The heart and soul intertwined with jazz in England
Ivars Galenieks: I like jazz and I play it!
A double bassist Ivars Galenieks is a legend of Latvian jazz, one of the most noticeable musicians in the Soviet Union times and also in a free republic of Latvia, moved to England, Great Britain 16 years ago. In the end of May he came to Riga to play several concerts in his homeland. We simply couldn’t miss this opportunity and had to meet up with Ivars for a chat.
You left Latvia 16 years ago, what was the reason?
It happened because of personal reasons, concerning my family. I married a woman from England and we had to decide who is going to move and where. I ended up being the one to move to England and it had nothing to do with music.
Surely you haven’t forgotten about jazz after moving cities, did you find things to do there?
Of course! I’m not planning on giving up my passions. When I first arrived I did work as an operator in a contact factory, because you just couldn’t survive without a job. After those 5 weeks I got a job in a piano company. For a couple of years I have worked as a piano repairman, then I went freelance because one of the directors, who was a really nice man, he had a technical way of thinking he was a good piano tuner and repairs man, but he retired and I couldn’t get along very well with the other director.
I decided that from now on I will work for myself, although it wasn’t an easy decision. As an immigrant I had no friends, no people I knew who could support me, that’s why I had to build everything up by myself. Speaking about music — I started slowly playing in Norwich, Newark, Suffolk and also a little bit in Cambridgeshire. Someone noticed me and I started playing, becoming a part of jazz clubs in Norwich region. I also got several gigs not in jazz music, but I was often invited as a classical musician to play with various symphony orchestras. In the end I became a concertmaster of the double bass group in Norwich Philharmonic Orchestra.
You are also a fan of that 360° photography or the virtual tour creation for Google. How did this happen?
I’ve been interested in photography from the ancient times. I always liked taking pictures. In England it happened like this — I was always putting together a list of things with the problems of a certain piano and to illustrate certain problems I took pictures, then I would make a brochure of it, to illustrate the problems even more I took even more pictures. Then I somehow got involved with taking pictures for Google. Since this is a commercial work I had to pass two exams, and these exams were not easy. The work involves taking pictures of real estate or businesses, because the purpose of it all is commercial. Also it meant finding different landmarks for tourists. I still do that. But most of all I use photography as an outlet, I use it for joy. All in all I try being helpful and useful to the society. I like music, I like repairing the pianos and I like photography. These are the three things I like.
If we talk about your life in jazz, it looks like yet another 360° trip you made. You have been a very noticeable jazzman in the Soviet Union, then in the 90s in Latvia, in the free republic, and then you suddenly found yourself in the Western world. It looks like a very wide look on the jazz world.
The background changed, the situation changed and it influenced the direction of where I was going. There are people that like taking well-known routes. I, on the contrary, am one of those who likes taking the new ones. You can use metaphors and say that I had this 360° trip but the problem is that my degrees are stuck. My life works only in 180°.
Is British jazz life different from what happens here, in Latvia? They do have the Western music technologies in action there, don’t they?
I’m not really a part of the music industry. There are people in both Eastern and Western world who deal with organization. Festivals and concerts are a part of an infrastructure where musicians can play. Where, what and who takes part in all these concerts is the question for an organizer. England has some big and small jazz festivals. There are a lot of big names in the big festivals, in the small ones there might be one or two famous musicians. Often enough jazz concerts are a part of the towns fest. It is not a rare story and the specifics of England are such, that a jazz club usually represents his own neighborhood, his location. It has local musicians, their own bands. The musicians try to escape their own regions to go to London, because in such a big city there are a lot of opportunities, a lot of possibilities to find a good job, to go abroad, to become known and famous. I saw this as a very sad story, because these people were amazing and we could use them in doing good things for the community and making local life more colorful. Life has to be built from generation to generation. One generation leaves a heritage, the next generation takes this heritage and makes it even more precious.
When I was in the Netherlands I saw a street made of cobblestone and I thought that something like this doesn’t happen in a days time, it takes generations to fulfill such a job. In my time I have traveled a lot, I have participated in various jazz festivals and once a leader of the «KADANS» ensemble came up to me and proposed to join their band. That meant moving to Moscow. I thought of that for a moment but then I said that I am still needed in my country, in Latvia. He was very surprised and he had nothing else to say to me. I evaluated the short term bonuses that meant touring with good musicians and earning good money all around the world, but it would be a totally different environment, the one I am not well acquainted with.
