Anniversary saxophone talks
«Major suits Latvians way more than minor» — saxophonist Zintis Žvarts turns 50
A man with a huge love towards nature, big band and jazz music. I invited a saxophone player, musician — chameleon and a teacher Zintis Žvarts for a talk — Zintis had celebrated his 50th anniversary in mid-January, and after a couple of days had gathered his musical friends and colleagues at the Vidzeme concert hall «Cēsis», uniting everyone in a powerful musical celebration. Now, when the celebration heat is over, our talk is about concerts, qualities of a versatile musician, every day search for peace, biggest challenges in his own life and many more.
First of all, my congratulations on your anniversary! Many people think 50 years is a significant milestone in life, while some others say it’s just the beginning. How do you feel about it yourself? Has anything changed?
Thank you! Well, just like my colleague Raivo Stašāns usually says «Life begins after 50 — just drink 50 and cheers!» (laughs)
You are a musician with a large musical background and wide experience in a lot of projects and bands. Did you know since your early childhood you’ll become a musician? Did you grow up in a musical family?
Actually yes, it all began in my childhood. I was born outside the city, and my father was a wedding musician. He played accordion, and taught me to play music at an early age, the way he knew it. In the beginning I played some drums, then began learning how to do some accordion, and in the end, there was clarinet. Then there automatically was Alūksne music school, Alfrēds Kalniņš Cēsis music high school, where all jazz things began, dixieland. Later on I began joining big bands in Rīga, then added some popular music, rock music, rock’n’roll — all in one pot, quite a lot of everything. So this race has never stopped.
So you’ve been in music for all 100%?
Well, during the school years, being a country boy, of course, I liked cars and tractors. I remember being in the 7th grade when I wrote in my diary that I’ll be a tractor driver. Well, I was very sure of it at that time, because there was no musical career for a country boy, who would be studying music in any case. (laughs)
You’ve graduated from RPIVA, and it makes sense that now you actively educate young musicians yourself. Do you feel it was your mission to become an educator? What significant teachers did you have in your life?
Just at the time when I was actively studying jazz music and improvisation, my teacher at the Cēsis music school Raitis Būris asked me to help him out with young saxophonists, undertaking just a few students of his. And right after a few years he unexpectedly passed away. So it automatically happened that I had to take on all of his students, and begin working in the music school myself. Then every year more and more were added, so I couldn’t just ignore it and had to keep going, at the same time learning myself.
Speaking of the most significant life teachers — there weren’t a lot, but each of them was important. The most important was a saxophonist and jazz teacher Vladimir Kolpakov, who died relatively recently, and is always mentioned with great honors. He was the one who influenced my manner of playing the most, as well as my character, sound quality and responsibility. Of course, the leader of «Keksi» Muravey (Alexander Sirtsov) who made me participate in lots of projects and recordings. There was Egils Šķetris who founded a dixieland band during school years and motivated us to participate in creative projects. There were Raitis Ašmanis and many many people whom I’ve played with. The people who are unbelievably important are all the huge world-known masters whom I’ve listened to since I was 14, day and night, on tapes and vinyls. That’s how we lived.
Who, in your opinion, is a good teacher?
Times change. In my case, Vladimir was very strict and tough, a person without compromises, but it helped me to progress a lot. I probably wouldn’t become a musician without it. Nowadays it doesn’t work like that all the time, teaching significantly changed. I think the most important part of the teaching process at the moment is creativity. On a daily basis it isn’t easy to stick to it all the time, so that the process is interesting and creative. But if you can make it happen at least a bit, from time to time, it’s wonderful. I think those moments are the best.
On the web page of Cēsis music secondary school you wish your students to «Get a lot of different knowledge, create a versatile, rich personality. Use all the challenges and opportunities that life gives you…» In a way, we can relate all those things to yourself as well, because your career has made so many turns and given you so many collaborations, in many music genres. Does a musician need to be versatile, and what does it mean to be one?
