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Bremen jazz talks with Cyril Moshkow

Aleksandra Line

«JAZZ.RU» chief editor Cyril Moshkow on jazz as a viable music genre, free jazz as a step to infinity and Latvian culture crossroads

When I’ve started working on my Master thesis on jazz community in Latvia, an ex-intendant of the Latvian National Opera, jazz music fan Ivars Bērziņš has volunteered to be the head of my research. The first thing he told me to do was to call the head of the jazz department of the Riga Dome Choir School Tālis Gžibovskis and head of the jazz department of the Latvian Academy of Music Indriķis Veitners and consult them on the literature choice. An immense list of books and resources Indriķis has recommended me contained a couple of books written by a journalist Cyril Moshkow, whom I’ve already heard about by that moment, so his books have taken their rightful place on my bookshelf.

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The «Jazz Industry in America, XXI century» cover says Cyril has a journalist’s education and did quite a lot of jobs: worked as a programmer, bassist in a blues-rock band, a factory guard, chief editor of a student radio station, music festival producer, TV program author, first Moscow jazz magazine reviewer, TV host, column editor in a music magazine, jazz festival host and concert producer. Chief editor of «Jazz.Ru» magazine, has delivered lectures at the Washington Congress Library, written a lot of books, and so on.

I’ve met Cyril at the largest European jazz gathering «JAZZAHEAD!» in Bremen in April 2018: Cyril has worked at the Russian Jazz World stand, and left it for some time to visit our stand, dedicated to Latvian jazz, immediately telling me he knows its representatives for some time. It has left us with some topics to be discussed, so we’ve decided we are going to meet outside the exhibition hall right after the first conference day to discuss our impressions on the event, jazz movement and jazz in whole.

It was the first exhibition day today. Cyril, what are your thoughts on «Jazzahead!»?

It’s not exactly the first one for me, it’s the fourth, and would be the fifth if the German embassy wouldn’t have denied a visa when I was up to attending it for the first time in 2013. All in all, every single time makes me believe in one very simple thought: first of all, jazz movement in the whole world is one big family, second, all of them are crazy, including me, and finally, I really like it.

Being a guest of our stand, you have told you know the Latvian jazz at a certain level. For how long?

You know, it didn’t begin with jazz in my case. I have come to Riga for the first time in spring of 1990, working at the Soviet television by that time, and we have begun to film an hour long TV program about the Riga rock scene, called «Ferris Wheel” («Чертово колесо»). It featured the bands like «Cement», «Jauns Mēness», «Cart Blansch», and we’ve filmed them one by one, because they didn’t have guts to get together and talk, it was a tense moment between Russian and Latvian bands. The band «Cement» featured Jānis Vanadziņš, a very good blues guitar player by that times. They have shown the program at a so-called «Orbit» — Far East and Syberia, but it didn’t go to Moscow — some people have told the words about Latvia’s separation from the USSR. Speaking of reality, it was the matter of 9 months, but obviously it couldn’t by any means be told on-air neither in Moscow, nor in Latvia itself, so nobody saw the program. In Latvia they were waiting for it, it was the first time ever when the Central television has directly addressed the Latvian modern scene, the whole hour of documentary, so they were really offended there. Our program was closed by that time, and we haven’t filmed anything ever since. We have done interesting interviews — for example, Pete Anderson, old-timer of Riga rock scene, who told us many interesting and wise things. It was a great program, however nobody ever saw it, so it’s only stored somewhere on home video cassettes of our ex-colleagues.

Later on I began studying Riga jazz scene, contacted some musicians who were born in Riga — for example, guitar player Valeriy Belinov, who played jazz-rock in the «Opus» band, accompanied Latvian singers in «Modo», then moved to Saint-Petersburg, from there emigrated to the US. This was my first meeting the Riga scene, which I kept studying later on when I began making «Jazz.Ru» — in the beginning as an internet journal, then as a printed magazine. Unfortunately we still haven’t made the whole review of the Latvian jazz scene — we had reviewed the Lithuanian, Azerbaijani, Estonian, but never the Latvian one.

Then, a couple of years ago, I came to «Rīgas Ritmi» festival, for the first time in 25 years, saw the musicians live — those whom our journalists have already met — for example, pianist Viktors Ritovs. We have some contacts in store with many Latvian musicians, but the whole picture is still being made. Even though it’s always so difficult to learn the whole picture, because it always keeps changing. Once I’ve written a book called «Jazz Industry in America», and by the time the edition saw the light, I realised it’s time to prepare the second one — during those 4-5 years while I’ve prepared the first one, too much have changed. Five years after that, in 2013, the second edition was done, and when I held it in my hands, I realised that this information is old as well now. I’m not going to write the third edition — I’ve decided the book has to stay as a document of it’s own time. If someone wants to describe the things going on right now, I don’t mind if he writes instead of me.