I got very closely acquainted with this loneliness in England. A musician in London who is considered to be a very good one, is invited to play in the club but with the musicians of that club, with the so-called house band. Another story are the so called «tributes» that play other musician’s programs, popular musician’s programs. But I on the other hand didn’t think it was quite OK, because it killed a professional musician. Each one of them is a unique person, that is different from the others and you have to expect this uniqueness from his own music not from what he plays in his everyday life trying to fill the shoes of someone else. There are a lot of tribute bands in England, some of them were able to earn a decent living doing this job. They have the audience, their calendars are full with concerts. But there are also a lot of musicians who play original music, who are unique. Although the number of those musicians is significantly smaller.
You have mentioned Cambridgeshire, this year they are hosting the festival «We Out Here» for the first time and it’s dedicated to the new generation of British jazz musicians. It is considered that the Brits are now having the new wave of jazz music, a rebirth of sorts, that brings us a lot of new artists, leaders, a lot of you young and talented musicians. Do you feel the same in England, do you feel that jazz is being reborn yet again?
Maybe in London, but that life happens on its own, separately from the rest of the country. There are a lot of interesting musicians. They are not always very well-known. Because of the specific aspects of English music life they not necessarily can become popular outside of London. The country is pretty big. If I lived in London I would have to spend two hours on the road, then the same amount of time I would spend moving through the city. And Cambridgeshire, well, it’s an hour and a half away from where I am. It is a pretty long way to go somewhere to listen to new British jazz.
The British press is very excited about this festival because it helps popularize jazz music among the new generation of listeners. At the same time we are talking about the diversity of race amongst the musicians. Does your region have this many representatives of different cultures, different nations, or are you the only one from abroad on the jazz scene?
I am not the only one. There are a lot of musicians that come and go. I remember Scott Hamilton once brought along a saxophonist from Italy, he was very talented and after that he also performed in England as a solo artist. It was a promotion of sorts. I can see different faces of visiting artists from time to time, but Norwich and Norfolk are not exactly the places that you would choose to stay at if you’re a musician from abroad. It’s not the center of the country, it’s not easy to get to other places from there, although there are musicians from Spain or Portugal. I suppose we have a lot of musicians that speak Spanish. They form their own ensembles based on their Latin American music. From time to time I play with them as well.
Do you get to compose something yourself and play your original music?
To tell the truth I have been at a pretty low point considering my creative life. I had to stabilize my life and it involved some pretty intense jobs. I also took some classes to learn something new, which I never stop doing by the way. Although I have plans for the future, that involve some musical projects which I am not ready to talk about just yet.
How often do you come to Latvia? This isn’t the first time since you’ve left, right?
This isn’t the first time in Latvia, but it is the first time in the last 16 years when I am here to play. It is a very pleasant feeling of coming back. It is amazing to play with my old colleagues and with some new talents that have grown while I was away and that have become professional musicians. Actually, I have to confess that a couple of years ago I have played in the «Trompete», that jazz restaurant at a jam session, but that doesn’t really count.
A note for our readers — this comeback is to participate in a concert dedicated to the 80th anniversary of Latvian saxophonist Raimonds Raubiško. Personally to me that 1984 recording with Raubiško «Images of Ancient Egypt» is a favorite from what I’ve heard of you and maybe of all Soviet jazz. Which album has made the most impact on you during your 50 year long history of being a jazz musician?
The album you’ve mentioned wasn’t my first serious experience in jazz. It’s hard to say. I was always very impatient and also I always criticized my playing a lot. I have always compared myself to the big players and realized that I am very far from their level. I listened to Ray Brown, Ron Carter, Charles Mingus. I lived with the belief that a person should never step twice in the same river. While playing I tried not to repeat something that I played previously. Also in this recording you’ve mentioned I tried not to repeat myself. That was the way I felt and the way I played. I tried finding the best in me. Nevertheless «Images of Ancient Egypt» was my first puppy that I thought I had to drown. In my opinion the first attempt wasn’t the best one. But it was a project of Raimonds, and me and Māris Briežkalns were just session musicians. There was a full concept ready and we had to fit in. For a young man it was a pretty tough job. I was still wet behind the ears.
