Before & After: Igor Butman

Listening With Russia’s Jazz Ambassador


Tenor saxophonist, bandleader and entrepreneur Igor Butman occupies a unique place in Russian jazz circles for his considerable musical skills, media visibility and savvy political connections. The St. Petersburg-born Berklee graduate is not only recognized as the most famous Russian jazz musician in the world today, he also runs a successful record label, operates two jazz clubs and provides artistic direction for a jazz festival.


Butman is in a particularly productive period right now. Last October he celebrated his 50th birthday in Moscow with a gala concert featuring his Orchestra with special guests Wynton Marsalis, Natalie Cole, Billy Cobham and Christian McBride. In February, he presented the 12th annual Triumph of Jazz Festival in Moscow, and his label, Butman Music, has several new releases—the most notable being Sheherazade’s Tales, a crossover concert recording featuring the Butman Orchestra plus special guests including Peter Bernstein on guitar and Sean Jones on trumpet. With the exception of “Caravan” the repertoire is all Russian, highlighted by a contemporary, backbeat-driven “Dark Eyes” with dazzling solos from the sax section, and the ambitious recasting of Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1888 masterpiece, “Scheherazade.” All of the music is brilliantly arranged by Butman’s former employer, Nick Levinovsky.

I hadn’t seen Butman in nearly three years when I returned to Russia in the summer of 2011. My first stop was Moscow, where I dropped my bags at the hotel and headed straight to the Igor Butman Jazz Club at Chistye Prudy for this listening session.

1. Louis Armstrong & Lyudmila Gurchenko
“Five Minutes Song” (from The Liberty of Jazz, SoLyd). Armstrong, trumpet; Gurchenko, vocal; Eddie Rosner Orchestra. Recorded c. 1950s.

BEFORE: Actually, this lady just died about a month ago [on March 30, 2011]. She’s a famous Russian actress and her life was not always up. She became a star really quick at age [21] after making this movie, a comedy called Carnival Night. She was very beautiful and very musical—too bad she didn’t sing jazz. But she loved it, and she worked with a very good jazz pianist named Mikhail Okun. So this is Louis on a radio broadcast trying to play along with Lyudmila Gurchenko and the soundtrack to the film?

Have you heard this before?

No, it’s the first time. It’s an easy song to play; the changes are pretty simple and the melody is in half steps back and forth. It was an old song but not that many people sing it. It’s about New Year’s Eve.

Does everyone here [in Russia] know that film?

Everybody. That’s why it was totally unexpected for me. This was a great way to get started, to surprise me with this. It’s amazing to hear Louis speak Russian at the beginning.

2. Joe Henderson Sextet
“Mamacita” (from The Kicker, Milestone). Henderson, tenor saxophone; Mike Lawrence, trumpet; Grachan Moncur III, trombone; Kenny Barron, piano; Ron Carter, bass; Louis Hayes, drums. Recorded in 1967.

BEFORE: I know this record very well. It’s Joe Henderson. He’s one of my heroes. I was lucky to have my teacher Gennady Goldstein give me my first LPs: Charlie Parker, The Cannonball Adderley Quintet in San Francisco, and then he gave me Coltrane Plays the Blues and Sonny Rollins’ trio. That was mostly what I was listening to in the beginning. But then I started listening to other guys, and some tenor players started telling me about Joe Henderson. Then I heard him on a record with Miroslav Vitous, Jack DeJohnette and Herbie Hancock. Sometimes it seems easier to play like Joe Henderson than Sonny Rollins. But then you realize his sense of harmony is different, and his rhythmic sense. I like his originality. I like his melodies. When I was 16 or 18, I liked his melodies that I found in The Real Book, which was big in Soviet days. I really liked his song “A Shade of Jade,” and I played it with my group. We didn’t really understand what we were playing, but the melody itself was so interesting. And I liked his version of “Nardis.” Whatever my teacher was telling me about music, I was finding it in Joe Henderson. I heard him in Boston. I went to his concerts at the Regattabar and at [the] Blue Note. I didn’t get a chance to meet him, though.

If he were here with us right now, what would you want to talk with him about?

It would be interesting to know [why he plays those changes]. Where did he get those fingerings for those overtones? He uses the whole range of the saxophone, and I like that he uses fourths in his compositions and in his solos. I like his album The Kicker and Inner Urge and his album with “Blue Bossa” [1963’s Page One on Blue Note]. And I like his records with McCoy Tyner and Horace Silver, and his later records when he was discovered and made a star: the Billy Strayhorn songbook and the Miles tribute and his big-band record. And I like the record he made with Valery Ponomarev [1991’s Profile on Reservoir] and the trios with Ron Carter and Al Foster. I have a lot of Joe’s records.

