WASHINGTON, October 9 (By Maria Young for RIA Novosti) – Russian jazz legend Igor Butman wrapped up a tour of the US East Coast in Washington Tuesday night, playing his saxophone the same way he’s played since the tour began nearly three weeks ago: as if he’s giving the very last concert of his life.
Then again, Butman said, he plays like that all the time, blowing for all he’s worth, bending backwards to squeeze out every note until perspiration is pouring from his forehead, his face flushed and a look of pure joy in his eyes.
“In Russia we have a saying that ‘he opens up his soul like a shirt,’ you know, that people can rip the shirt and your soul is getting out, like it’s escaping,” Butman told RIA Novosti during an interview before a performance at the Russian Embassy in Washington earlier this week.
By comparison, some US musicians, while technically brilliant, “are too cool, they play too well,” as if emotionally, “something got lost in the music,” he said.
It’s a difference he attributes to the “wonderful, very positive” reception he’s had from audiences in Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, New Jersey and Washington.
“A lot of people say they haven’t heard anything like that, and we’re getting standing ovations every time, maybe because we’re passionate,” he added.
But he hopes that based on the idea that jazz is a universal language, American audiences will also come away with a deeper sense of today’s Russia and its people.
It should go beyond just, “they have ballet, they have classical music, and they have nuclear weapons. In the old days everybody was saying only the bears are walking the streets and the babushkas, the old ladies, but Russia’s ladies are beautiful, incredible, and also, there are no bears in Moscow,” Butman said.
“People in America think Russians are all communists, or now, they’re all pro-Putin, very aggressive, they don’t have heart, they don’t have soul, they’re only evil. So how can we change it? With music, that we love the same music, lots of passion, and maybe some people will listen to that music and have a different view,” he said.
Already, his one-man mission appears to be working.
“In music, everybody has to listen, you have to be really selfless, to make the music really work you have to be part of the team, and then if you’re playing with someone from Russia, and all you know is about the Cold War and the tensions, when you see how they play you might think, ‘This guy’s not as different from me as I thought,’” said 18-year-old drummer Jalon Archic, in comments to RIA Novosti.
Archic is from the University of the Pacific’s Brubeck Institute and one of five US students selected to perform with Butman as part of the US-Russia Rising Stars Jazz Band Tuesday night at the National Building Museum in Washington.
The event was organized through American University’s Initiative for Russian Culture, which aims to promote better understanding between the two countries, and the Open World Leadership Center, a US agency that conducts exchanges and cultural programs between the US and other nations.
Sean Britt, another Brubeck Institute student, echoed comments from the other US performers in the program when he said he still knows “very little” about Russia, but knew “a lot less” before he was asked to join the performance.
“It makes me curious, it makes me want to know more, and maybe someday travel to Russia to see for myself,” Britt said.
Words like that are music to Butman’s ears.
“These kids are great, and who knows, maybe they can also help to change some of the things that are confusing between the United States and Russia,” he said, “because it has to change. We are very powerful countries, so we have to be friends because the whole world is looking to us, at the US and Russia.”
Butman was headed back to Moscow Wednesday, but he is set to return to the US in January, for a tour that includes New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz.