One cannot build a house without a foundation and the bricks
Accordionist, pianist, flutist and tenor saxophonist Juri Smirnov: the history of Latvian jazz that comes to visit
One August eve I get a call from a Lithuanian drummer living in Latvia, Vlad Zelkin: “Aleksandra, Smirnov is flying over to Latvia, do you want to come and listen to our private jam? Everyone will be there!” So I do come. “Everyone” is slowly drinking tea in the Riga Dome Cathedral School at the class of Aivars Krastiņš. Vlad is sitting by the drums, saying “Bob is coming, let’s wait for him.” Bob appears to be Boris Bannykh, whose double bass rolls into the classroom before he does. Except Boris there are also Victor Avdyukevich, Mikhail Schavelev, Raivo Stašāns, some more people. But the party is all about Juri Smirnov, a rare guest in Latvia from Germany, a musician who is still known up here from the Soviet times of the Radio band. So I’m enjoying a listener’s role at the jam, and deciding we’re going to meet again with Juri, so that I can do what I love so much — listen to the stories.
Juri Smirnov: I do music since childhood, I’ve been studying accordion at a music school and heard jazz chords for the first time there. Someone played some chords on the accordion, and it has influenced me so much that I “got infected” jazz immediately. Then I began playing the plani, and, of course, got influenced by Raimonds Pauls trio (piano, drums and double bass), which I heard on the radio. Then I bought some note sheets, studied them, looked how it all got created, went to listen to the other musicians, asked them how to play jazz. There was a piano player Alik Shilov, I’ve enjoyed him playing a lot, there was Naum Periferkovitch as well, and I studied with Fogel at a music college. Was listening to Vadim Vyadro, who was living here. Some jam sessions were happening around, and I tried to attend them and listen.
Then I moved to Lithuania, lived there for 5 years, studied accordion at the conservatory, played jazz piano in the meantime. Listened to Lithuanian musicians, got acquainted to Vlad Zelkin and many others. Then I got back to Latvia, worked at a restaurant here and at the radio in the meantime (Latvian SSR Television and Radio orchestra, which has now transformed into a Latvian Radio big band) for 12 years in a row. At the Radio band I began with playing the piano, then some saxophone, then some flute. Sat by Raimonds Raubiško and learned a lot from him, we were together with Egīls Straume, Ivars Birkāns at the wind instruments section. A great musician and arranger Gunārs Rozenbergs was also there. We went to London with this ensemble, a small ensemble from the radio – Māris Briežkalns on the drums, Victor Avdyukevitch on the double bass, Madars Kalniņš on the piano, Gunārs Rozenbergs on the trombone, Raimonds Raubiško on a soprano saxophone, me on a tenor. Such a company we had. We sat and played every day. On the stage exchanged with such musicians as Joe Henderson, Ronnie Scott himself at his jazz club, Art Blakey came along with his “Jazz Messengers” so we played with them as well.
Then I moved to Germany and kept playing jazz there as well. Now I’m an associate professor at a jazz college for 28 years in a row, teaching how to play saxophone and piano. Working at music schools as well, and, of course, perform — in various jazz clubs and at the weddings. But those weddings usually ask me to do some easy jazz or salon music.
So you’ve been playing many different instruments at the Radio band?
In the beginning I was told — play the piano, and so I did for some time. There was a saxophone player Janka [Jānis] Zirnis, who later on became a famous conductor, and the band needed a saxophone, so they told me — now go play the sax.
Yes, right now in all concert recordings one can find on the internet you’re playing the saxophone.
Yes, I played it way more. Sometimes together with Ivars Birkāns I had to play the second flute — depending on what we had to record. Sometimes I had to play the accordion. There was a festival in Jūrmala called “Jūrmala 85” or 86, where all the soloists from the Soviet Union came along, and we played with them. There was one song where someone had to play the accordion. So they gave me an accordion — I had to do that.
You’ve mentioned that you’ve learned how to play the saxophone at Raubiško in the Radio band.
Yes, I didn’t begin with a clarinet as a normal saxophonist. I immediately began playing the saxophone, for all the time. I had a great colleague, clarinetist and saxophone player Gena Afanasyev — I learned from him. I showed him how you need to play jazz on the piano, he showed me how to blow a horn. So I asked him many questions, and I kept asking Raubiško as well.
How often do you come to Latvia now? Do you get to play with local musicians often?
I try to come once a year, my parents are also buried here. And we come together with musicians every time I’m here, of course. I know many musicians here, and some still remember me as well. We’re meeting at the Riga City festival, «Mirage big band» performs there, some of my colleagues are in that band. Yesterday I saw Laimis Rācenājs at the river bank, he put a Spanish-Mexican costume on and never sang.
Do you follow what young musicians do?
Last year, for example, I got to jam together with some of them at «Pashkevich Jazz Club». There have been wonderful young guys, I don’t remember the surnames, but the way they played got me surprised. Jason Hunter came, played the trumpet, we played with Deniss Pashkevich, he announced me from the stage: «Here you go the legend, still alive!» We played and then moved to «Trompete» bar, played there as well, it was fun. Musicians who moved somewhere come to Latvia from time to time — to play, to watch.