3. Alex Sipiagin
“Wind Dance” (from Out of the Circle, Sunnyside). Sipiagin, trumpet, flugelhorn; Adam Rogers, guitar; Donny McCaslin, flute, saxophone; Gil Goldstein, accordion; Robin Eubanks, trombone; Henry Hey, keyboards; Scott Colley, bass guitar; Antonio Sanchez, drums; Daniel Sadownick, percussion. Recorded in 2007.

BEFORE: I love the blowing, the playing. The melody has some interesting lines. I like the trumpet player and it sounds a little bit like Alex Sipiagin. That one phrase he plays [Butman sings it] gives it away. He sounds beautiful on flugelhorn: total control of the instrument, total knowledge of music. And this is his style of writing melodies. But I wish he could play with the band more [and] really go deeper into that melody. It’s a pretty complex rhythm; I’m not sure what it is but I know it isn’t 4/4. Beautiful writing. All his albums are his own music or standards that he arranged. During the solos they all play hard, but then during the melody they breathe normally. I wish him more success as a leader, though I’m not sure he even wants to be a leader. He enjoys playing with Dave Holland, he enjoys playing with the Mingus Big Band, and he plays with his wife [vocalist Monday Michiru]. But his goal is not to become a big star like Christian Scott or Roy Hargrove.

Is that his personality?

I don’t know. He just enjoys what he does. He plays his favorite music. Maybe for his ambition that’s enough. He plays great and he plays with great musicians, so he has a recording contract and he has his freedom. He can do whatever he wants with [whomever] he wants. If he’s happy, what should I tell him? Go and become a Wynton Marsalis? No, maybe he doesn’t want that. He’s one of the greatest trumpet players.

4. Joe Lovano Us Five
“Blues Collage” (from Bird Songs, Blue Note). Lovano, alto saxophone; James Weidman, piano; Esperanza Spalding, bass. Recorded in 2010.

BEFORE: I couldn’t get what the bass player was doing, but they’re playing two Charlie Parker tunes. [Ed. note: “Blues Collage” features simultaneous performances of the melodies to three Parker-penned blues tunes: “Carvin’ the Bird” by Lovano, “Bloomdido” by Weidman and “Bird Feathers” by Spalding.] It doesn’t do any damage to me. I did a concert once with a very famous, beautiful Russian opera singer named Elena Obraztsova. We played “Summertime,” and she couldn’t understand what we were playing. She’s a great singer who had played the Metropolitan Opera, Kirov and La Scala, everywhere. She’s in her 60s and to try to move her somewhere was very hard. And we couldn’t get it right. We wanted to play with her but we didn’t know how to do that. And I told her to “sing as you want and we’ll play around you. Don’t listen to us. We’ll play with no beat, no meter.” And it kind of worked. After the concert, I laughed at the reviewer who said it sounded like listening to two different radios at the same time. And this sounded like that. They played two different melodies, then they played a little blues, then the two melodies again. For me, it’s not something special. The saxophone player sounded a little like Lee Konitz, but I’m not sure.

AFTER: He’s playing alto? It’s not that interesting for me. But I didn’t hear what the bass was playing. She’s a good player but sonically I couldn’t hear her very well. I thought maybe she was playing a different Charlie Parker song.

I should say that Joe Lovano is one of my favorite saxophone players. I love his 52nd Street Themes, and that amazing record he did with John Scofield, Dave Holland and [Al Foster] [ScoLoHoFo’s Oh!; Blue Note, 2003]. I like his ideas, his sound and the freedom of developing melodies. Sometimes he doesn’t care about the changes or the harmony; he can play anything. When I heard him for the first time, he influenced me.

5. Grover Washington Jr.
“Mister Magic” (from Mister Magic, Kudu). Washington Jr., saxophones; Bob James, keyboards; Eric Gale, guitar; Gary King, bass; Ralph MacDonald, percussion; Harvey Mason, drums. With orchestral studio band accompaniment. Recorded in 1974.

BEFORE: [laughs] Yeah, we played this many times. It’s the late, great Grover Washington Jr. This song is “Mister Magic,” and Grover is one of the greatest musicians and greatest persons I’ve met in my entire life. I met him at the airport when he came to St. Petersburg [Leningrad] in 1986. He came on the verge of better relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, Reagan and Gorbachev. Grover was one of the artists that came for a peace conference, but there was a scandal with a Russian journalist and the musicians were stuck at the airport in Washington, D.C. They came eventually, but they missed their concert in Petersburg. I met Grover at the airport. My friend, the pianist Sergey Kuryokhin, said, “Let’s go to the airport and meet Grover.” So we met, and Grover was very friendly. He immediately asked what kind of reeds I used and he gave me a box of Rico reeds. And then he invited me to come to Riga with him to play there, and then Petersburg and Moscow.

