Why New York exactly? Is there any other option? I don’t think so…
Maksim Perepelica: trust your life and keep moving
This time my conversation buddy came as a surprise to myself, because, to be honest, I had absolutely no clue about his existence until I accidentally stumbled upon a poster of his concert with his name in it. I asked around a bit — who’s that guy? Turned out that he’s one of our own Latvian guys, a talented double bass player who had never played in Riga before, has close to no contact with local jazz community, because he was born in Ventspils and left to Lithuania a bit before things began to get steamy in the capital. Them he moved to The Netherlands and then to the US. It is interesting how we, while live in the capital, have no information about this person, when he, in fact, has a very exciting life story! Just imagine — one evening sitting in your kitchen and staring at the picture of the Brooklyn Bridge and thinking that it would be awesome to live there, and it turns out that your life partner has the same fantasy and you are able to fulfill it together! Romantic, isn’t it? But I had my suspicion right from the start of that story, that this particular road isn’t the easiest one…
Jazz, New York, people–legends, struggles, temptation to just give up… We see all that in the movies, but this time one of our own people survived it all and is willing to share his story!
I guess you’re not that well–known in Riga, right? Tell me more about yourself!
I was born in Ventspils, went to a school there. Music was learnt through private lessons — every Saturday and Sunday we used to hang out, learn and rehearse, every six months we had a concert. My music education begun quite late, when I was already 16. I started playing the guitar a bit, then I switched to bass, and, if I remember correctly, I liked it. I begged my parents to buy me a bass guitar with tears in my eyes — please, buy me one! They did, allowed me to attend classes, and in two years time I got so involved in it, that I decided to pursue music as a career choice, to enroll into university. So I started learning theory, harmony, solfege, piano, took an intensive course and in one years time got ready for entry exams.
I wanted to go to Riga, but at that time my father used to work in Lithuania, in Klaipeda port, and there was this jazz club «Kurpiai», where he met one bassist who turned out to be a teacher in Klaipeda University. That’s why I went to Klaipeda, got to know the guy, took one test lesson. He asked me if I wanted to enroll, and I said — why not? During half a year he was coaching me for the entry exams, and then I took them and got accepted into the jazz department. That’s how my formal music education started.
The first two years weren’t easy, all the people around me had prior music education, and I had none. And then my friend, a drummer that now plays with Klaipeda Big band, asked me whether I wanted to play jazz, and if I did, then I needed to explore the double bass. So I went to my parents again and said — please, buy me a double bass… And they did! So I started learning that, and after one semester I transferred to Vilnius Academy of Music. There I played two instruments — a bass guitar and a double bass. The first year there was sort of introductory, but on my second one I started playing with good musicians. I got my bachelors degree after only two years and decided to go to The Netherlands, but this time only with the double bass. I decided that I need some European jazz education.
So I enrolled into Rotterdam academy. There was this teacher, a very well–known and acknowledged double bass player Hein van de Geyn, who used to play with Chet Baker. In truth, I wanted to go to Amsterdam, but got accepted into Rotterdam and Groningen, although the second school was quite far from Amsterdam. They had a very good program and strong connections with New York, once a week a teacher from there would come, that concerned every instrument. But they were quite far from everything, so I chose Rotterdam. Switched to double bass completely and started playing with local guys.
We’ve won in three competitions (Leiden Jazz Award, Dordtse Sena Jazz Award, Zoetermeer Jazz Award), one of them with Berta Moreno. That was the beginning of our work together, the founding of our band. Both of us graduated from Rotterdam, we became a couple and turned out that we had the same dream — to go to New York. There was a picture of Brooklyn Bridge on our kitchen wall. We used to stare at it together and imagine that we were there, that we’re playing there, walking the streets together… And we laughed at that.
We didn’t really like it in The Netherlands, it’s a special country, not for everyone. And we are more interested in American jazz. So we went to New York as tourists, spent there 3 weeks — explored the city, I took a lesson with Ron Carter (my jazz icon), and it was like… It turned everything around in my head. The city itself… At the end of the third week we were walking down the street with Berta and she said — it sure feels like we live here, doesn’t it? I thought about it for a second and realised that yes, it indeed did feel like it. And that’s how we chose our goal — in one years time we would move to New York. So here we are. It was our goal and we supported each other in achieving it.
How did you get to New York?
Berta enrolled into the City College, and I received an artist visa, which is a special visa for musicians. We live in New York since 2014.
How many schools have you finished in the end?
I have two Bachelor degrees. I didn’t want to go for masters, because at the time I was learning to play double bass after the bass guitar I wouldn’t be able to manage it. Also the fact that education in The Netherlands is very systematic and I with my level of knowledge wouldn’t be able to enroll. Or even if I was, I decided to go through with the bachelor once again and to fulfil my knowledge so that I would be on the same level as my colleagues.
How do you like it there, in New York?
