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Santa Šillere

Krists Saržants and his story about daring, a time capsule in music and his debut album «Then and Now»

Mariya Bulankina

«Let your ideas become a reality,» with these words ended mine and Krists Saržants’ (pianist/composer) conversation, and it seems that he has fulfilled this wish himself 100%. With an inexhaustible desire to carry out his ideas and share them, in May of 2020, with 12 stories, his debut album «Then and Now» was released. As the composer himself explains, — each composition is like a time capsule — filled with their own emotions, memories, and stories behind it. I decided to invite Krists himself to a conversation to find out his story!

Although we have known each other for some time, I found out much later about your relationship with composing because mostly I saw you as a jazz pianist and a musician in many different projects. Who is Krists Saržants?

Right now, I’d like to position myself more as a composer. Writing my own music is a very dear thing to me — as well as performing it, of course.

How did you come to composition as your primary tool for self-expression in music? Overall, how was your path in music? Has it [music] always been your main choice with so many things to do nowadays?

It definitely wasn’t my primary. I’d say that I chose to continue my path in music only in about 7th or 8th grade. Till then, my thoughts bounced in many different directions — law and architecture among them at some point. I got very interested in composition in high school. Already in my first year, while I was studying at Jāzeps Mediņš Riga Secondary Music school, I started writing my own music and arranging. I loved the feeling of creating something new. Back then, I had this thought in my mind — if you want to perform music, you should create it as well.

I started writing for jazz quartet — saxophone, piano, double bass, and drums, but as I began my studies at Jāzeps Vītols Latvian Academy of Music, I started working with singer Evilena Protektore. After a concert, I realized that what my music was missing was her voice, and since then, I began including it in my compositions. That was the moment I started expanding my line-up to a quintet, a sextet. I’ve always thought of larger sounding arrangements, that’s why after a while, I began adding strings and horns to my music.

When I began writing parts for strings and horns for my album, I remember one of the most challenging things was to start. Because, while it’s only in your head, it can’t fail. All of the ideas seem unique and beautiful, but once you start actually doing something, that’s the moment when the possibility of all of it collapsing comes in. Albeit it’s all worth it, and I’m truly happy that I did it, successfully finishing all the compositions you can hear on the album, many of them cherished for years, finally finding the exact broad sound I wanted.

What has been your biggest inspiration, stimulus, and help on your path as a performer and a composer? How important are the people around you — including your teachers and colleagues and the environment you’re in altogether?

It’s hard to remember any particular place from where it all began, but I do remember that while I was in my first year of high school, I had the chance to play at this club called «Artelis,» which had jazz concerts and jam sessions once a week. My classmates and I went there quite often. That was the main spot for jazz musicians then, similar to «Trompete» (now «Sidrērija»). I remember the moment I was offered to play a concert at «Artelis» at the moment when it all suddenly became real. When you regularly practice at school, in class, at home is one thing, but to play something publicly as a musician — that feeling is something else — very real and uplifting. That’s the moment when you start looking at things more seriously cause, even though I was still in high school, studying, at that moment, while being on stage, I felt like one of the musicians.

When it concerns the environment we’re in and the people around us — it definitely has a huge impact. Also, in my music and my life in general, people I’ve met, significant conversations I’ve had, and the different places I’ve lived in and stages of life, in general, have been a meaningful part of it. While listening to my own compositions, I realized that each of them store particular emotions and feelings about some period of time or an event that had happened, not as much filling the song’s functions. I’d say that they’re like a time capsule filled with emotions, memories, and feelings for me. Also, when I’m performing my own music, it all somehow comes back to life right in front of me. Though it doesn’t feel like you’re there again, more like watching it all from aside, remembering who you were back then, what you felt while you were writing that particular piece. It was imperative to capture these memories of 5-6 years in one whole. I’ve talked about all of this in my short book that was created alongside the album. You can read short stories, thoughts, reflections about each composition. While I was writing these composition descriptions, that was the moment I realized that it’s my life, moments that I’ve lived and immortalized in my music. The book comes for free when buying the physical copy of the CD.

Talking about the importance of the environment and teachers, you graduate from the JVLMA jazz department this year, and in 2018, you were in an exchange program at the Royal Academy of Music in Aalborg, Denmark, as well as a participant in many international projects. How important is your experience gained in each place? How much of where you’ve been and what you’ve experienced reflects in your music and your personality in general?

Absolutely every place I’ve been, every project I’ve participated in have, to some degree, complimented me and given me the inspiration to create. Undeniably, the time I spent in Denmark left a significant impact on my creative work, on my thinking in general, and musicians I’ve met in projects, teachers, etc.

