29th Vilnius Jazz Festival. 13-16 October, 2016

Jazz, Jazz, Jazz...

By JURATE KUCINSKAITE
 

Lithuania is inconceivable without jazz, just like Lapland without Father Christmas or Japan without computers. Its present-day jazz scene is an ocean of music with a vast stylistic spectrum, various genre currents above the reefs of the means of expression, and polystylistic depths and ebbs and flows of conflicting emotions.

Despite its present popularity, jazz in Lithuania has often had to endure difficult times

Today Lithuania is rich in most jazz styles and trends: from dixieland to experimental compositions. However, Lithuanian jazz is not for amusement alone: it is intellectual and conceptual, often becoming the expression of the national mentality. Audiences listen more readily to complicated conceptual pieces rather than stamping their feet to the rhythm of dixieland. Lithuania is proud of its original musicians and creative personalities who do not only imitate, and in whose work one can feel both the accent of academic music and the dialect of musical folklore.

One Step from Saxophone to Knife

From the reports we have we can easily get the impression that musical life during the years of independence (1918–1940) in Lithuania, particularly in Kaunas, was in full swing. Even the prestigious Lithuanian police band not only paraded along the streets playing marches but also sang (like a New Orleans' Marching Band) according to a 1938 record. Eventually, every little village and town had its own jazz band which, true, according to witnesses and participants, could not always boast of a jazz repertoire or even instruments. In a word, between the wars Lithuania was part of swinging Europe. The champion of Lithuanian choral music, composer Stasys Simkus, wrote ironically in the magazine Muzika, as early as 1925, "In England they have started fighting against jazz music and dances as tasteless and uncultured. Some restaurants have banned jazz music." He called on Lithuania to follow England's example. This news item is important, not only as a testimony of the existence of jazz in Lithuania, but also as an example of the dissonance between jazz and the Lithuanian mentality, and at the same time as an illustration of some current jazz trends. Looking around pre-war Kaunas, the cradle of Lithuania's jazz, one would see that most restaurants sounded not only with the popular tunes of the time but also with jazz compositions that were played with, albeit very modest, improvisations and practically without swing, i.e. the essential traits of jazz. The main features of a jazz band were a jazz repertoire – traditional jazz themes and instruments (among which the leading ones were the saxophone and percussion). The first official jazz band, established in 1940 at the Kaunas radio and directed by Abromas Stupelis, already improvised boldly and was more in line with the standards of a jazz band. However, it existed only until the beginning of the Second World War in Lithuania in 1941. Unfortunately, what could have become the beginning of Lithuanian jazz was only a timid flash: All jazz bands vanished after the war. It became dangerous to go by such a name. The phrases "there's one step from saxophone to knife", "jazz is the music of the corpulent" ,"those who love jazz today will betray their homeland tomorrow", which cause a smile today, then became a part of Stalinist cultural ideology. If you disobeyed it you could risk not only your career but also your life. Jazz went underground. Not the music itself , but the name. Saxophones disappeared from bands (which encouraged timbre fantasy!), and names of jazz composers vanished from repertoires, with the exception of Gershwin whose Russian descent did not go against the Stalinist spirit. With the Khrushchev thaw jazz life returned. In 1956 an amateur big band, directed by Juozas Tiskus, emerged at Kaunas Polytechnic. There were five years left to the official date of the birth of jazz in Lithuania. This band took part in the Democratic World Youth Festival in Moscow, a symbol of the end of the cold war, from where it brought back not only jazz scores but also the impressions of live music – making and, to be more exact, a jazz "bug" which spread throughout Lithuania in no time. Juozas Tiskus' band (later called LEO – Lithuanian Pop Band) added to its repertoire well arranged jazz pieces and improvisations, gradually becoming bolder. The "bug" infected the whole of Lithuania almost in an instant. Youth cafés, where jazz was played and recordings made, where lectures were read and discussions were conducted, opened their doors.

Happy birthday, jazz

When the world celebrated the centenary of jazz in late 1996 Lithuania marked the 35th anniversary of modern Lithuanian jazz. This birthday is considered to be the Christmas of 1961, when the Lithuanian Music Academy (formerly the State Conservatory) held the first jazz concert, crowning a three-day conference devoted to the history and theory of jazz and its most famous personalities. After this concert jazz life in Lithuania became noticeably more active: new bands emerged, the musicians' skill grew and improvisations became freer. At the same time, however, a new "disease" began to attack concert halls – rock, which in the late 1970s ousted Lithuanian jazz which had already become more serious. Despite the waning interest in jazz there were still some musicians who continued to write and play it.