Well, nowadays music is very rich, fusioned, philosophical, abstract, polytonal, polyrhythmic, and you cannot play and create such music if you don’t have modern poly-information in your head. You have to know history, astrology, fairy-tales of your own country, «War and Peace» by Lev Tolstoy, movies of Quentin Tarantino, not even talking about the music — ancient, classical, ethnic, blues, rock and so on. A normal musician, artist has to know literally everything. We have a couple of such professors in Latvia whom you ask a question on any topic and they know the answer. I think everyone has to at least aim for this, so that he can wonderfully play and improvise. Whatever potential everyone has, as much as you can put inside your head. But all those musicians truly are amazing, for example, a saxophonist Chris Potter seems so cool to me — he just comes on stage and sings «Body and Soul» that everybody knows «a capella» for 20 minutes, and the listener doesn’t get bored a single time. It’s just fantastic! Imagine how many ideas and potential there is in this person’s head.
What is the meaning of routine and work in a musician’s growth and versatility development process? What is the proportion you offer between work and talent?
Work is definitely the most important, without a doubt. I think of the talent as follows: if you have a technical arsenal of any sort, you play a very simple song, then maybe a talent is shown somewhere there, it’s about how much charisma you have and how much you can get out of it, talk to the audience with just a couple of notes. The moment you are in another style, tempo, you cannot get far without work. Raimonds Raubiško once said: «You cannot even play at a wedding if you cannot play bebop».
You regularly play abroad — in 2019 you’ve been to Siberia and America at some Latvian diaspora communities, and recently got back from a tour in Japan together with a jazz musician Keiko Borjeson. How did this collaboration evolve and what music did you play?
I’ve known Keiko for many years, she has been to Latvia and Cēsis for some five times now. We’ve played concerts together before, so she’s a dear person to me. Our creative friendship lasts for some ten years already. I’ve been going to Japan for four years in a row myself. Last time it was a very important concert at one of the best concert halls in Tokyo.
It’s really interesting with Keiko — as you know, Japanese people are different, sometimes it doesn’t even make any sense to try to understand them, you just have to accept them and let it flow, and that’s it. The best adventure with Keiko was in Cēsis, playing a concert where my colleagues Pēteris Liepiņš and Raitis Aukšmuksts also joined. A rehearsal took place before the concert where everything was neatly prepared, then a concert came and almost nothing of the rehearsed material was there. One great memory from that concert — Keiko begins playing a composition, we play along, everything’s happening, but I understand we’re playing an E-flat major, and this scale wasn’t anywhere close to what we’ve rehearsed. Well, we just played this piece, and after the concert I asked Pēteris: «What was this composition in E-flat major?» And he answered with «I don’t know». — «Well, I do neither». (laughs) So we’ve played this composition, and to this day we still don’t really know what it was about. To sum it up, there are amazing creative moments in music happening with Keiko — you just go with her flow.
We play her original music. There often is Duke Ellington whom she loves, and by the way has also met in person. Duke was on tour in Japan, and Keiko was a little girl who was entrusted to care for Ellington’s little dog.
You have played in large bands a lot — Latvian Radio big band, Riga Circus Orchestra, «Mirage Jazz Orchestra», «Big Al & The Jokers», but you also don’t lack collaborating with singers and smaller-scale bands. What do you like the most? How is playing in a big band different from playing in some small line-ups?
Well, big band is my huge love. For many years I’ve just traveled from Cēsis to rehearsals many times per week, not thinking about earning money, nor about any compensations, I’ve dedicated a lot of time to playing in a big band. Ensemble play, orchestral play, not solo, is an important thing to me. Together with people like Raivo Stašāns, Indriķis Veitners, Normunds Piesis, Gints Stepanovs, Egils Šķetris, and «Big Al & The Jokers» — Romāns Vendiņš, Eduards Raubiško, Uldis Ziediņš, Sandris Skeranskis — we’ve played along for all our creative lives — it really feels special.
It gets interesting with bands and different projects, because everything changes all the time — different musicians, different singers, different stylistics, and sometimes in Latvia it’s trendy that jazz singers get to sing «Pie dzintara jūras» (By the amber sea), but some hard rock or pop vocalist has to sing a jazz ballad and some other weird stuff. Well, it always is surprising and interesting, and trying to arrange this is a challenge. Modern music as well. For example, there isn’t much to do for a saxophone in dance music, but when you’re standing on that stage, your colleagues are already waiting for you to participate and add some ideas of yours. There always are new challenges and you always have to use all your experience and creativity to do your best.
You’ve celebrated your anniversary, sharing your music with a wide audience and doing a concert at Vidzeme concert hall, gathering a bunch of well-known soloists and musicians from many different bands, which you most probably have played together with before. How did you come up with this huge concert idea? How easy or difficult was it to plan?
