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Crazy 1990’s and other jazz adventures

Evilena Protektore

Be the only one, playing complicated music, going against the regime and doing everything to make your sound unique

Evilena Protektore

The name of Andrejs Jevsjukovs is known to almost every single guitarist that had chosen the path of the not so easy music. It is hard to count all the students that have studied with Andrejs, there’s just too many of them. Andrejs is also one of those people who got to experience the crazy time a lot of us have already forgotten or were born after, so the stories Andrejs shared sound impossible, sound… insane. But those who got to play during those times will agree that each had their own adventures and every single one was like from a movie – exciting but not always pleasant.

Our conversation began with the «Sunset» album that Andrejs had released last December together with «Jam Orchestra», but from the very beginning it was clear that we are going to take the trip down the memory lane and discuss everything that led to the creation of the recording. So, here goes a story of the «wrong» music in the Soviet Union, building the jazz community from zero and living in the time where everything changes constantly.

Let’s get straight to the most recent topic – tell me about the album!

I’ve had the music ready for a long while now, a lot of compositions on my computer were just sitting and biding their time, some ready, some half ready, some sketches… I just needed to sort through it all and that’s it! Five years ago I’ve already made an attempt to record the stuff with different musicians, but it didn’t work out, because all the musicians came from their own different situations, they all knew each other, played together before, but in the end the music didn’t sound right. Sometimes it happens, the music flows like a fountain with one lineup, and it’s completely dead with another.

All in all recording music is not an easy task. I have been trying to record my music with different musicians for years now, but only with the guys from «Jam Orchestra» it sounds as it should, this is our second album already. The first one was «9 More Rooms». I like playing with these people, the band members feel comfortable being together in music, they all are responsible people, we studied together in RPIVA, played at each other’s exams, so we’ve known each other for a long while. And the band was formed because of these exams, we played together in school so it was only logical to continue doing that outside of the school. We played in «Spalvas pa gaisu» club, for 11 years in a row we’ve been playing 4 concerts each summer in the Small Guild’s gardens. These people aren’t only talented and responsible, they are also very attentive. You know how it is, there are different musicians in the world, there are those who play only how they like to play. You give them the scores, the demo, you say that you want it to sound a certain way, but they are artists, and you don’t pay them, because it’s about self expression, not about commerce, so he says – I see it this way, I’ll play it how I feel it! And then the bedlam starts, because it’s not swing music where everything is clear, this music is heavily arranged and if the drummer plays the wrong groove, if someone else decides to change the riff, the tunes will sound wrong. But «Jam Orchestra» musicians make me happy, the music flows with them and I’m very satisfied with the album, in my opinion it sounds beautiful and serious.

The idea of this album came to our saxophonist Zintis Žvarts a year and a half ago, he said it was time and I said – sure, I’ve got the tunes! I chose the tunes and we started rehearsing. Last August we recorded the drums. We don’t play jazz, swing, so we don’t have the need to record together, and our music is complicated, heavily arranged, harmonies are far from simple, no one improvises over such harmonies live. It’s not II-V-I where you take one look at the scores and improvise, it’s my original harmonies. My music doesn’t have popular chord progressions, my progressions are all mine and even if I invited Michael Brecker or Pat Metheny to improvise over them, they also would need to study and practice.

Musicians are usually quite busy, everyone has a lot of work, so the recording process took a while, a year. I myself had to spend some time studying my own tunes, I wanted them to sound good, there’s no point in doing half of the job, you have to go all the way so that it would be interesting to listen to. You have to work hard, otherwise what’s the point in spending the money and your time. So anyway, it took us a year to record everything, all the tracks, and then during the summer we did the sound editing. It took two more months. I thought it was a long time for such a task, but if you read the biography of, let’s say, «Pink Floyd», they used to work for months on one single track, so my whole album, if compared to that, was ready in no time whatsoever.

