Russian Rhapsody

(Note: The following was a feature written for RBTH.)

I live near a metro station on the orange line, by the statue of Yuri Gagarin along the Third Ring in southwest Moscow. Despite Yuri’s rocket-sized obelisk, the area is hardly a tourist hotspot. That’s why I love it. For three months as a visiting American jazz pianist, I have embraced the frenetic tempo of this dramatic, dynamic, and exceedingly complex city and discovered Moscow suits my personality and me more than I can explain. It was home from day one.

The view from my 12th floor apartment, overlooking the Third Ring.

Metro Music

Presently, it is nearly 20:00 on the first of July, and I step off a packed train on the purple line, number 7 and make my way towards the middle of the platform at 1905 Goda Street. I check my MTC smartphone—the one I had to buy in Moscow because Verizon didn’t exactly let me hear the “pin drop” when I touched down at Sheremetyevo International. No Facebook messages, no texts. But it’s still a minute or two earlier than the appointed meeting time with a local professor and musician.

Another train screams its impending arrival; it’s one of the older ones—you can always tell by the pitch of the sound coming through the brightening tunnel. As expected, the middle-aged Russian I’m waiting for disembarks—punctual as usual. Andrey greets me in his usual pleasant but muted way, shouldering a black backpack in which I know is a certain tool of his trade. We start walking, exchanging small, minor chit-chat on the way up the long escalator, the evenly spaced torchlights keeping the journey insuperably bright.

Exiting the station into the mild-weathered evening, we walk for several blocks, down into another tunnel, and then back onto the street where traffic phases me not—because I took the metro. Andrey points to a small monument in the middle of a tunnel entrance which is dedicated to a street musician who was a “fixture of the city” for years until his death. I marvel. A place as immense as Moscow, in which all of Rhode Island could easily fit, and which honors in such lofty ways the great Russian composers which the world has embraced, could still have such small-town, intimate sensibilities as to care so much about one person who entertained out of love for no renown. I contemplate this but have no immediate explanation to the questions forming in my mind. I sense though that this value placed on culture has something to do with the Russian Spirit and the Russian Spirit has something to do with music.

Jazz in the Underground

It’s dusky but not quite dark by the time Andrey and I take a left onto a side street with buildings from the 70s that block my view of the glittering and glossy high-rises of the business district. It’s captivating and represents an entirely different angle from the rest of the city. But Moscow is a fantastical mixture of the old combined with the new, all in a sprawling, ever-growing fashion. When I first arrived, I wondered how Muscovites could ever get used to this vortex of architecture, hurly-burly, and multilayered intricacies baked into every square centimeter. But after several weeks, I myself started to get used to it. The rhythm of life at least. Although with every new metro stop I visit, I come into a necessarily different part of the city, crushing any sense of “knowing” or “understanding” or even “normalcy” into which I unsuspectingly succumbed. But this continual surprise dulls the senses after a time: you grow accustomed, you stop thinking about it, the bizarre or unique becomes commonplace. Standard.

But what a standard.

Treading a well-heeled path that’s presently devoid of foot traffic, we approach a guarded entrance, and I follow my guide straight through the gates, past the guard in his little shack. Andrey doesn’t look over, but I glance the guard’s way briefly and wonder what he does all day to occupy himself—with maybe one car passing by every ten minutes, this is hardly Tverskaya or the Golden Ring. I might have ventured to ask if it was even remotely appropriate to do so; regardless, the guard doesn’t seem the conversational type.

We walk through Khrushchev-era buildings—everything stoking in a sense of isolation. I’m a little uncomfortable, but Andrey is not and talks away about how this building was one thing and now it’s another, and over here was a “music conservatory” but now “it’s moved across the street”. And gradually, I relax.

Finally, we approach a squat building that I would have avoided if I were by myself. And outside, sitting on the curb are two young men—smoking, talking in Russian. I have no idea what they’re saying. Andrey marches right past them towards the entrance, if it can be called that. I’m not entirely sure about this, but Andrey exhibits no qualms whatsoever. As soon as we enter to lower-than-expected ceilings and very narrow hallways, he explains, “This was a bomb shelter during Soviet times.”


Now, my lens has adjusted, and I’m intrigued by this space—apparently layered with history.

We proceed into a small, unoffensive reception room of sorts. There’s a snack and soda machine. Water dispenser. A couple mildly palatable leather sofas. Someone is sitting on one of them already, plucking away at the strings of a Fender—an electric bass. He’s a young man with longish hair. The walls around us are pulsing. I feel it right away, the thumping, booming, and the ground under my feet vibrating. I’m not alarmed. These are familiar sensations, signature rumblings of the musical language being spoken in adjoining rooms.

Andrey converses in Russian to another fellow behind the desk. I don’t understand everything they say, but I get the gist. Then, the bassist on the couch (I assume he knows how to play that thing) voices a question, and Andrey turns to him in some surprise. Apparently, he was waiting for Andrey too. His name is Igor, he says. And away they go in Russian to each other. I catch some words, but not all of it, especially not with the pressurizing sounds all around us. Igor attempts to speak in English to me; he has a nice smile; he is happy to meet an American. I am happy to meet him, but we can only get out a few sentences in each other’s language before we give up with grins plastered to our faces. ‘How is this evening possibly going to go?’ we are both undoubtedly asking ourselves.