Yes, it was truly fantastic and unbelievable that we made it. I wanted the most important and special people to be on the stage with me, so I thought to invite some soloists like Ingus Ulmanis, Marija Naumova, Uldis Marhilēvičs, Jānis Krūmiņš, Ieva Kerēvica, Modris Laizāns, Gints Žilinskis, Andrejs Jevsjukovs, Andris Daņiļenko, Agita Rando, various styles, but they all were united by the fact that everyone had to play with a big band which, as you’ve already noticed, is an important moment for me. Well, and then there’s Ingus Ulmanis, for example, who is a rock musician after all and most probably has never played with a big band before. So it was a challenge to organize it all, find people who would do arrangements. A huge thanks to Māris Jēkabsons from Latvian Radio big band who did fantastic arrangements, as well as thanks to Eduards Raubiško and Jānis Amantovs. So all these compositions were arranged for a big band and sounded wonderful. The audience and the orchestra were all interested, because it was a truly new repertoire for everyone, as well as for the singers who sometimes even got nervous during rehearsals because they couldn’t understand where to begin singing, and so on.
Overall, while thinking over the repertoire and the concert concept itself, I tried to skip chronology because it seemed really boring to me. So I just mixed things up and tried to get the effect where if I would be sitting in the audience myself the concert wouldn’t be predictable, routined, on the contrary — when every soloist is unpredictable in what he does next. And it turned out very well, because the reviews I get are really good. There was also the second concert in Riga, at VEF Culture palace, with an aura that was just as good and reviews just as nice, so it was great in the end. We thought that every musician had to have a solo part, so that everyone would show what he can do. There were some very special guests — my friend from Cēsis times, jazz pianist and composer from Berlin Agita Rando, and Nick Sheffer, who both times traveled from Moscow just for these events. So all these wonderful people were my huge presents.
In 2017 you’ve released an album «Gadalaiki. Rudens. Saksofons.» (Seasons. Autumn. Saxophone), where you play the melodies of Raimonds Pauls, Imants Kalniņš, Uldis Stabulnieks in new arrangements. How did this idea appear? Does nature inspire you as well, both every day and while creating music?
This idea fully belongs to Guntars Račs because he did that cycle of four CDs — four seasons, so he invited me to play on one of them. A special «thank you» to Artūrs Palkevičs who did a great arrangement of the tunes, my work was relatively small — come to the studio and with a small dose of improvisation play it all, mix, do some improvements in order for it to sound nice. But it was nice and people liked it. Thanks to Donats Baidaks, we did a nice colorful video with autumn views of Cēsis, and it still inspires people in autumn months. I am happy I had such an opportunity.
What relationship with autumn do you have yourself? Are you happy during this season?
Yes, well, autumn isn’t the best season for me — of course, there are some cool pictures but I love spring way more. I’m a country boy and nature is close to me. Now, when it’s spring, I also try to be out of town as much as I can, get some fresh air.
As one of the last collaborations on the Latvian jazz scene you participated in an album by Andre Yevsukov «Sunset», released in 2019, where together with colleagues Romāns Vendiņš, Pēteris Liepiņš and Gundars Lintiņš you have played eight original compositions of Andre. Can this be called a get-together, since you’ve been friends since school years?
Yes, we’ve been together for more than 20 years now. We’ve been studying together and then founded a band called «Jam Orchestra» which exists for twenty years now. We don’t play together a lot, but this is the second album already. The first one was called «9 more rooms» and was released some 10 years ago. Then there are solo albums of Andre, two of them, and now there’s this one. Thanks to Riga City Council there are small jazz concerts happening at the courtyard of the Small Guild in summers, and we play there for many years every summer. This is a nice motivation — what will we play this time, the same thing every year? You always need something new. Andre, thank God, always has lots of ideas, all written and recorded on his computer. So he gets motivated and nudges us, so we also compose something.
Thanks to Andre’s music and his strong leadership, his arrangements and high quality criteria, we have worked really well. There’s a nice sound, you can listen to the album on «Spotify» and «YouTube». It isn’t physically released, but you can still listen to the music. This is a great band, and I consider Andre one of my teachers, whom I can always learn something from.
Can you say that it’s thanks to you knowing each other for a long time you can meet with a special connection in music, even though you work in different music genres daily?