When everything was finally done, we started thinking about the best ways to release the album. We thought about printing the CDs, but… It’s old technology now, people don’t even have the needed devices to listen to CDs, so why bother? Maybe we will write a project to the State Culture Capital Foundation and if they give us the funding, then there’ll be a CD, but nowadays it’s not really necessary.

Have you thought about releasing your album on vinyl? It’s a trendy thing nowadays…

My album is 60 minutes long and vinyl is only 45. If I decide in favor of vinyl, I’d have to get rid of at least 2 tunes. But yes, I have considered it. Maybe I’ll speak with «Jersika Records» if they have interest in releasing it. But I don’t even have a player for listening to vinyl, so where will I listen to my own album? A CD is better in this sense, at least if I give it as a present to my friends and relatives, they’ll be able to listen to it. But in any case, the album is available on Spotify, Amazon, other platforms.

You are the brains in the project?

Yes. I just happen to be the only one in «Jam Orchestra» who composes. The new generation of young musicians, they all are able to compose, because they are taught in the Academy of music, they have to do it in their studies. My musicians are from another generation, they don’t compose anything except their own improvisations. And that’s why when it came to recording an album I turned out to be the only composer. I compose, arrange, and the guys just have to learn it all and then work on their improvisations. But that also requires a lot of homework, because of how complicated my harmonies are.

You know, such big guns as Metheny and Mike Stern, when they compose music that they intend to play on tours, they use another approach – the themes are usually very complicated with odd meters and unusual chord progressions. It’s very popular now, the more twisted your music is, the better. But even though the theme is complicated, the solo part is extremely simplified. Often the solo parts are modal with one or two modal centers, it’s a rare occurrence when the solo part has the same harmonies and meters, only for the bravest ones. It’s crazy hard to improvise when the tempo is insane and each chord is syncopated and is in a chromatic sequence and with multiple alterations on top. It’s not easy to play a simple lick on top of that, what’s to say about an intricate improvisation… The big stars avoid these kinds of situations. My most favorite example is a tune by Mike Stern «Chromazone», where the theme is full of twists and turns, a lot of notes, syncopes, accents, like Parker’s «Donna Lee» but in funk. And then the improv is on A minor and then C minor and back to A minor and so on. Sounds fantastic, because he’s amazing, his improvisations are so skillful, the theme is amazing and the listeners aren’t such experts to notice that you, my friend, are sticking to two simple chords and that’s it. Anyone can do that, but it doesn’t matter because it’s his music, he plays it well and it sounds fantastic.

My situation is totally different, I didn’t write this music to play it live. I left it the way I composed it. I tried composing in such a way that every tune would be different, changing the solo order, things like that. While working with my students I’ve heard so many exams, I always try influencing them so that they would think about their performance harder, to include different styles, tempos, change instrumentation, make it interesting to the listeners. Young jazzmen have this problem… I’ve noticed that every time I listen to a new album it goes like this: the first tune is awesome (or I don’t like it at all, doesn’t matter), then the second… wait, is this an outro to the first one? The third tune – same story and then again on the fourth, and then you realise that the whole album is like one single piece. The stuff young musicians compose is all the same, because they don’t think of the listeners. I didn’t want to take that road, I tend to look at my music with a very critical eye. If I don’t like what I’m hearing I never show it to anyone. But this time I’ve listened and was surprised by how good it turned out! The album is very multilayered, funky stuff, interesting harmonies, nothing borrowed from other tunes… You know you can do that, if you don’t want to spend a lot of time thinking of something new, people do this when they take the changes from an existing jazz standard and write their own melody on top of them. Why wrecking your brain around to create something new, when everything has already been created? Just take the changes from «All the things you are», spice it up with some reharmonisation, change the key, write a new head and that’s it, the song is ready!

