“Before, it was possible to just bring out a Russian Bear who raised up a paw, and everyone applauded and said ‘Ooh, super.’ Today that Bear has to do something.”
The analogy, spoken by Russian jazz pianist Sergei Zhilin, 34, is telling. For Zhilin, at 6Õ 5", is a stocky bear of a man. And, as one of RussiaÕs most promising young musicians, he is clearly doing something impressive.
Zhilin has been playing the piano since the age of three, when his grandmother, a music teacher, recognized in him uncommon talent. By six he was studying at the Central Music School under the Moscow Conservatory, and at 14 he entered the College of Musical Improvisation, schooled on the forte piano. When he was just 16 he began teaching at the the same college and at the Moscow Jazz Studio; at 17 he founded the Phonograph Jazz Band.
Phonograph first performed mainly in jazz festivals. ÒThe members worked in different places," Zhilin said, Òplaying in different orchestras and gathering for these festivals. By 1987, after I had served in the army and after I had seen who I could work with, we formed the band on a professional basis and it started working professionally, under the umbrella of the Moscow Regional Philharmonia."
The Philharmonia was something akin to a musicians union, organizing concerts. Under its aegis, Zhilin and his jazz band traveled throughout Russia. But they soon felt constrained by this bureaucratic machine. “We started working with the philharmonia less and less and pretty soon realized we had to strike out on our own.”
Why did they not strike out sooner? ÒWell, I was always taught that I should focus on my art and not be distracted by outside things," Zhilin said. ÒBut reality showed things to be very different, that I could not simply focus on my music, but also needed to focus on things like management ... One thing led to another, and in 1994, we established the Phonograph Cultural Center."
ZhilinÕs timing could not have been more perfect. That same year, US President Bill Clinton visited Russia and Zhilin was called on to perform for (and with) the jazz-playing president. A 20 concert tour to the US followed the next year, including a performance in Kennedy Center within the Presidential Orchestra of the Russian Federation.
In the last decade, Zhirin has been a whirlwind of activity with galas, concerts, jazz festivals, a radio program and several live CDs (a studio CD is in production).
ÒThe time has passed when jazz and rock and roll were interesting to everyone just because they were forbidden, when different performers and musicians looked ÔsuperÕ just because they were forbidden," Zhilin said. ÒAs soon as everything was permitted, performers had to start proving themselves. Now there is increasingly serious competition among musicians, just like in the US."
ZhilinÕs competitive edge is his virtuosic skill as a musician, combined with an on-stage personality that is second to none. He captivates audiences with arrangements that alternate from sublime, laconic fingerings to ground-quaking solos infused with an infectious raw energy. Indeed, many have compared Zhilin to the great jazz pianist, Oscar Peterson.
ÒSergei Zhilin is one of those rare jazzmen, who can by all rights be called an artist," wrote noted jazz critic Vladimir Feyertag. ÒHe does not simply play the forte piano, he communicates with the instrument as if he is talking to it. He provokes it to be as powerful as an orchestra, or as sentimental as tears. A Zhilin concert is a real jazz show that leaves no one unmoved."
Zhilin admits that the notion of ÒRussian jazz" is a bit odd. ÒYes," he chuckles, Òit could sound a bit odd, as if a group of African-Americans came to Moscow as a balalaika orchestra."
ÒI would not attempt to offer some kind of definition of Russian jazz," he said when Russian Life caught up with him at the Burlington Jazz Festival, in Vermont this summer. ÒI am not a music critic, I am a performer ... but someone can make a contribution to a tradition only after studying it and mastering it over time. I think there certainly are Russian sounds and harmonic traditions that could be said to influence Russian contributions to jazz."
The important thing to remember, Zhilin continued, is that ÒJazz is an international music. Why last night I came here and played with James Carter and other jazz musicians. I speak English very badly, and would not have been able to carry on a conversation with them for 20-30 minutes. But we played together for a long time and had that sort of ‘conversation.’"
One can only hope to hear many more such Òconversations" in future.
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