36th Vilnius Jazz Festival. 12-16 October, 2022

The Only Way To Be Free

Jurate Kucinskaite

If you tried to count how many instruments Vytautas Labutis plays you would need more fingers than you have on both hands. The 39-year-old saxophone player is a versatile musician. He is a distinctive extemporiser, composer, teacher and performer who, besides his main instrument, the saxophone (in all its different forms: alto, tenor, soprano and baritone), also plays the bass clarinet, synthesizer, keyboard and percussion instruments, and is the axis of jazz life of Lithuania.

A Versatile Artist Seventeen years have passed since his first public performance at the age of 21. During this time he has made his mark on the country’s musical life. He has played in quartets with the prominent jazz musicians Petras Vysniauskas and Vladimir Chekasin; he has headed a trio; and the Gone with Jazz Quintet, he has formed an octet of jazz stars with which he recorded his first CD Terra Vandetuja. Labutis is also an active member of international projects: the Jazz Baltica ensemble, Octet Ost III, the East-West Vapirov Project and the New European Saxophone Quartet, as well as a participant in various Lithuanian jazz projects (Leonid Shinkarenko’ Jazz Four, Vladimir Tarasov’ Lithuanian Art Orchestra, the Lithuanian Young Composers Orchestra, and Dainius Pulauskas’ sextet). His tours have included Siberia, Europe, the United States and Australia. Labutis does not confine himself to the jazz world. His repertoire includes classical, folk and experimental-improvisational music: he performs serious music, participates in fluxus performances, plays with an Indian music ensemble, symphony orchestras and chamber groups. He has also recorded music for the Russian film Taxi Blues, and It also Snows in Paradise, a Lithuanian feature film. Labutis writes music for the theatre with the help of a computer, plays different instruments (the drum, trombone and trumpet), and sings for a multichannel recording. “I create genuine, not synthesised sounds. I myself play and sing acoustically, because my computer, with a multichannel hard disk recording system, enables me to do this,” says Labutis, who, apart from music, has another passion. “I’ve always been drawn to technology, and since childhood I’ve been a hardened radio technician. Later, I became interested in computers and I haven’t changed since then. For me this is like a second passion, as important as music.”

Exchanged the Contrabass for the Accordion “My first music teacher was my father, who was an amateur musician. He bought a good accordion from a priest and played it at family parties. He taught me to play the waltz and the polka when I was a little boy,” Labutis recalls. “Later, when I began to go to school, he signed me up for accordion lessons. For some time I oscillated with some success between music and technology. But when we moved to near the Balys Dvarionas Music School in Vilnius, my parents decided that I should attend this school. I went there with tears in my eyes. “They accepted me for the contrabass class. They said that my stumpy fingers were very suitable for the instrument. This upset my father, so they transferred me back to the accordion class. I wanted to play the piano. But we didn’t have one at home, in those days it was a luxury.” The school which the tearful future musician began to attend was a decisive choice. In Soviet times, when jazz was treated with mistrust, as a source of American culture and a possible enemy of communism, there were distinguished musicians working there, the saxophonist Vladimir Chekasin among them. The department of variety art and jazz at this school was one of the seeds of the Lithuanian jazz school. “I was a very shy child, and I didn’t know what was going on around me,” he recalls. “My teacher set me an academic programme, but at home, together with my father, I continued to play polkas. “Once I happened to play my ‘home’ repertoire to the teacher. When he heard that I played ‘differently than usual’ he took me to Chekasin to learn jazz. I was about thirteen then, but I had never heard any jazz before. “At the beginning Chekasin gave me some recorded music to listen to. It was Woody Herman’s orchestra. How I liked it! I kept playing the tape over and over again. I became hooked on jazz and started playing the saxophone with Chekasin group.”

In the Hands of Chekasin “This spontaneous music made a big impression on me. It meant much more to me than classical music. Maybe because it was close to folk music, or to a party repertoire played off the cuff, or improvised. It expressed freedom,” Labutis says. His teacher, Vladimir Chekasin, is now a living legend: the founder of the Lithuanian jazz school, a composer, producer and teacher who has taught many of the country’s jazz players. “Spiritual things were the essence of his lessons, during which I learned some music philosophy,” Labutis says. In the school Dixieland band, headed by Chekasin, he took his first steps in jazz. “I learned many things in the process: to improvise, to keep a harmony scheme under control, and the like.” Chekasin invited his talented pupil to play with the students from the Music Academy in his big band. “It was even more interesting there: an entirely different level, and the first big band in my life, which, to crown it all, was headed by an innovator who changed, developed and freely remade music. It was extremely interesting to be a participant in the process.” Much later, in 1984, having gained some experience in his teacher’s quartet, Labutis made his debut on the jazz stages of Western Europe. He describes his work with this quartet as a “murderous school”. “Chekasin is totally unpredictable. At one concert he is devoted to following the notes, and demands the same from his partners. The following night he turns the same programme into a farce.”