My approach is very different from that, my harmonies are being born during a state of musical meditation, maybe that sounds snobbish, but that’s the truth. I take my guitar and I start searching, combining, looking for what sounds good, and slowly a harmonic structure of the tune is being made. When I feel that this plan is satisfactory, that the harmonies sound fresh and original, I write the head, but that’s the easy part, I just doodle some options then work on them for a bit. I try singing a lot, for example, I often sing the drum pattern, just some «Boots-cats-boots-cats», try finding the best option. Then the bass line or a riff for the saxophone. Then I take virtual drums and create a demo on the computer.

How long have you been composing for?

Since I was 13 when I started listening to «The Beatles». John Lennon and Paul McCartney were my «greatest enemies», they made me compose tunes that sounded like theirs. But to be serious, it was my favorite band when I was a kid. In my time we just gathered in the yard together with other boys. We had one guitar for a crowd of 5 to 20 people, each had something to teach another. The first tune someone showed me was «House of the rising sun». I had a friend back then, we listened first to «The Beatles», then to «Deep Purple», «Led Zeppelin», all the pioneers of rock music. So when we listened to «The Beatles» we composed like them, and that’s normal. Nowadays young people do the same, they listen to some wise music, suck it in and compose the same things automatically, because they are still too young to create something of their own, something unique. At that age I also thought of myself as of a great composer. But when you do music for over 30 years you start understanding that the compositions of your younger self are yours for maybe 10%, and the other 90% is what you were listening to at that point in time. And that’s totally fine.

Anyway, me and that friend, we composed some songs that sounded like «The Beatles» at first, then like «Deep Purple» and so on, and he wrote some texts for his tunes and for some of mine. Then we started listening to «Led Zeppelin» and started moving towards funk, fusion jazz rock… and then in the 1980’s there was the «Rock Club»…

At that time there were no jazz clubs like today, when they invite you to play a concert and then they pay you money for your music. There were two «camps» – the «Rock Club» that gathered the creative youth, so to speak, the leader of that movement was Andrejs Jahimovich, who was also some kommunist activist, and all the guys that were self taught formed bands and rehearsed in the basements and were extremely happy when they had the chance to show their music to someone. Now you can earn money for that, but at that time this kind of music could only be a hobby, a self expression instrument.

Another «camp» was made of professional musicians – bar musicians, who played in bars and restaurants, that was the only way to earn money, but nothing was that simple. There was a committee called «Estrada’s concert union of Riga» that controlled every single restaurant. Each band that wanted to play in a restaurant for a salary (which was quite high, I must add, 40 rubles per month plus the tips, that could reach up to a hundred per day, depending on the situation) had to pass an examination of sorts – once a year they had to play a concert and the jury decided if the band was good enough for the job. They’d get a licence for one year, then another examination. Repertoire consisted of 300 and more songs. Due to the fact that we were a part of the Soviet Union, which consisted of 15 different republics, different nations came to Riga for a visit – Tajiks, Georgians, Uzbekians… every nation has their favorite songs and our restaurant musicians had to know the songs, because that’s where the tips came from. For Russians they played «Не сыпь мне соль на рану», lezginka for Georgians etc. And to show off in front of other musicians, they included some tunes from George Benson or Al Jarreau in the first set, and all the popular tunes.

Evilena Protektore

Have you ever worked in a restaurant?

I had a situation once… I didn’t really want to do that kind of job, but once someone heard me at some concert and sayd: «Wow! You play amazing! Come and join our band, we need a guitarist!» I agreed because I like playing music and usually never decline gigs. I came to the gig, the guy told me to play «Girl from Ipanema», awesome! Then «Summertime» – marvelous! And now «Murka»! And that’s when I got confused, what «Murka»?… And the guy also got confused, asked me about «Не сыпь мне соль на рану», «Белые Розы», «Сиреневый Туман», but I didn’t know a single tune he named after the two jazz standards… So he was outraged, started screaming that I shouldn’t have come if I didn’t know the tunes, but he was the one to invite me, right? In the end he said that we should part ways because he needed a guitarist who knew the tunes and could also sing. No problem, goodbye.