Did the Radio band go on tours often when you were a part of it?
Together with the whole orchestra we’ve been to Greece — it was my very first foreign trip. Then we’ve been to Moscow twice, each time for 2 weeks living in a hotel called «Rossiya» (Russia), there was a concert hall in it. Once Raimonds Pauls was celebrating his 50th anniversary, the second time was when he got an award being «Honored Artist of the Soviet Union». It was 1987, I think. Then we were in Sweden, at some small city, together with many opera musicians, Harijs Bašs played the piano, Olga Pīrāgs was singing, I was playing the saxophone. Overall it was hard to get out at that time, but we’ve seen something.
How do you like working in jazz education now, looking back at the old time memories in Latvia?
I know that speaking of education, everything is looking up to US — all of those books, everything from there. Now, of course, a great help for students is that there’s YouTube, internet, you can get all the information, all real books, all harmonies, melodies, everything comes from there. Earlier we’ve carried the real books along us, now half of it is in my pocket, the other half — on a tablet back in my hotel. See, Misha Schavelev still doesn’t know how to use all these devices, even though he plays well. Of course, he is more than 70 years old now. We’ve been listening to lots of stuff with him since childhood, searched how to play things. There’s been Uldis Stabulnieks, a great piano player, everyone kept asking him how to get better at it.
Did you get to play with some good musicians in Germany?
I’ve three ensembles there. One under my name, we play mostly my compositions there with good musicians. A drummer, a vibraphonist with a degree, and a double bassist is just a great fan of double bass, but he works as the main doctor in the hospital. And he manages us, which is very important. Sits in his chief doctor’s cabinet and makes us some management. We’re performing at a jazz festival, there’s an ancient and very beautiful city called Regensburg, everyone comes there from all over the world.
How did the jam sessions look like while you were living in Latvia?
The ones who wanted to listen were there. There were many who understood, and yet more of the people who didn’t understand what this music was about. Jazz is a complicated music, not meant for a wide audience. It’s music for the snobs, if you say so. There’s some easier jazz, there’s some more complicated one. For example, if you come to a usual audience and play some Charlie Parker’s «Donna Lee», they’d say he was crazy. And this is normal. But professional musicians and seasoned listeners would know. It’s a whole story, science, after all. Teaching jazz history, harmony, rhythm, listening education — it’s very important. I guess, it is the same here as well.
We have a very young jazz education here, just for the last 10 years.
What I heard here is wonderful. But all of it looks like America pretty much. In the Soviet times there’s been a cafe called «Allegro» — jam sessions happened regularly, and all of it under a Komsomol committee, and some Komsomol workers said «Why on Earth you’re constantly playing the same thing, play something more interesting, something of your own». But how could you play your own, how could you build a house without foundation and bricks? To begin with a roof and make everything break down instantly?
There, of course, have been some musicians who tried to create something of their own from the very beginning. Myself, for example, I don’t appreciate free jazz that much — there’s too much freedom. It all depends, of course. In Lithuania all began with Chekasin — I’ve shared a flat with Chekasin and I remember how it all happened. Chekasin has been playing his oversmart jazz things — he knew tradition very well to play it all, and was a great piano player — it all has been happening in front of me. They I studied with Ganelin, who is living in Israel for a long time now — he also loved free jazz, but he has been playing tradition in a very right manner. I think there has to be a base in the beginning, and then — it just goes on. There’s been a saxophonist and a good friend of mine Boris Gammer. I remember how we began when we were 16 years old — he was leaning to something else. I kept telling him — play right, after all. Well, everyone plays the way he likes it, of course.
I think many young musicians here think that we’re too traditional. They don’t doubt that you need to know tradition, but many here think as if the significance of it is too big, and Latvians won’t ever play as good as Americans in the 1930s.
It’s not like that. Latvians play so well that Americans don’t even stand near it! I admire local young musicians. everyone develops their own way, and this is ok, this is normal. It’s normal that in classical music at the beginning everyone plays Bach and Mozart. Well, there’s no other way. If you don’t know what happens if you add two and two, then you’ll never know how to multiply three by six.
I’m not keen on free jazz. I hear some harmony in it, but where does it all come from — maybe there are some regularities which I have to seriously study. Although the opinions don’t necessarily have to correspond, every genre has rights to survive. I like tradition, I’m a melody guy, I get inspired by Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, Ornette Coleman.
What is that base you teach to your students?
If we talk about saxophone players, you have to make them master their instrument, to rule over the sound. When everything happens normally, they can begin learning jazz language. Bebop, phrasing which musicians have transformed to standards for decades. After that we have to choose the things that make it move in different directions — swing, Latin, ballades, sax duos.
And I’d like to wish a further development to Latvian jazz. I see it moving on, and I think that it’s happening in a very right direction. There are good teachers, specialists, musicians. It’s good that people have an interest in it, youngsters want to create things, it’s a pleasure to listen to them when they really succeed. I want to wish some good jazz to Latvia, and to the musicians — not to get scared by individuality, for everyone to develop in their own way, the way they prefer, but not forget the tradition.
The pictures were taken during an informal jam session at RDKS school. The full gallery is available at JAZZin Facebook page.