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And that’s a great document indeed, has a prominent place on my bookshelf.

I’m glad it does. I’m, of course, quite far away from the thought to write such a book about Latvian jazz, but I have a book on jazz industry in Europe in mind, and it will contain a small chapter on all countries I’ve visited to get acquainted with the local scene. I understand that there’s no absolute truth, we cannot describe the real things, we can just get closer to it.

But at the same time the moment when you realize you have learned very much about Latvian jazz is inevitable — what do you expect from such a moment?

A quarter of the century has passed since the political regime that held all our countries in one space has changed, but the cultural connections haven’t disappeared. Even though I’m always expecting the language and cultural connection to disappear among younger generations, some cultural code specifics still stay understandable for everyone. Once I got really surprised by one fact, when I came to Tallinn to attend a jazz festival, some really young guys were there, playing just the thing that the Russian musical jargon names «dog», which stands for free jazz. So they kept playing the dog, but in the beginning a really well-known theme sounded, like «Radiohead» or «Black Sabbath’s «Iron Man». And then suddenly a theme from a famous Russian children program started sounding, and those guys were really way younger than those who could see that program — so it has remained somewhere in their cultural code. Not exactly everything that existed within the empire was that bad: speaking of culture, there have been many positive things that have survived in the cultural code just because people treated them as positive, not as signs of oppression.

You deal with lots of different music every single day. What of it all is closer to you personally?

You know, that’s a «Boy, do you love your mommy or daddy more? Or your porridge?» kind of question. My personal preferences lay a bit further from jazz. I came to jazz from totally different music genres which I’ve played, and when I suddenly have some free time I decide to spend on listening to music, which happens very rarely, it’s not jazz that sounds in my earphones. It’s mostly popular rock music of the end of the 60s I’ve played in my youth. It’s my time in music, even though I was born only in the 1968, but it’s especially close to me. As a listener, I feel closer to jazz that’s 10 — 15 years older, Golden Age of jazz, axial time of the end — the middle of the 50s.

You know, there’s a notion of an axial time in history, invented by Karl Jaspers, in the European history that time appeared some 13 centuries ago before Christ, but in the history of jazz it could be easily defined: it’s 1959. The development of the jazz idiom, language that creates jazz stylistical notions, reached its absolute by that year and then started to break up. Free jazz appeared, that was the next step itself, but a step to infinity, which demolished that jazz idiom. 1959 is the moment when John Coltrane recorded «Giant Steps» which is the highest improvisation development example. The decay is logical: you cannot stay at the highest point all the time, the movement doesn’t always go straight or go up, which isn’t always bad, it is what it is. Of course, now, when we’re watching a TV series «Jazz» filmed by Ken Burns in the beginning of the 2000s, every speaker on the screen tells us it’s a pity that jazz has died in the 1960. I disagree: jazz continues to live now, develops, creates new generations, tens of young musicians join the jazz family every year, that music is real to them, they have something to tell about it, not only in the idiomatic, but also in the poly idiomatic jazz, which unites many different stylistical signs.

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To me, for example, in the last 15 years one of the most interesting things I’ve heard in jazz was the American saxophone player of an Indian origin Rudresh Mahanthappa. He started with a very modern jazz, then got interested by the music of his ancestors, got a grant of a kind and went to India to study music which he actually didn’t know until he was a grown-up. Played a bit with local musicians, listened to their recordings, then suddenly reached a new level and began to compose way more complicated music, a composition on 11/8 alternating with 9/8, usual for Indian music, nothing special. They don’t count music, they learn it as poetry. Now he plays this music as easily as he breathes. There’s a category in this music which isn’t exactly liked by many listeners — a musicians aggression of a kind, he really insists on his notion of music, oppressing his listener, but his music doesn’t leave you untouched. I liked the moment when he came to Moscow to a «Jazz Triumph» festival, the 1700 seats hall was full, and Rudresh was playing absolutely without any compromises, without any amendments. He has played 45 minutes of his outrageous complicated music, very fierce saxophone play, violent sound, and I saw about 400-500 people who were sitting in trance from that music, totally immersed in it, and about 300 people who jumped up and ran out of the hall just like they were on fire. And then I’ve realised this music is still quite actual because it brings up powerful emotions.

Recently our magazine has published a translation of an article of one British professor called «Jazz as a classical music». He stands for his idea that jazz has turned into a new kind of a classical art which has its canon, and we can only try to approach this canon, but cannot come out of it. I disagree with that because I see that the music that creates such strong emotions isn’t stiff yet, didn’t turn into a fixed canon. This is the power of jazz music — 100 years after the first jazz vinyl was pressed in 1917, this music is still able to develop. Jazz continues to be a live genre.

