tones thrown in for effect, the music just flows.

Serge’s writing is based on an uncomplicated swing, but yet, it is full of pep and definition.

The Jazz Philharmonic Orchestra is very adept at playing these arrangements. The sections play well individually but they also easily blend together as a full band. While the band sounds well rehearsed, it doesn’t sound mechanical.

What is so startling about Serge’s arrangements and the playing of the Jazz Philharmonic Orchestra is how professional and mature they both sound.

One wonders how these traits can be so fully developed in a Jazz big band that, judging from its photographs, is made-up of relatively young musicians.

All must have superb teachers, have spent many hours listening to records and even more hours practicing on their individual instruments and rehearsing together as a band.

If something as abstract as music can said to have “qualities,” then two are on exhibition with Serge Bogdanov and the Jazz Philharmonic Orchestra: a vision and a dedication to achieving this goal.

Notating Jazz is a very difficult thing to do because there are aspects of the music that are imprecise. You can’t learn them from a textbook; you have to immerse yourself in learning from listening and from sharing with one another. It takes a lot of time, dedication and effort to master these skills.

The high quality of big band Jazz that Serge and the JPO put on display in Letter to a Friend reflects an enormous passion for Jazz, because without it and a lot of determination, I doubt this recording would ever have happened.

In his insert notes to the CD, the Russian musicologist Victor Feiertag takes some of these points further. Here’s what he has to say about the Jazz Philharmonic Orchestra and the music on Letter to a Friend.

© - Vladimir Feiertag/Art Beat Music, copyright protected; all rights reserved [paragraphing modified and some editing].

“At last, a big band , capable of offering both a vivid mastery and stylish arrange­ments, along with real swing, has appeared in St. Petersburg. And all this is being done by young musicians aged 25 to 30! They never heard live either Duke Elling­ton (whose composition "Love You Madly" is however worthily played on this album), or Count Basie, and didn't catch the orchestras of Joseph Weinstein, Vadim Lyudvikovskiy or the first groups of Oleg Lundstrem. But their influence is obvious.

All the saxophonists of the orchestra were raised and taught to play their instruments by Gennady Golshtein, who at one time defined the style of most Russian orchestras and since the mid-70's helped to found jazz education in St. Petersburg. It was he who assembled and led the unique orchestra "Saxophones of Saint-Petersburg" in the last decade of the past century, having continued the marvelous history of big bands in "Northern Palmyra". It was he who instilled a taste for the art of arrangement in Serge Bogdanov, one of the leaders of the current band.

In fact, the big band has two leaders - the lead saxophonist Kirill Bubyakin (alto, soprano saxophones and flute) and the arranger Serge Bogdanov (baritone saxophone). Both consider Thad Jones an idol, and David Goloschokin - who provided the prestigious stage of the St. Petersburg Jazz Philharmonic Hall to the newly formed band for their rehearsals and performances  - as a patron.

The debut album includes primarily compositions of residents of St. Petersburg: - four dedications to Gennady Golshtein - partly new, partly ones written 30 years ago ("The Time Has Come", Melodiya, 1988). The author dedicated these melodies to his friends: "A Theme For Tima" is dedicated to Teimuraz Kukholev, the first St. Petersburg bop pianist; "A Letter to a Friend" is for George Friedman, a saxophonist and a pioneer ideologist of "jazz ferment" in the Northern Capital; "Sleeping Ships" is a tribute to the memory of his irreplaceable partner, trumpeter Konstantin Nosov; and "In the Westside" is a dedication to Vitaly Dolgov, the best arranger of the last century.

Also included are orchestral versions of hard bop tunes of other natives of St. Petersburg - current Muscovite Alexander Berenson and Ruslan Khain (New York, USA). Also worth noting is an unusual version of the famous "Evening Song" by Vasily Solovjev-Sedov, his original declaration of love for his native city. And this is not a political statement, not a demonstration of patriotism, but a need of a new generation of musicians to interpret the rich musical cultural heritage of Russia and of our city [St. Petersburg].

Serge Bogdanov recognizes that "there were many wonderful melodies among the most popular songs of the Soviet period, especially in the '40's and '50's. They are still an integral part of our life. "Evening Song" by Vasily Solovjey-Sedoy holds a special place. It is simply impossible not to be connected to this tune if one was born and lives in Leningrad-St.Petersburg. Being an unofficial anthem of our city, it can be heard not only on radio and television but on public transporta­tion, as a musical call sign, and recently the anthem of a famous football club [Football Club Zenit St. Petersburg Футбольный клуб «Зенит].

The Jazz Philharmonic Orchestra is completely a modern band. In the orchestra there is no separation between frontmen and sidemen. Everyone can improvise. The debut album of the orchestra also includes some, more experienced musicians as invited guests such as David Goloschokin and Igor Butman (also a resident of St. Petersburg)  as featured soloists to help fill out the overall sound picture. The orchestra has existed for three years and in a small, close-knit jazz world has already achieved fame, thanks to St. Peters­burg concerts and thematic programs (featuring the music ofCount Basie, Thad Jones, and Gennady Golshtein) as well as trips to festivals and work with foreign musicians.

Of course, the path to the hearts of the audience is long and complicated, but this album may find its way to that audience of big band Jazz fans because of its absolutely incredible colors, unexpected dynamics and surging rhythms along with its "modern mainstream" style.

I hope that music fans will pay attention to the debut album of this revived northern capital big band, and exclaim together with the author of the last compo­sition, Frank Wess: "You Made a Good Move!"

The following video features images of the Jazz Philharmonic Orchestra of St. Petersburg, Russia in action. The tune is In the Westside by Gennady Golshtein. Serge Bogdanov, of course, did the arrangement and the solos are by Andrey Zimovets on piano, Kirill Bubyakin on alto saxophone and David Goloschekin on flugelhorn.

The Jazz Philharmonic Orchestra Letter to a Friend [Art Beat Music AB-CD-11-2012-038] will eventually be available via iTunes and perhaps other downloads.

In the meantime, should you wish to purchase a copy, you can contact Serge Bogdanov directly for the details at jazzphilorch@gmail.com or www.jporchestra.com.