In these places it would be very hard for me to get into a concert by an American artist because nobody knew me. This was especially true in Riga, where they were real Communists, very rigid and strict because they were afraid of the Moscow KGB. But Grover invited me, so I went. At the concert hall in Moscow, the American Cultural attaché somehow had heard of me, and he let me in and I went to Grover’s dressing room and saw his three saxophones. I had never seen a black soprano saxophone in my life, and he asked if I wanted to try it. So I picked up the soprano and he picked up his tenor and we did a duet in the dressing room. There was a film crew there shooting it but I’ve never seen a copy of that. I don’t think that even Grover’s wife has a copy.

When I went to the U.S., I thought I should call the people I had met: Pat Metheny, Dave Brubeck and Grover. My friends all said forget it, they’ll never remember you. But I called Grover and he immediately invited me to Philadelphia and hosted a big party for me. I broke my toe playing with his daughter, and he took me to the hospital and paid my bills. He gave me his saxophone and I sat in with [trombonist] Al Grey in Philly. Grover was great. He invited me to play the Blue Note and the JVC festival. Then I did a record with him on Columbia [1988’s Then and Now].

He did all that because he liked you and he liked your playing. What do you like about his playing?

He has great ears. He plays so melodically and with such passion. He knows how to build a solo. He knows bebop and he played many gigs with my trio in Boston. At that time I was into Michael Brecker, and I asked Grover many questions about Michael. Grover was always nice about it. He never bad-mouthed anybody.

They were both from Philadelphia.

Yeah. He told me he wanted to do a record with Michael.

Tell me about the tune “Mister Magic.” What is the challenge to play it?

It’s a challenge to play it good, to not be boring. Sometimes I have to force myself to not play so many notes or substitute chords. Grover knew how to build his solo, and I saw the audience screaming while he was playing it. He wasn’t playing complex chords or fast runs; he had his circular breathing and his altissimo playing and melodic stuff. It’s hard to play like that on just two chords. As I get older, I think that sometimes playing a simple melody is more beautiful. Grover was the master. I loved him.

6. Chris Potter Quartet
“Boogie Stop Shuffle Intro” (from Lift: Live at the Village Vanguard, Sunnyside). Potter, tenor saxophone. Recorded in 2002.

BEFORE: [listens for two minutes] Is it Chris Potter? Great sound, great control of the saxophone; he’s one of the young people I really like. I heard him the first time at the Monk competition in ’92. I was also in that competition. Everything he does, I like. He likes those long introductions. I saw a DVD where he did long introductions on every song. One long introduction is good. Two is OK. You lose the novelty [after that]. But Chris is amazing. I’m not sure he’s that known here [in Russia].

Who is the model here in Russia for young saxophonists?

A lot of people still listen to Coltrane. Joshua Redman is a big influence. But a lot of players here are conservative. I know some who listen to Hank Mobley and the older guys. I can tell who Chris was listening to; we share the same heroes. He’s just an amazing musician.

7. JD Allen Trio
“Victory!” (from Victory!, Sunnyside). Allen, tenor saxophone; Gregg August, bass; Rudy Royston, drums. Recorded in 2010.

BEFORE: Could it be Branford? Mark Turner? Tell me.

AFTER: JD Allen? I don’t know him, but I like that. He’s very influenced by Coltrane, especially his articulation, the attack of the mouth on the reed and the little vibrato. And the actual sound of the drums and bass. On this piece, there’s no Sonny Rollins in there, no Brecker. It’s mostly Coltrane. And the melodic lines are like Coltrane after Giant Steps. It’s more inspiration than imitation. I assume he’s young. I like this very much.

8. Ben Webster
“Single Petal of a Rose” (from See You at the Fair, Impulse!). Webster, tenor saxophone; Hank Jones, piano; Richard Davis, bass; Osie Johnson, drums. Recorded in 1964.

BEFORE: It’s a strange song. In the beginning it was beautiful, and then it became boring. It’s supposed to be an older guy. And the sound is weird with the saxophone so close and the piano in the back. Could it be Coleman Hawkins? Ben Webster? I know they recorded with Oscar Peterson.

AFTER: I like that breathy sound, but not that much. But you have to listen to these guys and know what happened before Coltrane. I like it but it didn’t do anything to me. I don’t know Ellington’s Queen’s Suite [for which this piece was written], but I’d like to. It’s a great sound of Ben, but it didn’t move me.

9. Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis
“Goin’ to Meetin’” (from The Best of Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Prestige). Davis, tenor saxophone; Horace Parlan, piano; Buddy Catlett, bass; Art Taylor, drums; Willie Bobo, congas. Recorded in 1962.