Vysniauskas’ Quartet Vytautas Labutis appeared on the professional jazz stage in 1982 with Vysniauskas’ quartet, the group that broke the ice for the young jazz generation not only in Lithuania but also in the Soviet Union. The performance of this quartet in 1982 at a USSR variety art and circus competition caused a stir. Jazz was not very popular at the time, and those who played it were classed with jugglers, acrobats, comperes, dancers and clowns. The youthfully expressive, lively and professional quartet won the first prize. “We were drawn together by the experience of playing jazz. We understood each other very well without words,” Labutis recalls. It is perhaps due to this nearly telepathic link that the quartet stood out, with its playful, expressive and philosophical compositions enriched with folk and classical music. They also had their own stage, the Neringa Café, famous for its jazz, where they played several hours every night. For the musicians this was hard work, pleasure and an excellent school. By playing every day, they not only perfected their skills, but also, step by step, they educated audiences. Eventually, people started coming to the cafe not to have meals but to hear the free and increasingly professional quartet. The saxophone player had a special role: he not only played counterpoint to Vysniauskas, and fascinated audiences with rhapsodic saxophone solos, but he often sat at the grand piano to provide a harmonious background, and produced fine improvisations. The first awards were won with this quartet. They constantly reaped the laurels in Lithuania, and its members were mentioned among top jazz players. In 1986 Labutis was recognised as the fourth best jazz player in the Soviet Union, a vast country with a multitude of very good jazz musicians.

From Trio to the Non-Existing Land When Vysniauskas left the quartet in 1988, Labutis took over the leadership of the remaining trio, which was a test for him. “When we played in the quartet, with a strong leader, we felt secure and certain about the future,” he says. “However, in fact this is a form of self-deception, because the future depends on yourself. One day you have to ask yourself who you are and what you can do.” Labutis’ trio answered these questions with lively improvisations at various festivals. “I realised that I could do something myself.” When a keyboardist joined them, the Vilnius Jazz Quartet was formed. In 1997 Labutis formed an octet. It seems that he was always leading towards a bigger band: he led a trio, later a quartet, he was the heart of the Gone with Jazz Quintet and the Vilnius Conflict & Members Sextet, as if preparing for a bigger group. “It’s not easy to retain eight musicians, to rehearse and perform constantly. However, a bigger band allows you to produce more colours and shades,” he says. Labutis’s performance in other leaders’ bands, which he refers to as “work for hire”, comprises an important part of his work. This includes playing in the Lithuanian Art Orchestra under the leadership of Tarasov, a band which executes its leader’s projects. He says that performing in such a “very European orchestra has no collective features, personal likes or dislikes.”

As a member of various international projects, Labutis has been playing with the Jazz Baltica ensemble which has brought together the most prominent musicians from the Baltic states regularly since 1992. This group plays music by different leaders, which the musicians learn to play in three days. “Here nobody takes a risk. The work is interesting from the point of view of learning, although the process itself isn’t intriguing. Risk is more important to me. I’m more of a ‘free man’, for me it’s easier to play free music. I feel really good with it.” Although he finds it more interesting to create than to interpret, sometimes Labutis the performer gives way to Labutis the creator. Many composers of traditional music entrust their work to Labutis, including premiere performances, where the presentation by the performer often decides the future life of the piece. “When I play I plunge into an entirely different reality, namely that of a composer, and I can see it from within,” says Labutis who answered his own question, Why does he play, a long time ago. “This is the only way to be free.” Labutis happily participates in experimental projects, where he always looks for new ideas. In this search for “virgin lands”, the composition Terra Vandetuja, recorded on CD, was born. “This is my land,” Labutis admits. “A secret territory which rises from impulsive improvisation and spontaneous breakthrough. Terra Vandetuja is a place where I go myself. Here I create my own history and language.

Labutis uses this name for a non-existing land with an artificial language, which all the octet sing in one track on the album, which is composed of seemingly recognisable syllables, where there is enough space for both pathos and playfulness. In the musical sequence rock, traditional, noise and jazz styles are heaped on. Here Lithuanian folklore and theatre combine very easily. Terra Vandetuja expands the stylistic range of modern jazz by combining, juxtaposing and fusing works of different styles. “I do not accept the declarative meaning of creation. For me, creating is a question of life and death. If you create, you live; if you don’t create, you die. It is not important what you create: music or life for another person, or other things. When creating you bring something to life. This is the only opportunity you have to express yourself.”