Your own album. Your debut record and your debut in the world of music. And now, be completely honest — how easy or difficult it was to come to a moment as special as this?

I don’t think it’s easy for anyone, especially if it’s your first album. Even though I had so many people around me who helped, gave advice, and helped with tasks in the process, my team of musicians consisted of 16 people, myself not included, and, of course, it’s challenging to get these musicians all in one place. I’m not going to deny that I met many obstacles from which to learn during the creation of this album. The important thing is to recognize those obstacles as soon as possible, to react as quickly as possible, so they don’t turn into mistakes.

It wouldn’t be possible to create this album if you wouldn’t have had a helping hand — people who believe in you and are ready to support you in many different ways. Who were these people without whom you couldn’t imagine this process?

Yes, these people have a special role. For me, they were Aleksandra Line, who helped a lot in creating this album, morally and also working on this project as a project manager. Also, Evilena Protektore, who helped immensely with communication worldwide, and Vadims Kožins — by helping to realize it visually in CDs and books. A huge thank you goes to Ivars Ozols, of course, who put everything together musically. And the State Culture Capital Foundation, who gave their support and the possibility to release this album physically. And a special thank you to each and everyone who supported this album on the «Indiegogo» campaign! I’ve mentioned a much longer list of people I’m thankful to in my book — those who have helped me during all these years and in the making of this album. Financially, psychologically or in any way giving their support and help in all of it. It’s crucial what kind of people surround you in moments like these cause every advice, every experience you’ve taken in, or just their professional skills unequivocally gave me the strength to move on.

Like many other jazz musicians, you chose to release your album digitally and physically. Do you think that CDs still keep their invariable value or streaming options will overtake that completely? Why did you choose to have this album also in a physical CD form?

Primarily the reason is that it is my first album. I wanted it to be something that I can hold in my hands; besides, I believe that there are people who still care about that and still buy CDs in addition to streaming. Globally, of course, it seems that the CD itself is becoming less and less relevant. Yet, the good news is that vinyl is getting a comeback, which, in my opinion, is a positive thing cause, either way, we’re not losing the physical concept of music — the possibility to feel and see the hard work that’s been put in.

This album is your debut in many ways — as a jazz pianist and especially as a composer. How is it to share your original music? How different is it to perform jazz standard arrangements from performing your original compositions?

I’m not a fan of this «jazz pianist» category I’ve been put in, cause in a way, I don’t feel like one. Talking about the difference, even while performing jazz standards, I’m trying to put something in there from myself — when I’m playing in some concert or a jam session, if the idea isn’t to play it as authentically as possible, I’m approaching these moments compositionally as well in improvisation and in the arrangement. With time we all develop our own signature sound, things we like, things that define us and make us different from others.

About sharing my own music — it has never really been difficult for me, the opposite — that’s the magic in music. You give a glance of your emotions, and everyone, catching them, connects that with the ones familiar to them. In a way, I can weasel my way out of these private expressions hiding myself in music, especially if we’re talking about instrumental music — everyone gets the idea of the story, and each has their own events to fill that story with.

The most personal moment for me was recently when I started writing about these compositions in my book because many people have asked what they’re about. And in May, when performing at the National Library of Latvia, Anete Ašmane, who hosted the concert, started quoting me from this book, hearing my own words said out loud, I realized that now I’m out in the open and there’s nowhere to step back. I’m delighted that I wrote what I wrote and told these stories, cause, to be honest, I’ve always liked writing and also in this album, amongst Aleksandra Line’s text, there’s a composition with my lyrics — it’s not a lot, but it’s mine.

Speaking of song lyrics, how did you decide that you’ll include a role for a vocalist in your compositions? Cause, often enough, we see instrumentalists sticking to instrumental music. What made you act differently?

I don’t think I actually decided that my music needs vocals per se, but that my music needs Evilena’s voice specifically. That would be the right way to put it. Evilena and I quite regularly work together for about four years now, performing my music and hers, jazz standards, and pop music. I remember our first concert together at the «deciBels» festival concert «Ethno+Jazz.» When I heard her voice, I realized that that’s what I want in my music. «Jūriņ’ Šņāca, Jūriņ’ Krāca» and «Hiraeth» were the first compositions written with vocals, and later on, I added parts for Evilena to sing in the rest of the compositions and basically, you could say, I wrote these parts specifically for her.

In your album, we can see one composition in Latvian, the aforementioned «Jūriņ’ Šņāca, Jūriņ’ Krāca.» Why exactly this folk song? That’s also the only composition in Latvian that you’ve included.