How could you define a place of Latvia in the musical sense in the European context or, if that’s possible, in the context of the world?

Latvia is lucky to be on the crossroads in between the legacy of the Soviet empire and the modern European jazz world. It preserves the things that were worked on during the Soviet era, after the war, and the things that Europe can offer during the last 25 years. Many musicians have left — to Europe, America, many specialists from Latvia lecture in the universities and present their art in different countries. Latvia is lucky in a sense that it’s situated on the cultural crossroads, and this isn’t bad at all. It’s good to be in the centre of any appearance, but being on the crossroads between appearances is more profitable in a way, because you can use many growth angles at once. In this sense your neighboring Estonia is a nice example to me — they have realised it really fast, they use this fact that their country is on the cultural crossroads, and that’s the way it should be. Instead of trying to fully imitate a metropole culture, they develop their crossroad culture, and it’s interesting.

It’s quite difficult to me to judge from outside, why did many musicians leave Latvia, but the fact is that this process continues, and I only want to wish the musicians not to be afraid of it. It’s nice to beautifully play in canon, but the canon hasn’t been written by us. When I visited «Rīgas Ritmi» a couple of years ago, I went to a Brazil percussionist’s workshop at the Latvian Radio studio. Some 15 percussionists of a different age have been there, listening to a workshop on Brazil percussion. From around 900 rhythms that exist in Brazil, he showed us just one. He showed all the elements it’s built of, for each instrument, gave a role to everybody, gave each of us the rhythmical accent, and something interesting began then: while he was playing (he played just the accents, didn’t do the rhythm), it sounded like an authentic Brazil rhythm, but the moment he stopped playing, it all immediately started sounding like a metronome. The reason for it is (and we’re just the same as Latvia, Estonia, or any other Eastern European country) — our culture doesn’t have a rhythm base, in our case a choir singing prevails. All of us can sing in choirs, so the rhythm of our music is very free, it breathes, switches from side to side, but the rhythmical structures coming from Africa are included in a very precise rhythmical net. If you’re playing within this net, you see many steps ahead, you can be very precise or move a bit forward or behind.

The swing phenomenon in jazz itself is based on the fact that swing isn’t noted, you can, of course, note it, but it will be quite a rough approximation, not a real notation. You need to feel the swing. There’s an amazing example — a great, now dead, drummer Elvin Jones. When he played with an ensemble, you always felt that they develop three different times at the same time: there’s a metronome time (those rhythmical structure dots), there’s an ensemble time (which can or cannot correspond to the metronome time), and there’s a drummer’s time (who could play ahead, or behind, or create a rhythmical conflict with the ensemble). He was a really very uneasy drummer, but thanks to this conflict he created, a drama appeared. Even when they just played usual standards, there has always been a rhythmical drama.

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One of my favorite albums in jazz history, which I keep listening to, also just for my pleasure, is an album of a guitar player Grant Green, where he plays bossa nova, with Elvin Jones on the drums. The album was released in 1965, if I’m not mistaken, and it’s so very special thanks to its first track. The most popular song in the world in 1964 was «I Want To Hold Your Hand» by «The Beatles», and here’s what those musicians were doing: guitar played a monophonic line, where one could recognize that song, digital organ played a completely different harmonic sequence, extrapolated from Paul McCartney’s harmonic sequence, but these are not just the same chords (sometimes they correspond and sometimes they don’t), and Elvin Jones plays a Brazilian rhythm, this bossa nova (here Cyril bangs the rhythm with his fingers on a Bremen conference hall table). And he created such a drama with this rhythm, which is played kind of even, you could even dance to it, but he pushes back so strongly compared to a time feeling of the whole ensemble that this music carries you away. I can put this track on repeat and listen to it for 10, 15 times in a row. Guitar, digital organ and drums, nothing more. Yes, Hank Mobley also plays saxophone there, not the last person in this story.

That is the drama that grasps me, and that we cannot fully reproduce in our culture, but we do have our own kinds of drama. We have harmony, first of all, we have a great classical school legacy, our own in every country, we have our own national legacy. We don’t make everyone use it, a person is free to do what he wants to, but even if he wants to play «Summertime» for the rest of his life, he’ll always find a listener who will be happy to listen to that. But if you have a legacy like that, why not use it? Yes, I respect people who want and will play «Summertime» or «All The Things You Are» every single day, and there’s nothing bad about it, but I’m more interested in the direction young people will follow. Young ones who study their own roots in this music — in the musical language which they’ve mastered while learning jazz.