And then everything changed – the year 1990 came, perestroika, and I already was quite successful in my career. In 1990 I was invited to work at the private recording studio in Dubulti, Jurmala, that was built in a former bunker left from World War II, right on the seaside. There was a team of musicians to record playbacks and we were paid a decent salary to do that. Nowadays you can download a karaoke track for whatever song you want, but then everything was done by real musicians without the help of computers. I’ve worked there for half a year. There was this project… Latvia had only just established some connections to America and we got an order to record music for some show that was supposed to go on an American tour. At that time Americans had a certain view of the Soviet Union – everyone wearing fufaikas and valenki and drinking vodka with bears as their drinking buddies. And suddenly a show from the former USSR – beautiful girls, good music… should have been a blast. I left the project before it was completed because I received a more interesting proposal from a bassist named Oleg Grishin, who heard me somewhere, then got my number, called me and suggested we make a duo and play our music. Only later I found out how it all ended with the project. They finished with all the music, prepared the choreography and what not and left for the States, but as usual, something went wrong. I don’t know exactly what happened, but someone screwed them over when they arrived. They played a couple of concerts and then a local tour manager stole all their money and maybe even passports and just disappeared. Just imagine, it was the beginning of Latvian republic, the ticket to America cost up to two and a half thousand dollars, while the average salary was only ten dollars. It took years for those people to get back home and not everyone made it.

You got lucky…

Yes. So me and Olegs had a duo named «Dao», let me tell you about that one. My very first album was recorded with this duo, it consisted mostly of my tunes. The name of the album was «Klubs 21». Oleg was considered to be a very respectable musician, played with Pete Anderson, toured around Europe. He suggested we play original music and I already had a lot of tunes composed. We spent half a year rehearsing, arranging tunes for two instruments and in the end it sounded very good, we created a high quality product. Today we have an overabundance of different things and this kind of music would never fit, but at that time it was unimaginable, two guys on the stage playing cosmic, meditative, original music…

So there was this man, Aleksandrs Nemirovskis, he is the CEO of the «ORIGO» shopping mall now, and Oleg was very well acquainted with him, at the time he was very well known in the music management world. So we went to the same recording studio in Dubulti, recorded a demo, maybe some 4 tunes, and Oleg gave Aleksandrs the cassette. Aleksandrs in turn gave this cassette to Boris Avramecs, but not because of us, because on the other side of the cassette was a sketch of a new album of a band he was managing at the time. I think he even forgot about us… And Boris was considered to be one of the best musicologists in Latvia, with a deep knowledge in oriental and jazz music. Boris listened to the cassette and called Aleksandrs, asking about the other side of the cassette (the one with our recording) and was extremely surprised to hear that these two musicians were local. Asked to be introduced to us. When we got to know each other, he made some calls and got us a gig in the restaurant in the TV tower and some other gigs.

At some point Sergejs Ancupovs came to our concert to listen. I didn’t know who he was, just some random listener applauding after every tune. Then he approached us and said: «Guys, the music you play is absolutely fantastic! I want to propose a deal. I am a member of an elite club, our members are Laima Vaikule, Igo, Aivars Hermanis and other famous people. I want to invite you to play us a concert during one of our upcoming gatherings! The money is not a problem, tell me how much you want, and you’ll have it. If everyone likes you you’ll get regular gigs, if not then you’ll have one good concert. Think about it.» We didn’t think long, we agreed right away. After a concert we were approached by two bosses — Indulis Bērziņš and Jānis Krūmiņš, they said: «Genius! We want you! We need regular background music, we gather every Friday in different locations, these locations are always a secret, tomorrow the Queen of England comes for a visit, the day after tomorrow Israely ambassador does, we need musicians who could play elite music!» They regularly invited other musicians and ensembles, they could afford it, but what they needed was live background music on a regular basis. So we signed a contract and officially became employees of the «Club 21». Every Friday from 7pm and until at least 1am we were there, it never ended earlier, and the pay for one gig was like two regular month salaries.