BEFORE: Is this Stanley Turrentine? I love this guy. I must know who [this is]. I like the sound of the recording, too. There’s a lot of blues and slurs in this, the way a real black guy would play with real emotion. A lot of that is missing in the younger players—raw blues. Could it be Eddie Harris? Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis?

AFTER:He’s great. This, plus Michael Brecker plus Coltrane and Joe Henderson and a little Cannonball—that’s me [laughs]. It’s heart and soul and intervals. That’s what I want to do. Ornette Coleman and Archie Shepp, too. I should get more records by “Lockjaw” Davis.

10. James Farm
“1981” (from James Farm, Nonesuch). Joshua Redman, tenor saxophone; Aaron Parks, piano; Matt Penman, bass; Eric Harland, drums. Recorded in 2010.

BEFORE: Everybody’s playing good, but I don’t like the aesthetics of the sound. They’re trying to make it sound for the young people. This has groove, it’s more contemporary, but I’m not sure it will appeal to the kids.

AFTER: This didn’t move me. I thought it might be Joshua or somebody into him. If they used the regular acoustic sound, maybe I would like it better. I’m not a big fan of John Zorn, but when he plays he has a sort of energy that brings it to another emotional level. And this just stays on the same level and Joshua plays the same licks that he usually does. Beautiful lines, very nice, he does it great. But it’s the same way of playing head-solo-head. Maybe they could have arranged it to do something different inside of it. I guess I would prefer a different form. If it’s going to be a new sound, then do something new. I’d like to hear some rap with that; do something for the kids, because you can’t fool the kids. They know what they like. I would have gone even deeper into that. Why go halfway?

11. Sam Rivers’ Rivbea All-Star Orchestra
“Whirlwind” (from Inspiration, RCA). Rivers, Steve Coleman, Greg Osby, Chico Freeman, Gary Thomas, Hamiet Bluiett, saxophones; Ray Anderson, Joseph Bowie, Art Baron, trombones; Ravi Best, Ralph Alessi, James Zollar, Baikida Carroll, trumpets; Joseph Daley, baritone horn; Bob Stewart, tuba; Doug Mathews, electric bass; Anthony Cole, drums. Recorded in 1998.

BEFORE: I feel that the arranger is trying to be original. It’s free, but I don’t like the bass guitar with the big band, unless it’s a funk song. I hear clusters, and the playing is good. I want my musicians to feel free when they’re playing. I want it to be developed from something. Ornette has such a strong melodic sense. Coltrane had a lot of power and energy. I don’t feel that energy here.

AFTER: On one of my first records, I recorded “Fuchsia Swing Song.” I like the original version with Tony Williams. Sam Rivers is a great saxophone player, but that big band didn’t do anything for me.

12. Dizzy Gillespie/Sonny Stitt/Sonny Rollins
“The Eternal Triangle” (from Sonny Side Up, Verve). Gillespie, trumpet; Stitt, alto saxophone; Rollins, tenor saxophone; Ray Bryant, piano; Tommy Bryant, bass; Charlie Persip, drums. Recorded in 1957.

BEFORE: [sings along] That’s one of the greatest recordings: Dizzy Gillespie, “The Eternal Triangle” from Sonny Side Up with Sonny Stitt and Sonny Rollins. They all develop their ideas. I love this and I think I know all the solos. I love everything that Dizzy did. I spent a lot of time with this record. I also like “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” with the vocal. I was lucky. The pianist in David Goloshchekin’s band was smuggling and selling LPs [in the years of the Soviet Union], and they were very expensive. He would let me borrow them to tape them on my reel-to-reel recorder. So I was lucky to have all the greatest recordings. I think he gave me that record.

Name some other recordings that changed your life.

Charlie Parker’s “Now’s the Time” and the Brecker Brothers’ Heavy Metal Be-Bop; Stanley Turrentine, Cherry; Billy Cobham, Shabazz; Miles Davis, Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain; and Thad Jones and Mel Lewis Live at the Village Vanguard. There were also a couple of Bulgarian compilations called The Greatest Alto Saxophonists with Gary Bartz and Phil Woods, and another one of tenor players. Weather Report, Black Market and Heavy Weather; and a quintet recording by my teacher Gennady Goldstein. Wes Montgomery and Jimmy Smith, The Dynamic Duo; V.S.O.P. by Herbie Hancock; Art Blakey with Clifford Brown and Lou Donaldson, A Night at Birdland; Oliver Nelson’s The Blues and the Abstract Truth.

A lot of records have changed your life.

They still change my life.







This Before & After was originally done for JazzTimes. Photos by Gulnara Khamatova

2 comments on “Before & After: Igor Butman

  1. john beasley says:

    Great Interview Igor and Larry!

  2. Thanks, John. You two played together at the International Jazz Day celebration in Istanbul, didn’t you?

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