As I mentioned, this composition was written at the «deciBels» project. I found it entirely by accident, thanks to ethnomusicologists, we were working together on this project. Going through the books they brought, I found this folk song, changed the harmonies a little, added something from myself, and simple as that, I just liked it. The reason why this composition is in my album is basically that — it has intense meaning in association with that time. Not because of the language it’s in but as a composition itself, with its significance.

Mariya Bulankina

A little about the musicians you’ve chosen to perform your compositions — in your recordings and your live concerts, we see some teachers from the JVLMA jazz department, many renowned Latvian jazz musicians, and some classical musicians. Did you choose these musicians deliberately, or was it just a natural meeting and connection while performing?

That was definitely deliberate. When I choose which musicians I want to collaborate and perform together, I listen to these musicians from various points of view — how they play and what they do exactly when playing. And I’m not talking about whether he plays good or bad, but what exactly is HIS thing. It’s essential to me that, whether it’s a live concert or a recording, I leave space for musicians to be themselves. It’s imperative that everyone is feeling alright, and they won’t if they’re limited.

A little about the musicians in the album. With Dāvis Jurka, like with Evilena, we’ve been working together for quite some time, and I really like what he’s offering to my music, how organically he sounds in it. Just yesterday, I was listening to it and realized that hearing Dāvis, I don’t see it as a saxophone, especially talking about his solos. That’s an exciting feeling when the ideas and visions lock together perfectly on how it should sound.

Andris [Grunte] has a huge pull on the bass, and I love that — what he offers from this side. That stability and the heavy sound, when the notes are exactly where they’re supposed to be and that it’s confident.

With the Danish drummer Matias [Fischer-Mogensen], we had some concerts together in Denmark while studying in Aalborg, performing mine and Kenneth Dahl Knudsen’s music, as well as playing in some jam sessions and other concerts. Sometime after one of our concerts, while talking about my upcoming album, Matias said that he’d love to be in it. At first, I thought that he was kidding, but, as we can see, the drummer in the album is Matias, and I’m very happy about that choice, and I feel very confident with everything he’s done and what he’s invested in the album and with what attitude.

The horns — Oskars Ozoliņš, Laura Rozenberga, and Kristaps Lubovs, is a well-known horn trio from many bands such as Latvian Radio big band, «Very Cool People,» Pieneņu Vīns,» «Jazzatomy» and others. One of the reasons I addressed them, apart from the fact that I love their playing, I knew that they’d feel comfortable playing together, which turned out to be true during the recording.

Strings — there were many options because there are a lot of string players. I didn’t know Katrīna Rosuščana (violinist) before, but I saw that she follows my work, and after talking with her for a bit, I knew that who better to ask than a person who loves the music themselves. She was joined by the violist Amanda Rupeika, which I knew from high school, cellist Sarma Gabrēna, who I also knew before and knew that Sarma does different projects outside of classical music and that she could enjoy participating in this kind of project. Alise Broka (double bass) and I are pretty close, and I knew that she also participates in different projects and likes to experiment in music. The same with the double bassist Mārcis Lipskis, who shared the role with Alise, who left to study abroad in an Erasmus+ exchange program. There was some music left to record, and I knew that Mārcis, like Sarma and Alise, is a broad-minded musician who could be interested in participating.

I chose Elīna Endzele on percussion because I knew that she is excellent at what she does. She didn’t have a lot to play, but it had a very significant role. I knew that I could rely on her and that she’ll do it professionally.

The vocalists you chose are quite contrasting — Evilena Protektore, Ieva Kerēvica, and an opera singer Laura Grecka.

As I mentioned before, with Evilena, we’ve been working together for quite some time, and basically, she is the fundamental voice in my music. I’ve had the chance to work with Ieva before, performing my music and music she performs as well. While I thought in which composition I’d like to hear her voice, I chose the one I wrote the lyrics myself. I wanted that theatrical sound, which she delivered excellently and just as I imagined it to be. Talking about Laura, I knew from the start that in Danish composer Carl Nielsen’s song «Solen Er Så Rød, Mor,» I hear classical vocals. I talked to my dad, who sings at the opera and he suggested Laura Grecka as the singer who could be interested and whose voice would be a match for the composition and I definitely wasn’t wrong in asking her.

Mārcis Auziņš replied with a counter-question, why am I offering this to him exactly. I loved that question. He said that he hadn’t been actively playing jazz for some time now. I listened to what Mārcis is doing, and at that moment, I was looking for someone who could bring a qualitative result without being too focused on the «jazz» aspect of music. I liked what Mārcis has done in many genres and this, as well, was the right choice, because, in my opinion, he did a fantastic job on the Estonian composer Mart Nõmm’s composition «Pärja.»