We played for a year, only my music, eight or ten tunes. Each tune was 20-30 minute long, like a raga of sorts, but imagine playing the same stuff for a year… After a year had passed, Jānis Krumiņš approached us and in a very polite manner asked to add other tunes to our repertoire. We were also very ready for that ourselves. Surely we always changed the way we played our tunes, rearranged every time, improvised a lot, everyone liked it, but we didn’t know which way to move from there and that way we got a direction of sorts. We asked him what kind of music he had in mind, and turned out our tastes in music were similar – Eric Clapton, «The Beatles», «Sade»… So we started working on a new program, took some jazz standards, Oleg bought himself a rhythm box with some decent drum samples, it became more interesting to work in a duet.

All in all we’ve spent about two years working there. At some point Oleg said it was time to record an album and we went to Jānis, told him about the idea and he said – no problem, he’d fund us. So we wrote a project, submitted it to his office, received the money and in 1994 the first jazz album of the newly independent Latvian Republic was released. Then we got tired of playing together and went each his own path.

After that I tried recording my music «live» often, but there weren’t a lot of good musicians, and those that were available and were good were busy with their own music, weren’t really acquainted with each other, met only during rehearsals. Two-three rehearsals and then the studio, and then listening to the recorded material… it was bad. I instantly decided that I don’t want to do it that way. So I bought myself a computer, learned how to work with sound editing programmes and decided to record an album on my own, by myself. It took me about seven years, and in 2008 my second album «Night Silence» was released. The only guest artist in the album was Gints Pabērzs on the saxophone.

How many albums have you got so far?

Four. After «Night Silence» came «9 More Rooms» with the «Jam Orchestra» in 2010, and now «Sunset» with the same band.

How did you become a teacher?

It was 1987, the times of the «Rock Club», I had a band back then called «The Ugly Duckling» («Гадкий Утенок») and we listened to jazz rock and composed our own tunes with complicated meters. Our drummer knew an accordionist Jurijs Peškovs, a very well known musician and a teacher in JMRMV who was looking for a band to comp him at some concerts. The drummer recommended our band and Jurijs invited us to perform with him at several festivals and then, if everything was to his liking, to record an album with him. In return he promised to give us a rehearsing space, which at those times was impossible to find on your own. During the Soviet Union you could go to some culture house or a factory, whatever, they’d have the red corner there (A/N: a room, a part of a room or a stand that served the purpose of political agitation), they had all the necessary equipment, but they also already had their own band. And here we could be having our own rehearsal space for free! Unbelievable! Naturally we agreed. And what do you think? We played these festivals with him, he liked it and we went to record his album in the 1st studio in the Latvian Radio house. After the recording we decided that we needed an album of our own, so we arranged a sound engineer, gathered some money and made the recording. Then we listened to it and realised how bad we played…

We played a lot of concerts with this band then there was a legendary concert in the Kirov park (Vērmane garden) in 1988 where I gained 15 more students, because someone started a rumour that there’s an incredible jazz guitarist in Riga now and it’s a vital necessity to study with him. I was 23 at the time, and some of my students were in their 30’s… So it all somehow came together, the «Ugly Duckling», Jurijs, an album, students. And then Jurijs called me and said: «Listen, there’s a guitarists class in the Pioneer’s house looking for a teacher…» and that became my first official teaching job. At the same time I received an exact job at the «Elektrons» factory. I’ve worked as a teacher for a year, then I got bored and quit, decided to take a break. I’ve created my own teaching school, a three month long jazz improvisation class. A lot of guitarists took that class with me.