G-T-Ch

The greatest impulse for dispelling this stagnant drowsiness came from the jazz trio G-T-Ch (Vyacheslav Ganelin, Vladimir Tarasov and Vladimir Chekasin). The furore they caused at the international festival Jazz Jamboree '76 forced Lithuanian jazz fans, performers and functionaries to act. Concert activities revived, and jazz began to sound on the radio waves and television. The trio was born by chance. Pianist, keyboard player and composer Vyacheslav Ganelin, born not far from Moscow, moved with his parents to Lithuania at the age of four. Here he finished his music studies – the piano and composition – and while studying at the State Conservatory he put together a band with which he took part in the jazz birthday concert. At the same time, when Ganelin was studying at the conservatory and played jazz for pleasure, another member of the future trio, percussionist Vladimir Tarasov, was expelled from the first year of the Leningrad (currently St. Petersburg) Conservatory for his interest in jazz. Born in Arkhangelsk, he studied music there and got 'infected' with jazz at the age of eight after listening to a record of Louis Armstrong brought home by his father. "I used to play at home and beat the drum for twelve hours a day ," Tarasov recalls. At 14 he was already a professional percussionist who had mastered all traditional jazz styles. Seven years later he found himself in Lithuania. During a tour in Arkhangelsk in 1968 the Lithuanian pop band Nemuno Ziburiai had to quickly replace their drummer. Tarasov, one of the audience, willingly agreed to come to their assistance. That was a decisive move. After several concerts with the band he came to Vilnius. Shortly afterwards fate brought Ganelin and Tarasov together. This unusual duet – keyboard and percussion – immediately became popular and went on many tours. Less than a year after the emergence of the duet it grew into a trio, again by chance. During a tour in Sverdlovsk, at a jam session they were joined by a talented local saxophonist Chekasin who adjusted himself to the avant-garde jazz duet so well that he was brought to Vilnius like some overseas wonder. This is how an excellent jazz group emerged in Lithuania, which laid the foundation for the Lithuanian jazz school and went down in the history of jazz as the G-T-Ch trio. Over nearly 17 years of existence the trio has prepared more than twenty programmes – colourful, theatrical and original. "The trio is constantly making a debut, as it were, staking on its high reputation ," wrote the Russian jazz critic Aleksey Batashev about the permanent renewal of G-T-Ch and the variety of its programmes. Efraym Barban referred to it as "a comet ignoring all laws ", aptly describing the innovations in the G-T-Ch programmes, the combinations of the most varied musical styles in the trio's conceptual programmes, as well as the musicians' skill. At concerts these three musicians would play a variety of instruments, and Chekasin used to realize his expressiveness by playing two saxophones at a time. Free jazz became one of the most prominent in Lithuanian jazz in general. Moreover, G-T-Ch programmes were marked by both irony and self-irony that was here already raised to a level of perfection. One of G-T-Ch's programmes, Album for Youth, had a symbolic end: the musicians tiptoed off the stage in silence leaving the audience to observe a children's spinning top as if continuing the dynamics of music ... In 1987 G-T-Ch withdrew from the jazz scene leaving Lithuania's jazz audiences to follow the work of their pupils, and having the extension of their creative principles to Lithuanian jazz. The same year Ganelin moved to Israel where he continues to write music, give concerts and teach. There he began to compose by using computers, referring to his works as "Jam sessions with oneself." Even though a computer provides the opportunity to record the whole piece gradually, correcting and orchestrating, Ganelin, however, seeks the harmony of improvisation and composition: "I'm an improviser, therefore I'm interested in finding the other side of improvisation. I'm also a composer, so I believe that creation and improvisation is the same process that just has a different speed. "There is something divine in this process, thus it is important for me to be absolutely honest and not to return to correct any mistakes. Sometimes even faults have their own charm ," said Ganelin. Vladimir Tarasov has also been engaged in solo work. He is one of the few world drummers performing solo programmes. In his suite, a real drama for percussion called Atto (Action), even the smallest cymbals and bells become characters. Besides drums, Tarasov also uses electronic percussion instruments and sound tapes. Apart from solo programmes he participates in numerous international projects, also based on the principle of free and spontaneous talk. He writes music for films and plays and creates musical installations that offer a different approach to art. A Concert for the Flies, Water Music, Wind Music are the names of some of his musical installations. Here Tarasov does not write pieces himself but simply designs independent instruments for flies, water and wind. Vladimir Chekasin, the extrovert of the trio, undertook after its break-up some large-scale projects, unlike his colleagues who wrote more solo compositions. He founded the Lithuanian Music Academy big band which followed the example of the most prominent jazz bands of the 1980s, and amazed everyone. Being a leader, composer, arranger, teacher and... provocateur, in his creations he brings directly into opposition styles, genres, epochs and manners. He is capable of provoking even the most reserved and modest pupil into improvisation. Nearly all great people in Lithuanian jazz have gone through the classes of Vladimir Chekasin, a remarkable musician and brilliant and original teacher, at the Variety Art Section of the Dvarionas Music School. The G-T-Ch trio stopped existing ten years ago; however, all members of this creative union continue to work and are full of grand plans. "G-T-Ch is simply nonexistent. But time changes and, who knows, our roads may intersect. The most important thing is the creative act. One can always play with one's old friends, even though they might be going a completely different way ," said Ganelin, an advocate of free expression in music.