Andrey gets the go ahead from the front desk and we proceed back into that low-ceilinged hall, this time with Igor in tow, walk all the way to the end, and then down a few sets of stairs. Now, I know why all the vibrations were coming up through my feet. We pass room after room filled with practicing bands of varying styles and sounds, with singers and without. It’s all interesting, but hardly new to me. This is a language in which I can claim native fluency (it only took 24 years of study).

We enter a rehearsal room and find waiting for us, a drummer and a saxophonist—the latter has a Selmer Mark VI tenor, a model I instantly recognize because there’s one just like it in a closet of my apartment back in Texas. But woodwinds are beyond my understanding in any country. However, there is a Yamaha keyboard off to the side that immediately calls my name. I settle here as Igor plugs his bass into the sound system and fiddles with nobs. I acquaint myself for all of two minutes with the keyboard’s specifics and then I’m ready to go.

Andrey opens that black bag and inside is a trumpet, smaller than normal and therefore highly portable. It has a full-bodied tone though and more than does the job. He plays a melodic run, the sax follows suit, both warming up. The drummer doesn’t need any preliminary calisthenics because he’s already been in this room for two hours—with another group. Andrey calls our attention, gives some brief instructions in Russian that I generally understand, and then we begin. Perhaps, Igor and I—for that matter, the saxophonist and drummer and I also—can’t communicate with words, but how do you suppose we get along on our separate instruments? Well, let’s just say, here at last is the real introduction.

How do you do? My name is…

Very nice to meet you. Where are you from? I live…

Oh, that’s interesting. I had a friend from there, and she was also…

Yes, I think I might know her. You see, there’s this open market where I…

After one extended improvisation, we become comfortably acquainted with each other—better than if we had used ordinary, everyday language. If a picture is worth a thousand words, one jazz composition played together is worth a hundred conversations. And by the end of that first tune, we all have new lenses, new understanding of each other. It’s then I realize, Russians and American musicians can get along and quite well at that. Igor’s happy. I am happy. His English is even suddenly better. And so is my Russian. Incredible.

By the end of the three-hour rehearsal, we’re all closer than family. Seems impossible, I know. But it’s true. These guys, I discover through the music, are fantastic human beings, and I dig their style. They dig mine too. End of story. Almost. We still have the gig.

It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That…

A week later, at Kozlov Club, we meet to perform and this time there is no shyness. We play and we speak to the crowd who has come to hear us. It is an unforgettable experience, and I am overwhelmed by the generosity of the people, none of whom speak English, but all who understand what we are saying—what I am saying—through our collective instruments. I might as well have been playing with a band back in Austin, with guys I’ve known all my life. The night goes beautifully.  

Two weeks later, I have yet another gig at the American Center in Moscow, but this one is somewhat last minute and thrown together. I already know my resources are limited and it’s up to me to pull all the pieces together. There will be no functioning sound system, there will be no proper stage with spotlights, there will be nobody coordinating logistics for things as non-musical as parking. So… I have to handle all of it. Andrey proves to be a big help in finding musicians. None are the same as the ones I have already formed a bond and performed with. Ironically, though the thing I am most nervous about is the sound system, not the musicians or the performance itself. I speak music well. And I know whomever Andrey delivers to me will also speak it well. As it turns out, he assigns some of the best jazz musicians in Russia, only one of whom speaks English well enough to communicate with me. They come an hour or two before the appointed time of the concert—and help me wire the place for sound. So, there is no comfortable separate rehearsal date a week in advance of the appointed hour during which to get acquainted. But again, after a song or two, quick runthroughs of tunes for that necessary ‘hi, how do you do?’ introduction to each other, we figure out who we are, what we’re about, and how exactly to get along. And get along we do. Splendidly.

To say the night is a success is a complete understatement. The crowd of Muscovites (and a few from Petersburg) is twice as big as that at Kozlov Club and just as enthusiastic—all having showed up for Jazz Night at the American Center. By the third or fourth tune, I am perfectly at ease with these talented Russian-speaking musicians and have a handle on the crowd and what they want to hear. We communicate well with each other, and there is nary a slip made. By the end of the concert, we are warmly familiar with each other, and I am struck anew by the realization that it is only because of music that I have been able to make such lasting bonds with so many wonderful Russians—both by playing with and performing for them. I marvel that I’ve never really paid much attention to this amalgamating property of music until coming to Russia. But it’s obvious why: I’ve never been in an environment where my language wasn’t the audience’s language and vice versa. I’ve never had to think about how to connect with people I didn’t understand and who didn’t understand me. I’ve never had to think about music functioning as anything other than entertainment. But here, tonight, I witness music towing the lines of communication and decimating pride, prejudice, and politics. Clearly, Duke Ellington and Irving Mills had it right when they wrote in 1931: “It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing.” After all, any language is only noise until it speaks to someone. And music certainly seems to speak universally.

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