Mike Zwerin: "Siberia - Out Of The Very Cool"

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Vodka and Friendly Bars In Gold Valley

 location report by mike zwerin

(Originally published on The Wire #54, August 1988)

WHEN PAT Metheny toured the Soviet Union last year, he went where he liked, spoke to whomever he wanted and said he was "almost disappointed by the absence of the 'intrigue factor'".

I felt like a walking intrigue factor arriving at Moscow international airport with a journalist's visa and carrying a trombone case the size of a small coffin. With no group and speaking no Russian, I was as ignored as anybody arriving in any foreign country with nobody to meet them. It was disappointing. An intriguer would have come in handy dealing with the hard horde of taxi drivers trying to grub $40 for the 45-minute drive to Vnokovo airport, from where I flew over four time zones to Novosibirsk for a "Symposium of New Jazz Music".

Arriving at 8 a.m. local time, I was greeted by Sergei Belichenko -gynaecologist, drummer, promoter and genial host - with a kiss on the mouth and a slug of vodka. Otherwise known as the Siberian Norman Granz, Belichenko thinks big. "I dream someday of forming a Siberian Jazz Association," he once told Jazz Forum magazine, "and then maybe an Asian Association."

He was responsible for bringing 200 musicians, critics and miscellaneous experts from as far away as Paris and East Berlin to this think-tank for a five-day festival - a caper one Armenian reedman described, in English, as "mind-blowing".

Akademgorodok (Academy Town) is a self-contained complex of medium-rise buildings in a birch forest in the exurbs of Novosibirsk, the "capital of Siberia". The population of about 100,000 consists of a research community, their dependants and those who provide services for them. It was founded 30 years ago by scientists with pioneering spirits who first saw this dip in the plain in the autumn when the trees are a riot of colour and named it "Gold Valley". Since some of the first calls for a restructuring of the Soviet economy came from Gold Valley economists - at least two of whom are now senior advisers to Gorbachev - it is also known as the "birthplace of perestroika".

Although there are now something like 30 full-time jazz musicians in the USSR, something of a stigma is still attached and Belichenko had covered his tracks with a serious letterhead. This was a "symposium" not a festival, and the organising committee was "The Centre of Studies on Folklore Activity and Cultural Public Education".

Daytime seminars dealt with such topics as "The Aesthetics of New Jazz". Except for myself and the East German trombonist Conrad Bauer, all the participants were Soviets - maybe half from Omsk and Tomsk and other Siberian cities. It was staged in Science House, a modern and well-maintained office building, clubhouse and cultural centre in the middle of the town, with a 1,000-seat state-of-the-art auditorium and a tropical forest growing inside a two-storey atrium.

Working within the parameters of perestroika, Belichenko cajoled local Komsomol committees into sponsoring their own bands and he picked up a "private" sponsor, Vega, a State manufacturer of sound reproduction equipment, which displayed its wares in the lobby.

A colourful painting of a friendly bear playing a bass fiddle on a billboard-size banner hung over the stage, along with the slogan (also in English): "Peace, Love and Jazz Supreme".

Intentions were often better than execution, but quality was not really the point. These people do not get together very often. Just being here was the point.

Mikhail Alperin, a Jewish pianist from Moldavia, played a solo set utilising his ethnic toots mixed with elements of ragtime, Bartók and snatches of "Caravan" and Bud Powell's "Parisian Thoroughfare".

As the group Archangelsk from the northern city of the same name improvised with uncompromising abstraction, they unfurled a banner of their own - the word "glasnost" without vowels. Since "vowel" is another definition of "glasnost", vowel without vowels implies openness without freedom. Their keyboardist Vladimir Turov explained: "Theoretically we have always had freedom of speech, even under Stalin. We were reminding other people that you have to work for freedom. Jazz is a cry for freedom and we wanted to express something of our history through our performance."

Orchestrion, a trio from Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad) played in front of a slide projection of a smiling man showing off a portrait of Stalin tattooed on his chest. They played with something close to desperation. I was told that Volgograd is a "reactionary" city, "militaristic" and "patriotic", still clinging to the glory of their victory in World War II, and that Orchestrion was not exactly a home-town favourite.