Cherry jazz

Petras Vysniauskas, 40, a frequent participant in international projects, is one of the most prominent personalities in Lithuanian jazz. Today his music is played outside Lithuania more than in the country itself, and his tours have criss-crossed nearly the entire globe. He has recorded over 60 albums and music for more than 40 plays and five feature films. The list of his creative partners includes almost all Lithuanian jazz players, as well as many outstanding foreign musicians. "Playing with performers from various countries, I feel great pleasure and a wonderful sense of musical variety ," says Vysniauskas, whose name Lithuanians often shorten to Vysnia (Cherry). The beginning of his creative work coincided with the flowering of jazz in Lithuania. His star rose in 1982 when playing in a jazz quartet at the Neringa Café. Although Vysniauskas was only 25 at the time, even then his music had great significance for Lithuanian jazz. Every evening crowds of fans would gather at the café to listen to excellent jazz music rather than to eat. "It was a good school, I think, both for the audience and us. We played very sincerely. We were young and very active and used to play for four hours every night. As far as I remember, those hours left us 'squeezed' completely dry ," recalls Vysniauskas. Born in the town of Plunge in Zemaitija, into a musical family, Vysniauskas 'soaked up music' all his childhood. Just like most Lithuanian jazz players, his first instrument was an accordion. At the age of eleven he heard his first recordings of jazz – the music of Charlie Parker – and it was then that he began to play the saxophone. "I got stuck in that music ," says Petras. "When I started playing the saxophone, I performed Parker from memory." That was followed by long studies. "I'm learning even now. I haven't yet graduated from my personal conservatory," explains Vysniauskas, who studied at the Lithuanian Music Academy for a record period of twelve years. At the same time he and his quartet reaped laurels not only in Lithuania but also outside it. "After the break-up of the Neringa Café quartet I decided to begin activities that would involve all spheres of jazz music, starting with dixieland." Vyšniauskas' creative work has been enlarged by various collaborations: from duets to ensembles with different musicians. Mature and beginners, performers of jazz and academic music, folk singer Veronika Povilioniene and even poet and humorist Juozas Erlickas. "I don't experiment, but I search," he says to justify this variety. One album has exactly that name – Searches and Discoveries. Due to the warm tone and the 'spacious' sound of his saxophone Vysniauskas is often referred to as the Lithuanian Jan Garbarek. He expands the arsenal of his means of expression with overblown sounds, a roar (by playing only the mouth-piece or the upturned saxophone) and sonorous effects recalling also the theatrical creations of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Vysniauskas plays the soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxophones, the standard and the bass clarinet. He can also add such unmusical items as a bucket of water, which changes the sound of the saxophone when he performs over it. "I'm looking for expanse in music," comments Vysniauskas. Perhaps one of his most important contributions, however, is the establishment of the national Lithuanian jazz trend. It is only in Vysniauskas' work that the Lithuanian musical tradition has become the basis of the entire work rather than musical material for improvisation. Ethnicity manifests itself in his work in different aspects: from improvisation on the theme of a folk song, phrases, quotations and development of tunes or collages to impalpable ethnicity, indivisible into means of expression, that is already raised to the mental level. "This arises from the desire to be oneself," says Petras Vysniauskas.

Jazz goes on

Other Lithuanian jazzmen followed and developed Vysniauskas' creative principles. New trends have appeared, and the wall dividing jazz and academic music is being demolished. A very subtle genre of miniature compositions and syncretic musical pieces uniting jazz with other arts is emerging. The country's jazz players have recently taken part in some international projects. So it can be said that Lithuanian jazz has become part and parcel of the jazz world. Jazz festivals, of which there are nine in Lithuania, substantiate it. The oldest of them is the Birstonas Jazz Jamboree which takes place every two years at the resort town of Birstonas on the Nemunas. It is devoted to Lithuanian jazz performed by experienced players and beginners. At Vilnius Jazz held for the last ten years in the capital city, experimental conceptual jazz from Europe and elsewhere is played. Kaunas, called the provisional capital and the cradle of jazz, has held festivals for seven years now, with world famous musicians taking part in it. Sing Jazz in Panevezys is for vocal jazz groups and individual singers. Baby Jazz, Junior Jazz and student piano improvisation competitions also take place in Vilnius.

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