Amazing! It’s a very complicated city, a lot of everything — music, not music, everything in one huge pile, you have to find yourself there. Bustle around. There’s a very good word for that in English — hustle. You have to be busy as a bee, search for concerts all the time, play with other musicians, jam, and that’s a lifestyle. Especially for musicians — a true hustle, be together.
Very! For example, jam sessions in Smalls or Fat Cat clubs, where all the young people go, start at one or two AM, and go on until five AM.
Yes. You’re home at five or six AM, then you have to wake up, do something, but your head is ready to explode… You have to rearrange your day completely.
So it’s a must — to be everywhere?
Well, yes, if you want to work, you have to. There are a lot of options, we are still trying to find the right one. We invite different musicians to join our project, play background music in restaurants, just to meet people. It’s a part of the job. After that, when we play our original music, we invite good musicians to play with us.
Doesn’t all this socialising get in the way of your artistic activities?
It does, but you have to balance it out somehow. It gets in the way a lot, because if you’re out until early morning, when do you wake up? 11? 12? You won’t function properly right away, and if you have another job, apart from music, that’s it, your day is over. You have to look for other options. Sometimes we attend other sessions that start early and end at 11pm. But the hardest part of it all is public transport. Some things happen in Manhattan, some things in Brooklyn, and it sometimes takes an hour or even more to play a single tune. Usually there are so many musicians that even basists have a chance to only play one tune.
Is it worth it?
Not always. Sometimes I regret the time wasted, because the lineup isn’t very successful. Usually… It’s not like people are spoiled, but they probably heard so much already, are so informed about everything, that if you aren’t special, aren’t different somehow from this mass of available musicians, than that’s it — you play your one tune and you move on, giving the stage to yet another bassist. That’s why you have to always search for something special about you.
The biggest advantage of New York is that it makes you find yourself in music. And how you present yourself to the people — your playing style, something about your appearance, something that will make them notice you and get interested in you. It could be your own music, communication with the musicians while on stage, with the audience, something scandalous in your appearance… It’s very important to communicate with the audience, that one works everywhere, not only in the US. You have to win your listeners over, gain followers, expand your fan club. It is extremely important in jazz, because jazz radios, for example, is a pretty rare thing and the people that listen to that are mostly gourmets. But what is awesome about New York is that people do know jazz understand it. If you play standards, especially ones with lyrics, they sing along. It’s so amazing to see how this culture is close to them. If you watch some Hollywood movie, preferably an older one, there’ll be a lot of jazz. And people suck that in through the movies, both vocal and instrumental jazz. New York still breathes jazz. This city is very modern, advanced in music, but at the jam sessions there’s a lot of traditions — Charlie Parker, John Coltrane… Youngsters learn that, grow up with that. Not everyone can move away from that tradition, but they most definitely have the basics. There’s also a great vibe of dixie. Everything they do is of a high level, very professional. There are young fruits, but sometimes someone tells them that it probably is too early for them to participate in the jam session. And they do it gently.
Do you happen to find yourself in a surreal situation, like walking into a coffee shop and standing in line next to some legend and you don’t know what to do next — say hello and thank them for the music, or just leave them alone with their coffee?
All the time! Especially during my first year. I couldn’t believe that, really. But after a while I realised that there’s nothing special about that, they are the same people as you and me, and that is a good feeling. If there’s Chris Porter standing before me, I realise that he’s a great musician, but at the same time he’s just as me — an ordinary human. And when that thought really gets into your head, when you realise that it’s not really important, that you can approach him and say — hey, man! I love your music! And he, most probably, will just thank you. We, for example, did a recording with a saxophonist Steve Wilson, he’s one of the most demanded sidemen in New York, but he’s so simple as a person, our communication had no barriers as a teacher and a scholar have, an experienced and an unexperienced musician. We are all in the same boat. He also came to New York some time ago and played at the same clubs, went through everything we did. And that’s normal.
Why New York specifically?
Where else? I always said — if you want to learn English, go to a country where this language is native. Jazz is a cultural phenomenon that was born in America, grew up in New York, so for me there were no other alternatives. I hear and feel their way of playing and I want the same. I lived in Lithuania for 5 years, then in The Netherlands, also for the same length of time, and I realised that everywhere it’s just a copy, a mirror. It looks and sounds right, but if this copy isn’t based on the tradition and if it’s jazz, then it could be authentic only in America. If it’s some other music, like flamenco jazz, or some other mix, then it’s interesting everywhere. If there’s anyone who arranges Latvian folk music in jazz, then it’s authentic only for Latvia and the result is interesting. But if it’s just jazz…
But don’t you think that jazz has become a universal type of music and lives outside the US as well?