But you were 32 years old already!
Yes, I had the years, but I am talking about my jazz age! I didn’t feel confident at all.
But then four years later you released your own album «Trans-Siberian express». You were more sure of yourself then?
If we talk about the «Trans-Siberian express», then that really was during my active jazz everyday life. I had a chance to play with different musicians, participate in festivals, I had a lot of different ideas that I wrote down and then developed them and later wanted to record. It just happened so that my friends and the musicians that participated in the album came to Riga for a jazz festival and the radio was kind enough to allow me to use their studio to make this recording. That is how the album came to life. The compositions were slightly out of the main route we usually took.
What is so special about jazz that has enchanted you 50 years ago and still doesn’t let go?
Well, this is a good question indeed. I think that it is probably what Duke Ellington used to say «It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing!». Swing music was what caught my attention when I was only 15 years old. I am happy that I got a chance to attend jazz concerts in the polytechnical Institute that were organized during the Soviet Union times. After that nothing special used to happen. One of the concerts was of the Roman Kuntsman quintet, another one of Aleksey Kozlov quartet. I remember that after the first concert I was walking down the street all gray. Since that time nothing could touch me the same way as jazz did. Although we didn’t have a lot of information. I found only one vinyl — «Acker Bilk» album In the national library. It was more or less a traditional jazz recording. I didn’t have a lot of interest in this specific genre but nonetheless I listened to it very carefully.
The alternative was to listen to Willis Conover from the «Voice of America» and his show «Jazz hour». Of course everything was heavily censored by the Soviet Union so sometimes we could listen to the radio and sometimes we couldn’t. Then at some point I got one of Oscar Peterson’s trio recordings that I listened to day and night. And after that was the concert by Duke Ellington touring the Soviet Union. I went to Minsk and bought a recording from one suspiciously looking KGB agent, it was given to him by one of the musicians, I paid 25 rubles for that. Of course, I gave this recording to other musicians from my orchestra to copy.
These two albums were something that I used to listen to day and night. Two recordings that are so very different. Peterson together with Ray Brown plays this smooth and beautiful rhythm. Everything is so polite and pleasant. In the second recording Duke Ellington has such swing! If I start listening to the saxophone section or the trumpet section that’s it, I lose my rhythm! This is a unique piece of art. These two vinyl recordings where as two completely different worlds inside of my one world, and it gave me the understanding how jazz works as a process. I am a classically trained musician. I started learning the piano, oboe, and only then the double bass. The last one was something very fresh when I already played jazz with professionals. Technically I wasn’t ready, although I wanted it very much.
They say that a sound engineer Mārtiņš Saulespurēns had influenced you strongly during the years of your jazz self-education, introduced you to his wide album collection.
Without him I wouldn’t be where I am today and what I was yesterday. He comes from a very musical family that is also into business. His father was a huge fan of jazz. He gladly shared the recordings from his huge collection. It was an opportunity for me to listen to this amazing, best music. I lived with this for very long, for many years. I had the chance to listen and to analyze. My thirst for this music was partially satisfied, I just had to start playing it myself. I couldn’t blame the system anymore that jazz wasn’t available.
So this probably is a story about you being responsible for your own life. Nowadays all the history of jazz is one click away in Spotify, but it doesn’t mean that there are now 1000 more musicians that play jazz.
This is true. As with everything, it is a profession that helps you in earning money. But that profession can be something that you learned because your parents wanted you to learn, or maybe because it just happened like that, or also of your own free will. Your own choices in turn can be based on the financial perspective, that means that you would choose something that is popular in the society. There are various models of that. I regularly am faced with a similar attitude at work when I play in the national Symphony orchestra when half of the band enjoys the process and enjoys the concerts, and enjoys the rehearsals but another part always complains that you have to play the same tunes all the time, because that is the specifics of the orchestra, the work you’ve chosen to do. They suffer from that. According to my philosophy nothing ever repeats itself. Even in the orchestra, the written music is never the same on the micro tonal level, it will always be different. When you put it all together it will sound different, the conductor will lead the band in a different manner. If you are not involved in the process with both your heart and soul, then the only thing that’s left for you to do is to suffer. It is the same with jazz. I have met a lot of musicians, especially from the United States, that say that it is just a job. I don’t want to call it just a job. I like playing jazz and I will play it.