Moscow: Igor Butman’s 60th

The Russian saxophonist's 60th birthday concert with Wynton Marsalis drew attention to the USA and Russia's shared history of slavery

Igor Butman in full flow with his orchestra

When looking for a place to celebrate his 60th birthday on 27 October, Russia’s most famous saxophone player, Igor Butman, chose the Kremlin Hall (as he had done 10 years before). This prestigious 6,000 seater venue is indeed the best place to set up the most grandiose gig possible.

Alongside the Moscow Jazz Orchestra, Butman had a few Russian well-known musicians and friends joining him on stage. But was this going to be enough to celebrate his birthday properly? It seems not, as the saxophonist also invited another renowned jazz musician who had celebrated his own 60th birthday on 18 October.

In the middle of a European tour with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Wynton Marsalis, a long-time friend of Igor Butman, immediately accepted the invitation. Belonging to the same generation of jazz players who studied in the United States (as Igor Butman had emigrated to the US in 1987 before eventually returning to mother Russia in 1996) they knew each other through Wynton’s brother, Branford.

But it was only in 1998 when Marsalis invited Butman to be a guest soloist with the JLCO for their Moscow gig that they officially met. From then on, the two men have collaborated on many occasions, including Butman’s 50th birthday concert when he had also invited Natalie Cole, Christian McBride and Billy Cobham.

Though it may seem ambitious to stage two big bands plus various guests, Butman still managed to offer an eclectic programme that gave enough room for many outstanding solo performances. From a Shostakovich piece interpreted by the JLCO to Butman and Marsalis original compositions and a Chick Corea tune sung by guest vocalist, Fantine, we navigated between Europe and the US in what would prove to be the most joyful cruise one would ever dream of.

One of the highlights of the evening came from Oleg Akkuratov, a blind Russian pianist and vocalist, whose singing performance definitely fired up the stage in front of a conquered audience. The same could be said about Sergey Mazaev, of Russian rock band Moral Code X. The vocalist, though obviously not from the jazz world, gave a wonderful rendition of Fly Me To the Moon before moving on to a Russian tune.

A trip to the moon it really was and not a space race, as the MJO’s cosmonauts on the one side and the JLCO’s astronauts on the other side smoothly alternated pieces from their own repertoire with some remarkable arrangements performed together.

The second set indeed started with Nick Leninovsky’s arrangement of Nat Adderley’s famous 1960 Work Song. The idea behind their playing that piece together was to pay homage to African-American and Russian slavery songs – hence an intro based on the Song Of The Volga Boatmen. While we should be well aware of the slavery period in America, notably through Wynton Marsalis’s Blood On The Field album, featuring a two-and-a-half-hour jazz oratorio commissioned by the Lincoln Center in 1997, we tend not to hear so much of serfdom in Russia, officially ended in 1861. It was in many ways similar to that of contemporary slavery across the world. Soon after the intro, both orchestras shone through Adderley’s tune with plenty of impressive solos.

While the audience, who kept bringing floral bouquets onto the stage, wished for the concert to be a never-ending story, both crews had to get ready for their trip to St Petersburg where they would play the next day at the Tinkoff Arena. A native of Peter the Great’s capital, Igor Butman obviously wanted to celebrate his birthday there as well, barely two days before Putin’s latest lockdown.

Butman is certainly a very busy musician with many projects in his head that he admits not having always the time to finalise. Luckily for us, he has just released a brand new album. Only Now is an all-star line-up of both US and Russian musicians. Alongside Antonio Sanchez, the crew is completed by Matt Brewer, Eddie Gomez, Evgeny Pobhozhiy on guitar and Oleg Akkuratov on piano. Of the nine tracks on the album, Marsalis’s tune Baby I Love You brings us back to the Kremlin Hall’s concert, as Oleg Akkuratov briefly turned it into a Happy Birthday song. It is worth mentioning as well the excellent couple of solos during the birthday gig by Evgeny Pobhozhiy. It should come as no surprise that the guitar player is the first-ever Russian winner of the Herbie Hancock Prize.

Where would a birthday be without a party? A few steps away from the Kremlin, a lucky few had the privilege to attend a gala dinner on the upper floor of the GUM, Moscow’s most exclusive shopping mall, located on Red Square opposite Lenin’s Mausoleum. The Moscow night would go on with jazz and champagne until the wee hours of the morning. It was simply the best evening to remember at least until 2031 when Igor Butman will want to celebrate his 70th birthday.