Yes, this is a fantastic feeling. Let’s say Lintiņš is a true rock drummer, Andre is a typical jazz musician, me and Romāns play more of rock’n’roll, R&B. Pēteris loves jazz music a lot, but we’ve invited him to join the Jockers («Big Al & The Jokers»), a rock’n’roll gig. So it gets mixed, and while we improvise, we also show some different sides of ourselves, and I think it’s so interesting because it seems from Andre’s position that he’s the only jazzman who doesn’t play with jazz cats. Nevertheless, he supports each of us and is happy with our energy and playing together, so it’s really special with these musicians.
Where can you find your peace? Is it important for a musician to have some rest?
We have an out-of-town home near Cēsis, near the middle of the forest, there’s peace and silence. So it is, like my colleagues often say — silence is often the best music.
You’ve said it in one of your interviews that the life of an instrumentalist in Latvia is full of challenges and changes. Did you get this idea out of your own life experience? Which was your most important challenge as a musician?
It’s hard to tell. I often look up to those people who have to play the national anthem with a healthy dose of respect. It could also happen to me, and then I would get nervous, that’s for sure. Never had that situation in my life until now, but who knows. (laughs) But to tell the truth, I also experienced some interesting moments, for example, when there’s a complete silence, lots of people in the audience, and you have to begin a huge concert or a TV show «a capella».
There’s one memory that came to my mind — it was in Talsi where concerts sometimes take place on a lake. The director of the event, who now is also an author of the Song and Dance Festival concept, Inga Krišāne invited me and a quartet of French horns from the opera. So we all get in one boat together. The guys take their sheet music out, play their four-voice arranged song and tell me «Well, you’re next». I have planned to play an improvisational mood-evoking background music, not a concert for the whole city and four professionals on a boat, but I had to do all I could. That unequal dueling happened for some 8-10 times. It was like you just stood up on that boat every time, not knowing what to do now, and just started playing. It was a challenge indeed.
Probably, during moments like this you can really appreciate that phenomena of jazz musicians being able to react quickly and improvise in any situation?
Yes, this is precisely what we’ve talked about. You have to have something to tell because it’ll be fine for the first three times, but the ninth or tenth time you just cannot repeat, can you get that? You have to fish something out of your mind again, you have to tell the story.
At this moment, when life in the whole world has paused for musicians and culture lovers, can you recommend a good concert, a musician you love or an album to listen to?
Actually you have to listen and search for something new all the time. Nevertheless, I’d like to name the same John Coltrane, Charlie Parker or the modern ones, Bob Berg, Joshua Redman, Chris Potter. I was just searching for a new repertoire for a student of mine at the music school — at school you’re a professional, after all. She is a clarinet player, so I had to dig and search for some clarinetists. And I recently stumbled upon an album of a young musician, drummer Allison Miller — see, she has an interesting line-up of a violin, clarinet and trumpet, and her music is really interesting, you can hear some world music intonations, something gypsy, klezmer, of course, some modern jazz with polyrhythms and modalism. This is what I’ve recently heard and thought it’s cool, progressive, cosmopolitan, young people work with something interesting and colorful, it’s an intellectual arsenal, this is the freshest to advise.
What music do you usually listen to yourself?
I listen to all sorts of music, of course, I always like to come up with something new, fresh, and unheard. Actually I try to only listen to the music that I can learn something from, the one that makes me think and urges me to dig into. Maybe pop music is the music that I don’t actually listen to, I also cannot listen to jazz for too long. I listen to classical music on Latvian Radio 3, when there’s some nice interviews with great world class musicians in between.
What are your future plans?
I’d like to stick to the principles of not repeating and not looking back, but I’ll be waiting for some new ideas from above. Something I’m looking forward to soon is an anniversary of my colleague Eduards Raubiško. There’s also a new program coming up with the Jokers. Of course there’s the recordings, I sense that Andre isn’t just sitting by his TV during this time of the virus, but does something creative instead.
What is your wish to the Latvian jazz and JAZZin readers?
I wish everyone less depressed music, less hard music. I think that major suits Latvians way better, as well as some decent energy, rhythm, nice groove, light harmony and fresh ideas. I wish all of this to both musicians and listeners. And let’s remember — we’re just going forward, it isn’t that interesting going back, only forward!