Evilena Protektore

Now the level among young musicians is very high, a lot went to study abroad in The Netherlands, Germany, USA, a lot of them came back… You can’t compare it to the 1990’s whent the country had only one jazz guitarist – me and then my student Artūrs Kutepovs. But the reality was that there weren’t any musicians here. Almost none. I can name every single one of those: best pianists – Madars Kalniņš and Viktors Ritovs, best drummers Tālis Gžibovskis, Raimonds Kalniņš and Jānis Pitens, who always played with Raubiško in the «Hamlets» club, Galenieks (Ivars) as the best double bassists, but he soon left for England and Andris Grunte took his place. Raimonds Raubiško was Latvian number one saxophonist, he was the brightest in my opinion. Nic Gotham and Denis Pashkevich were also very active in the jazz world. I also played with Raimonds Raubiško in a project that he invited me to the moment me and Oleg parted ways. We had Tālis on the drums, Zigis (Žukovskis) on bass, Ilona Kudiņa on flute. I’ve played with them for half a year and then went away to work on a cruise liner and Kutepovs took my place.

And then in 2003 Indriķis (Veitners) received some funding and established the first jazz department in Latvia. It became a part of the Riga Dome Choir School. At first it was only the evening department, a two year long program, and of course he invited the best musicians he knew to become teachers there. I was teaching guitar, Madars – the piano, Tālis – drums and Zigis – bass. Inga Bērziņa taught vocals and Indriķis himself taught jazz history and saxophone. Then Nic Gotham joined, we also started playing together in different lineups, from duo’s, then trio’s with Grunte etc.

I remember one of the bands — «Abi Gali»!

«Abi Gali», yes. So, Indriķis invited the best and we still are a team, all these people. A couple of years later he managed to open the day department, then he spent a couple more years working hard and established the jazz department in the Academy of Music. He succeeded in 2009.

How about the papers? Did you even have a masters degree? I know it’s a requirement in the Academy of Music.

All of us had to study again to receive our papers. Soviet education wasn’t valid in the independent republic. Someone went to study in LU, some chose RPIVA, some JVLMA, although it was only possible to study jazz piano there and that’s it.

When I started my job at RDKS, Indriķis said I needed a diploma. He researched some options for me and found a Liberal arts institute in RTU, said I could go there and get my teaching degree. So I did it and got a teacher’s licence. But that wasn’t enough when they opened the day department, then I had no options left but to go to RPIVA, I was lucky they accepted me to the third year straight away. But imagine this – in RPIVA guitar was taught by Zigis, because he was the only one with an appropriate degree… When I enrolled I started working there at the same time as studying, and according to the papers Zigis was my teacher, although his specialty was bass guitar. Same situation with Madars, who went to JVLMA and was considered to be a student of Viktors. It was even crazier in Poland, they had this jazz guitarist Jarek Śmietana, who studied… with himself. Crazy, but what else can you do when you have literally zero options? Every time I tell someone this, nobody believes, but that was the reality of the time. Now we have tons of people who can teach, but our generation, we were all self taught.

When Indriķis formed the jazz department in JVLMA I had to study again. I though I’d kill myself, all the writing again, essays… And it was a madhouse in there, thank heavens that establishment was liquidated. Almost all the information they presented as the «knowledge» was in fact totally useless, they still worked according to the norms created in 1973… Soviet Union made. The only class that left a good impression was musical psychology, a very interesting course, but everything else…

Can you try and compare the jazz of the 1990’s with the situation today?

It was hard in the 1990’s. After the Soviet Union ended lot’s of people lost their jobs, a lot of them left. There were only a few musicians who played jazz music. You can’t compare it with the situation today. The brightest were, in my opinion, Raubiško and Rozenbergs, from the horns and composers. Something that we can be proud of. Especially Gunārs Rozenbergs – the things he did with the big band were absolutely phenomenal. We have to be proud of that. The same idea was continued by Māris Briežkalns – Latvian folklore in jazz arrangements. I think this approach is better than competing with Americans, jazz is their music, we have to find something of our own and Latvia has its own folk music, why not work with that?

Now it’s totally the opposite. A lot of our students that finished their studies came back, they play on the international level, they are that good. Of course, the part of self education is endless, but all in all these musicians are already something we can be proud of. We, the generation of self taught musicians, created a generation of professional musicians, that will continue composing and playing, teaching the even younger generation. If the coronavirus doesn’t kill us all, of course.