WHAT THEY call New Jazz in the Soviet Union descends from American Free Jazz. Explosive music with minimum rules, in which emotion and symbolism take precedence over technique and tradition. Like Free Jazz with black power in the 60’s, New Jazz cannot be separated from politics. Its audience is small but enthusiastic and intellectual. In addition to socio-cultural relevance, it is more closely linked to other art forms than in the West. It can be compared to bebop and the abstract expressionist painters in New York in the 50s.

Vladimir Tarasov, the best known (and probably best) percussionist in the country, is also known for his collection of contemporary Soviet painting. It was recently on display at a gallery in Vilnius, Lithuania. He writes art (as well as jazz) criticism. He works more in New York than Siberia. He recently toured the Soviet Union in duo with Cecil Taylor's one-time percussionist Andrew Cyrille. He lives in a large wooden house on two hectares of forest land 70 kilometers from Vilnius.

Tarasov's solo performance in Akademgorodok began with a pre-recorded tape playing militant Socialist songs from the 30s. Then he switched on a rhythm box programmed to parody military marches. Joining in on his drum kit, he moves from melodic to rhythmic accents and back again, weaving between strains of the revolutionary song with an irony that provoked laughter from the enthralled audience. It was the percussive equivalent of “glasnost" without vowels.

On opening night, he had played in duo with saxophonist Vladimir Chekasin, who also lives in Vilnius. (I arrived the next day and missed them.) In a recent poll conducted by a youth magazine, Chekasin was voted the most popular jazz musician in the Soviet Union. Tarasov and Cheksin became known through their work with the Vyacheslav Ganelin trio.

Before keyboardist/composer Ganelin emigrated to year, the trio enjoyed the strongest international reputation of any Soviet jazz group. Ganelin described their style as “closer to contemporary chamber music than free jazz”. The West German critic Joachim-Ernst Berendt called it “the wildest and yet best organised and most professional free jazz I’ve heard in years”.

Chekasin's album Is This Possible (Melodya) with the Lithuanian Conservatory Jazz Orchestra is one of the most ambitious, ecletic (shades of Sun Ra) and original jazz recordings of the decade. He played a leading role in a ballet he helped conceive and direct which closed the festival. The Guardian has called him the “Jacques Tati of the saxophone”. A compact, volatile, enigmatic figure with brooding eyes, he moves his face and body like a mime, jerks like a robot on wires, poses as a dixieland clarinettist, races through changes like Cannonball Adderley, imitates a breathy Coleman Hawkins and plays two saxophones at the same time like Rahsaan Roland Kirk.

THE GENERAL atmosphere from beginning to end was charged due to the political, cultural and economic changes taking place in context of glasnost and perestroika. Many times over, I heard variations on the theme "too good to be true". One cynic reacted to the serialisation of 1984 in the weekly Novy Mir by saying “Now we can read about all the shit we’re in, but we’re still in it”.

Since the Gorbachev campaign to deal with alcoholism, you no longer buy booze here, you score it. Perfectly normal-looking people walk bottles of bathtub vodka in their briefcases. One joke about it goes: "What’s the difference between the Soviet Union before and after Gorbachev?”

“Before, if you were standing on the street with a bottle of vodka and a Western newspaper and a policeman appeared, you’d hide the newspaper and drink. Now you hide the bottle and read.”

On Sunday, walking from the hotel to the auditorium, a companion and I joined the crowd of people reading tracts signed "Memory" posted outside the cinema. An organisation of xenophobic Russians who object to the “Sovietation” of their Republic, Memory has come out of the closet on the coat-tails of glasnost. They complain that the Moscow subway is designed in the shape of the Star of David, and that Jews and Moslems are “polluting” the Russian race. “So you see,” said my companion, “we have our own Le Pen.”

Musically, the most reactionary event at the festival was my own set. I was in dire need of a blues after four days without barlines. Belichenko had chosen the excellent saxophonist (Chekasin’s student) Vitas Labutis to play with me. Charlie Parker’s “Buzzy” was the only blues he knew so we decided on that. Judging from this particular rhythm section, which shall remain nameless, the blues are anything but alive and well in Siberia. Taking the tune out – or rather being taken out by it – I remembered a mad Russian of my acquaintance saying that jazz was invented in Odessa by Jelly Roll Menshikov.