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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

It Ain't Easy Being the Best: Igor Butman crossed the Atlantic to learn

from the masters. He's now t


He says it all became clear after he had been tossed out of a Leningrad music college, after he had been hawking American jazz LPs on the black market, after he had set aside his clarinet for a larger, shinier instrument:


"You just take your horn and blow as hard as you can, and all the chicks are yours, and the people love it!"


Then Igor Butman laughs like a car being started in winter.


By most accounts the best jazzman in Russia, Butman massages the kinds of sounds from his silver tenor saxophone that sidle up to the listener and tap dance in shivers across the skin.


Wednesday night marks the second of what is slated to be a regular weekly appearance by Butman's quartet at M-Bar, a cozy restaurant notched into the red brick walls of the downtown Petrovsky Monastery featuring free jazz every night.


"I have a big advantage here because I played in the States," says Butman, 36, who left Leningrad in 1987 to study at the Berklee School of Music in Boston before moving to New York.


He has since performed with American jazz stalwarts Dave Brubeck, Gary Burton, Chick Corea, Lionel Hampton and Pat Metheny. He was a featured soloist on Grover Washington Jr.'s 1997 release, "Then and Now," which even included a composition he had written.


His first solo project, "Falling Out," featured no less than Eddie Gomez on bass, Lyle Mays on piano and Marvin "Smitty" Smith on drums.


And last October he was brought on stage at the Rossia Concert Hall as a soloist on a Johnny Hodges tune played during the encore by New York's Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, led by the biggest living name in jazz today, trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis.


"Everything I was thinking of, and hoping to find in the United States, I did," Butman says. "It was clearly the right direction."


He returned to Russia in 1997 in order to be with his wife of three years, Oksana, and their 2-year-old son.


In Russia, Butman represents what musicians characterize as the second among three generations of jazz musicians. The first generation is comprised of the living legends who were sanctioned to play Soviet interpretations of jazz. The second came of age during perestroika, straddling the eras of oppression and freedom. The third generation - which never had to learn riffs from bootlegged reel-to-reels, fight through scrambled radio signals or accept smuggled reeds from Westerners - is still evolving.


"Before me, there was no example of a young jazz musician," says Butman, who was 22 when he joined the legendary big band led by Oleg Lindstrom. "I was just the only one who was playing at my age. I was the spark for young musicians playing jazz, those who were serious."


Butman's own spark was the nightly radio broadcasts of jazz from 11:15 p.m. to midnight on Voice of America. There was also his father, Mikhail, an amateur drummer who performed at weddings for 15 rubles, a bottle of vodka, dinner and a glass of cognac.


Butman picked up the clarinet at age 12. His fingertips - which one teacher once characterized as "pillows" - enabled him to easily cover the holes on the instrument.


"My father wanted me to play the clarinet of Goodman!" says Butman, referring to American big-band leader Benny Goodman.


He was classically trained through his first year at the Rimsky-Korsakov Music College, where a friend of his father's had given him LPs to sell in the corridors. Among the records were keyboardist Herbie Hancock, guitarist Wes Montgomery, trumpeter Louis Armstrong and saxophonist Sonny Rollins. Before relinquishing them, Butman would first record them on reel-to-reel tapes to later transcribe the pieces note for note for practice.


"I just loved the flavor of this hip stuff," says Butman, who in his second year dropped classical clarinet for jazz saxophone.


He cut his teeth with the six-piece ensemble Allegro and with the house band of a dank basement club in the Moskva Hotel. "It was a good place to work because we had contact with foreigners," he says, "and it wasn't prohibited."


In 1985 he met a young American woman from Boston, where he would eventually study at the renowned Berklee. "I think I proposed to her the next day. I liked her very much, but I also wanted to get out," he says.


"I had been really saving to go to the United States since the age of 14."


He made the transition back from New York last year, when Russia's jazz scene was growing, spurred by the emergence of a so-called middle class with disposable income to spend on night life.


But audiences have thinned out in the wake of the banking crisis and the devaluation of the ruble. And club owners and musicians fear that the evolution of jazz in Russia will run parallel to the economy. Jazz is, after all, an import with shallow roots in Russia.


Moreover, practitioners of the music are sometimes its worst enemy. "There's one thing about the Russian jazz scene, and that's that [musicians] are all negative. If I say, 'You sound good,' they say, 'Come on, stop this American bullshit,'" Butman says. "In every jazz musician we have a jazz critic. They judge everybody but by one standard. They don't have fun. One half of them is playing, and the other half is listening."


Since blues is the soul of jazz, one might think that Russians have an edge: After all, Russians know the blues.


But the other key part of jazz that musicians refer to is swing, that intangible element that can bring the music home for the audience. Butman says swing is often somehow lacking here.


"That's the problem with all Russian jazz, maybe," Butman says. "There isn't enough experience of musicians playing live in clubs and seeing how soulful it can be."


The quartet he leads at M-Bar does not suffer in this regard. Mikhail and Andrei Ivanov, two brothers from Kursk who play piano and bass, respectively, have lived and worked in Europe and won the 1989 International Jazz Competition in Belgium. A sometimes improvisational Eduard Zizak features on drums.


What this all means is that Wednesday is the only night of the week when jazz is guaranteed to swing in Moscow.


"I hope [the scene] is going to get better, otherwise I will be No. 1 here forever," he says. "It's nice, but I don't really want to get stuck here."


M-Bar is located at 28 Petrovka. Tel. 200-2766. Nearest metro: Pushkinskaya. Concerts go from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. Free admission.