Usually, in creating your own music, some of the most important nuances in quality are mentioned as being different, with your own signature sound, understanding what is that you exactly want to say… Sometimes these things are very hard to find, especially as a young performer. But, listening to your music, we can clearly hear some Scandinavian intonations through jazz, classical, and movie music elements. How did you come to this musical direction? How difficult is it to define yourself in music?

I don’t really think of any particular direction while writing music. I write what I like, and in the midst of the creative process, I figure out if I like what I hear. If something’s missing, I continue working and searching until I reach that confidence because it’s important to me to remain true to myself. I can’t, and I don’t want to perform a composition if I’m not sure about it and ready to defend it.

What I’ve listened to plays a huge role in what I write. I don’t know if «movie music» would be the correct definition because, well, in Latvian, that name is very nuanced. For me, movie music is associated with the songs we hear in the movies, not the music written for the movie, the, not exactly the background music, but atmospheric, emotional music.

But thinking more about the mood…

I realize that movie and film music could be very similar terms, but to me personally, more associative, as best described, seems «film music.» I’ve always liked it, and I’m very consumed by the orchestral music we hear in movies. I’ve listened to Max Richter, Hans Zimmer, John Williams, and other composers who’ve written for movies. That’s actually how I see my music, because looking back, I’ve never seen my compositions as songs per se, more as moods and emotions. You could say that It’s like background music for life when you listen to it.

Let’s also talk a little about your personal life. You teach at the Jāzeps Mediņš Riga Secondary School of Music, where the new jazz generation grows. How is it to be such a young teacher? What is important to you as a teacher in giving knowledge to your students?

At Jāzeps Mediņš Riga Secondary School of Music, I started working as I started my studies, so it was something new to me as well. I remember myself thinking about what kind of teacher I want to be and how I should react because there are also students who have already graduated high school, and if I’m not wrong, some even older than I was. I see pedagogy as a very huge responsibility. I’m very happy to work with the students I can work with. I went through high school not so long ago and studied with some of the same teachers they do, and I was where they are now. I believe that to some degree, it helps them, and I always try to hear them out not only about the subject I teach but about music in general. Usually, in any high school’s jazz department, that’s the very beginning for them in jazz. Rarely there’s someone who has studied or played jazz before. Others even haven’t played their instrument before.

I remember myself watching other musicians in concerts and thinking to myself, where am I, am I good at what I do, will I ever be and who will I be, what I’ll do. I think it’s essential that there’s someone who listens and understands in moments like these because saying that everything’s going to be ok is one thing, but will it be ok? It depends on each of us individually. I was told that, and now I tell that to my students — all in good time! Just do what you do, and in time things will start falling in place. As time goes by, you understand what you want to play, do, and it doesn’t have to be jazz if we’re talking about studies in the jazz department. Whatever you choose to do, it’s important to search and find something significant to yourself in any work. Especially in music where you don’t always get to play what you want to or what you like. Exceptionally important is what is your attitude towards that music and music in general.

I’ve noticed that if you work for it and you know where you want to be, things somehow find their way to work out so you could get there. The important thing is to keep working, doing, and with a clean conscience, not losing your vision.

How’re your creative endeavors during this pandemic? How productive is your time at home? Maybe you could share some details on how you spent your time, your tricks, how to avoid lousy mood and inaction?

Album, which had to be released during this time, definitely took a lot of time physically and psychologically. Even though concerts are postponed, every creative person has things he can find to do. I guess that’s our advantage — it’ll never be boring.

So, your debut album is released, presentation concert is performed. What next? Give us a sneak peek about your future plans; maybe we can already expect a new album with new, fresh ideas?

I wouldn’t call this concert a true presentation concert because many more people participated in the recording, and honestly, it’s already kind of unusual to hear these compositions in a quintet line-up. Hopefully, we’ll be able to have the true presentation concert in a full line-up in September at the National Library of Latvia [AN: took place on September 23]. Aside from that, there’s a project on hold with Arta Jēkabsone, Jānis Rubiks, and Rūdolfs Dankfelds where we perform, record and arrange a little music by composer Anna Veismane. Very nice project with wonderful people and great musicians. We started this in January, and I can’t wait to continue.

There are some ideas for the next album. I can’t say too much yet, but all updates will be posted on my website sarzantskrists.com, as well as on my «Facebook» page. All that I can say is that my next album will be a lot different. Overall, there are lots of ideas and work during this time and when, if not now, to do and create. The world keeps spinning, nothing is stopping.

Your advice to the young jazz musicians and composers who, probably, have this, what you went through, to look forward to?

Don’t be afraid to start doing! Often enough, psychologically, that is one of the most challenging things to do, but when you break through that, your work takes over you in their momentum, and you don’t really have a choice anymore just to move forward.

Let your ideas become a reality!