Certainly. Concerning the style, cultural paradigm and all it’s the same as classical music — it’s available to everyone. There are jazz academies all around the world, clubs, festivals, everyone wants to play. I think that jazz is a lot like classical music — you have to spend years learning to play it on a high level. From this point of view jazz is something that belongs to the whole world, it’s one of the most important events in the 20th century in the sphere of culture. A lot of cultures and nations are united in jazz.
When I say «American jazz» I’m talking about the accents and the whole style of playing. There’s a certain way of building phrases and then there’s swing, certain technical nuances that come specifically from the US, from their culture. Latvia, and that’s not a reproach, doesn’t have this Afro–american influence in music, because it was the age of slavery that gave jazz this boost, the soil for growth. We didn’t have anything like it in Europe, we have classical music, harmonies and melodies from it. They have more simple melodies and rhythms, but the dance is more rhythmical, that’s why pop music grew up out of it — r’n’b, rock’n’roll, all this influenced the rest of the world. Nowadays, when everything is so mixed together, the difference isn’t that drastic. But for me the most important was this cultural phenomenon — why there and why they play like they do.
Do you miss home?
I’ve been away from home for 14 years already, it was Lithuania, then The Netherlands now the States, so… I’d say that no. I miss my parents, grandparents, friends, but I try looking forward and use the tours like this one as an opportunity to visit home and meet my people. Today’s concerts brought me someone whom I haven’t seen for 14 years — my classmate from school. That’s precious. But I don’t want to come back and live here. I do want to renew the collaboration with local musicians, make new connections. As I know, there’s not a lot of Latvians that live in the States. Last year I’ve been invited to participate in the Song and Dance festival in Baltimore, they celebrate it from 1950’s. It’s been organised by The Association of American Latvians, they preserve Latvian culture, language, speak Latvian amongst themselves, organise different events. Last year Daumants Kalnins was invited with his band and his bassist Toms Poiss couldn’t make it, so Daumants invited me to play with them. I got to play two whole concerts.
It was the right push for me — Maks, you have to make connections with your people, and I have a lot of them here and in Lithuania. You have to have your own people. I realised that I had to create this connection to home, it is interesting to everyone, because I’ve got my own experience, they have theirs, and playing together is very healthy for the soul. There’s this feeling that we’re close together, that we understand one another. Because when you have totally opposite cultures, some gestures and words may differ, could be perceived differently. It happens a lot in the US, you say something, but the person understands something completely different and then you lose the connection. And when you play with your own people, there’s this common language, we understand how we think. When the music, jazz specifically, has this level of trust, it sounds better. If not, the music will touch no one. And it has to trigger emotional responses in your heart.
You said that you and Berta had a common dream — to move to New York. This dream is a reality now, so what next?
Next is next! We’ll have to find something special about us, so that we would become interesting in other people’s eyes, so that it would be exciting to listen to us. The best example in jazz is the sound, when you are able to recognise the person from their sound, that’s the highest level. We have recently released Bertas album, so the next step is to continue doing our music. Our constant plan is to expand our knowledge, improve our skill set. My personal plan is to make connections not only in America, to turn more towards the whole world, try to play at different festivals, because it’s more pleasant to play for the people who really listen. And to have different venues, not only clubs.
What’s your current dream?
If we speak about a dream in a more romantic sense, I want to reach a level that would allow me to play with the best musicians in the best clubs. To become recognisable, famous. It’s an urge I have deep inside me, because in truth every single one of us likes attention. I see it more as an abstract drea, there’s a road, I know how to reach this goal, but I’m also interested in the process. It would be awesome to achieve this goal, but a lot of interesting things could happen along the way. During my first 6 months in the states I wanted to go home. I was scared, I couldn’t understand what’s happening. But if I did came back home, I wouldn’t have had all these amazing experiences. For example, I accidentally played with Valery Ponomaryov, who is a legend, a unique person. I knew about him from text books about the history of jazz, trumpetist from the Soviet Union who was hired by Art Blakey! And here I am, standing with this old man and he said to me: «Maksim! How are you? Can you tell me how does GPS in the phone work? What? We’re here?» And for me it’s like… And old man who is so full of energy and enthusiasm, and I was able to touch Art Blakey through him… He played in the same clubs as Lee Morgan, he even has a poster from that specific concert, where Lee was killed… And these experiences, those you can get only in New York. He told me then: «You know, I’ve been here for 40 years already, but still feels like the first time, as if I just arrived…» Those experiences — they are my dream, to give myself a chance to experience those. My dream is to live in the circumstances where things like that can happen.
Share some wisdom — what is vital for a young jazz musician?
The most important thing is to believe in yourself and listen to your heart. It’s not just about music, more about your intuition, your will. There will be obstacles, someone will try to discourage you, to stop you, and that’s ok. Most important is not to give up and to believe that you’ll make it. I myself thought for a million times that New York is too complicated, too many musicians, so hard, maybe I should just quit? But, if even I without my serious background in music (in my childhood) was able to get this far, then you have to trust life and move on, never stop.