Soviet trio takes daring liberties with familiar jazz styles
New York — An unprecedented jazz event is taking place this summer. For the first time, a jazz group from the Soviet Union is touring the United States and Canada. The Ganelin Trio, which has been on the Soviet jazz scene for 15 years, is not the safe, middle-of-the-road sort of ensemble that one might expect for such a groundbreaking tour.
The group -- with Vyacheslav Ganelin on keyboards, Vladimir Chekasin on reeds, and Vladimir Tarasov on percussion -- has been called avant-garde, but really it plays a brand of music that involves not just ``free'' jazz, but also mainstream jazz, classical and symphonic forms, folk melodies, and pop tunes, with mouth noises, theater, and comedy thrown in.
The group began its tour at the JVC Festival here recently, and New York has never seen anything quite like it. The trio performed a suite in three parts, each part expressing a distinctly different mood from the others.
The first started out more or less in the ``free-bag,'' frenzied avant-garde jazz style of the 1960s, dominated by Ganelin's percussive playing of both the acoustic piano and synthesized keyboards. A more classical approach followed, with Chekasin playing clarinet in a delicate counterpoint with Tarasov's bells and Ganelin's solemn chords on the synthesizer.
The section ended with Chekasin blowing a duck call and gradually assuming the form of what looked like a dying bird.
The second section focused on Chekasin, who gave a tongue-in-cheek performance involving maniacal mouth sounds punctuated with fiendish laughter, imagined arguments in Russian (presumably between a high-voiced woman and her growling husband), explosive bursts on the saxophones (Chekasin often plays two together, 'a la Rahsaan Roland Kirk), and quirky, mechanical, break-dancelike body movements.
The suite ended with the trio playing a skitterish little melody that was then transmuted into a wonderfully silly, swinging blues number.
At times, the actual playing of the instruments seemed incidental to a form that is more theatrical than anything we've seen here in jazz -- even more so than the Art Ensemble of Chicago, whose theatricality depends more on costumes than on stage action. The Soviet group wears no special costumes.
In spite of all this, the three men have what might be considered rather conservative backgrounds.
Ganelin studied at the Vilnius Conservatory in Lithuania and has written operas and scores for television and film. Chekasin studied clarinet at the Sverdlovsk Conservatory.
Tarasov, who is self-taught, began playing jazz at age 14. He is currently a percussionist with the Lithuanian State Symphony Orchestra.
Although suffering from jet lag and weary from many interviews, the three performers (with the aid of an interpreter) were very gracious about being interviewed yet another time.
When asked if they had encountered any resistance to their music from the Soviet government, they all replied with a resounding ``No!'' This came as something of a surprise, since the Soviet Union has at times considered jazz a subversive art form, and during the Stalinist purges went so far as to confiscate saxophones, according to author S. Frederick Starr in his book ``Red and Hot: The Fate of Jazz in the Soviet Union.'' Tarasov was quick to add that the USSR had welcomed Duke Ellington with open arms.
``We saw him 11 times, and jammed with members of his band,'' he said.
How did their avant-garde style fit in with Ellington's mainstream jazz?
Tarasov intimated that they played it Duke's way: ``We have studied the basics of jazz -- so we tried not to bother him!''
When asked how Soviet people react to their music, Chekasin replied, ``Some people like boiled fish, some like fried fish.''
In any case, concerns about fitting into certain styles and how audiences respond to the trio's music seem far from the thoughts of these iconoclasts, whose main interest is the music itself.
``We've been influenced by what music is -- as a broad concept,'' says Ganelin. ``We've been influenced by so many people that it's senseless to go through a list of names.
``It would take volumes [to describe our music],'' he continues.
``It's very complicated, poly-stylistic music. People can recognize the different styles in it, but those are not our view. We don't want to play those styles, but take them and create something new,'' Ganelin says.
Although much of the music sounds improvised, the three men state that most of it is carefully structured.
``Our music has a symphonic method of organization,'' says Chekasin.
And in a new book, ``Russian Jazz: New Identity,'' edited by Leo Feigin, Chekasin is quoted as saying, ``In principle everything we perform can subsequently be written down, the whole piece is already in our heads. As a matter of fact, our spontaneity is not of the usual kind. Our improvisations are a filling-in with textural elements of the space between the main structural landmarks of a piece, which have always been thought out in advance.''
The Ganelin Trio's 15-city tour concludes July 10. The tour was originally intended only for the Canadian cities. American cities, however, were added at the suggestion of Soviet officials after the November summit meeting between President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev.