Love towards the music and selfless work as a key to success
Drummer Sasha Mashin on his happy run in between America, Russia, and Europe
One of the most acknowledged Russian drummers, energetically technical Alexander Mashin, was born in Saint Petersburg. Has been a member of the Igor Butman Quartet, took part in founding the «MosGorTrio» band, and played together with the best musicians of Russia. Participated in the «Open World Program USA» program in New York, played in «Blue Note» and many other jazz clubs and biggest concert halls throughout the world. Sasha Mashin has played with Benny Golson, Clark Terry, Jimmy Heath, Kenny Barron, Dhafer Youssef, and many others. Released and produced many jazz music albums, co-founded the «Rainy Days» label; is a resident of the most prominent jazz club in Moscow, «Kozlov Club» and official «Yamaha», «Zildjian», «Evans» and «Vic Firth» artist.
I first met Sasha in Bremen — at the «jazzahead!» conference, he is literally flying over the «Rainy Days» stand with his own albums, label vinyl, tells musical news to someone, brags with his new tattoo to someone else. I have to admit it is only then when I get to listen to what he’s playing — it appears he has no limits to the technical skills of his performance, and I really listen to the «Outside The Box» he presented to me for numerous times. A couple more years pass, and we, together with the «JAZZin» team, decide to bring him to Latvia: local listeners would really appreciate such a talented drummer and inspiring mentor on the stage during the annual International Jazz Day Latvia event. The pandemic has edited these plans as well, nevertheless, at the beginning of May, we are helping everyone interested to listen to some wise advice from Sasha during the digital workshops within the Jazz Day, and before all of this, I’ve decided to talk to him on jazz and life.
I associate you with never-ending optimism and the pleasure of life. Do you even have some separate management?
No, I’m trying to do it all myself. While you explain it to someone, almost the same work is done as when you do the things yourself. Right now, I’m doing everything on my own, we’ll see how it goes on in the future. I’m coping.
Last year you released a new album. What is it about and whom with?
My second album is called «Happy Synapse». Do you know what a synapse is? That thingie in your head where you either have contact, or you don’t. Sometimes you don’t, and everything is terrible, and sometimes it’s normal. Here I am, trying to make synapses happy with the help of music. Josh Evans is playing trumpet there, Benito Gonzalez is on the piano, Rosario Giuliani from Rome is on the saxophone, we also have Makar Novikov and one more Russian saxophone player Dima Mospan. Everything’s really cool and really happy. There’s a lot of, you know, not precisely joy but hopeful confidence that everything will be okay. Such a thing.
Didn’t you ever regret your decision to play drums?
Never. Everything has somehow always happened on its own, and I’ve never regretted anything. Even if something didn’t go as planned in the beginning, afterward, it appeared it had a sense. I treat all the things with all the calmness — if something happens then, it will teach me something in the end. Just the same as, for example, with photography — when I really began doing it, I thought my musician’s career was threatened, and I almost stopped playing. And then, ten years later, when I simply made myself stop photography because I simply couldn’t play drums anymore, then at one point, my music had the knowledge I got from photography. And, it seems to me, it was of great help to me in becoming not just a musician, but a musician who can see things from the point of view of another profession, which is sometimes essential. Many musicians, even the best ones, if they don’t have such a function inside them, they get limited to some extent. This is why my ten years of experience in photography helped me move forward in many other things.
What, in your opinion, has to be done to become a good drummer?
In order to become a good musician overall and not just a musician — a personality who deserves some attention from others, you simply have to love something that seems important to you and what you’re happy doing. You have to put the maximum time and power into that keenness, and do it to reach some goals, not just enjoying the process but also realizing which processes bring you to getting joy in this sphere, which processes bring you to your future development and to becoming better, whoever you are. Suppose you’re a musician, artist, constructor, architect. In that case, you have to love what you want to do, that is the first precondition, and you also have to be selfless, sacrificing, and able to focus on the things that don’t bring you instant pleasure but that develop you as a personality.
And if we’re talking about the drums — in order to become a good drummer, you have to create good rhythm and be competent in seeing the form. You cannot begin your way in drumming without these two things. It means that you can begin, but you cannot become a music industry professional playing drums. You have to create a perfect rhythm, it can really be very simple, and you have to understand the form really well — main harmonic movements. It’s nice also to be able to play another instrument. There are really many qualities I would like to describe here, but the ones I mentioned here are the most important. Creating form and structure and rhythm someone would like to move along with, and it isn’t that important whether it’s swing, jazz, pop hip hop, not that important. Any rhythm can bear that magic, hypnotic function in it — you have to want to move. If you have it, you’re nailing it. Then you have to realize what that rhythm is into, you have to have some structure. Many drummers just keep playing, they seemingly have a nice rhythm, then they play some break, hit the drums in the middle of some part, but what did he actually want to say with it… In other words, two things: creating a supercool rhythm, even if it’s really simple, and understanding the form. And the ability to play another instrument well.
Then there’s time for a trivial question I cannot, however, skip: why jazz?
Well, to be honest, I didn’t choose it. I’ve told this story many times: I had a buddy who lived upstairs, he was studying at the same usual school. They were a bunch of boys who were playing some weird music, and they said that’s called jazz. They’re playing something, and they don’t have a drummer. At one point, the music school was purchasing a drum kit for an orchestra, large marching drum, cymbals, and toms — so instead of a war kit, there’s unexpectedly a usual drum kit nobody’s able to play because a school teacher has no idea how to. And then everybody tries to learn to play it themselves, create some kind of drawings and patterns and learn on their own. So I took some pans at home and began playing, my neighbor heard it and said — hey, we have a band here, and we need a drummer, we play jazz. I asked him — well, okay, but what even is jazz? And they gave me a cassette with Alexey Kuznetsov’s recording of a concert in the Olympic village. So I listened to it, thought a bit, and told — okay, but I at least need some instruments. Then they disappeared for some time, returned in half a year, earned some money at a factory, saved a sum of money for a little elementary set. One cymbal, a little tom, and a high hat. We all together went to a commission shop, bought it, and began rehearsing in a staircase of a usual apartment building. Neighbors purchased some beer, gathered on that staircase, sat down, and listened.
What are you the proudest of in your life? What do you consider your most outstanding achievement?
As self-centered as it may sound, the most important to me is when someone greets you on your birthday, usually tells you something like, «Congratulations, I wish you good health, be always happy, have lots of money», and so on. This time almost 90% of all the greetings to me stopped looking like these banal birthday greetings. People just wrote to me and thanked me. They kept writing — just thank you, dude. Of course, I understand I’m still far away from the truth of any sort, and I don’t know a lot. But I can already share something I know. And I think sharing the information with others, help others and support them because some don’t even have any courage to believe in themselves, they believe they aren’t talented, they won’t make it — support people I this and make them believe in the fact that everything is going to be alright if they’re going to keep on practicing — that’s the main thing to me right now.
Did you ever think like this yourself? Did you ever think you’re not talented, or did you believe in yourself from the very beginning?
I always had it like that, you know, when everything seemed relatively easy. I just wished it all, practicing, I wanted to play, and when you’re young, the results come fast. And there have been no problems with these results. Everyone was supporting me, so I also wanted to support the ones younger than me. I didn’t actually have issues like that. I had the other ones, for example, I was growing up in a country that had just collapsed. Perestroika, nothing to eat, no option to just go to a store, buy a chicken, and cook soup. There was nothing. Bandits, poverty, mountains of cheap alcohol, and in between all that — concerns if I could ever make a living out of music. That’s obvious — meat comes first, then comes theatre. But I wasn’t the only one with such concerns, I remember everyone around me thinking — God, what do I need that jazz for, I wouldn’t be able to make a living with it. And then it slowly became better.
What inspires you now?
My students. These younger ones. When they come to my lessons, they don’t know they’re coming to teach me. They think they’re learning from me, but it actually is a two-way process. I’m learning a lot from those who are younger. This way, I’ve invented a secret of eternal life. [laughs] You simply need to learn from the ones younger than you!
And outside music?
Lately, it’s sports. Last September, I ran my first marathon, 42 kilometers, this year, I want to run 60, in a year — 100. My private music lessons cost quite a lot, and I know someone could think it’s too expensive, so I’ve created a new story called «Sasha Mashin Happy Run». If a person can run 10 kilometers, he can run together with me and ask me any questions, and that’s a lesson itself. So we’re running, and a person asks me anything. Running and awesome people is what inspires me, architecture, painting. I’m listening to quite a lot of classical music, way more than I listen to jazz. I have an extensive vinyl collection at home, and I buy lots of classical music on vinyl and get lots of joy and inspiration from it.
You were telling us you miss Riga. When was the last time you were here?
It was a long time ago — I was here together with Vladimir Volkov some fifteen years ago. I haven’t been here for quite some time. I think Andrey Kondakov was there, some concerts were happening.
What have you heard about our jazz scene?
To be honest, nothing much. It would be nice if it would become a really bright place so that everyone would speak of it — that’s the place where jazz blooms. Unfortunately, I do not hear much about it. But it depends on where you go: you go to New York and did anyone hear something about jazz life in Saint Petersburg there, for example? Or Moscow. Someone knows Russian musicians but do they belong to that scene? No. This event doesn’t depend on how active the scene is, but on what the people you’re asking want to hear about it. But you really have to work on it, make your jazz more noticeable, do workshops, bring educators, teach the young ones.
Speaking of the progress — what does a jam session mean to you?
I’m not a huge fan of jams. But there are different ones — there can be a jam where you can come to, and everyone who isn’t too lazy and who knows what’s blues go out, play an extended solo each, and one song turns to an hour and a half long composition. I don’t like jams like this. I like it when people who might not be exactly acquainted with one another come on one stage and can play something that reminds me of a composition that could be played at a concert — depending on their skills, on the quality of interplay between musicians. Jams shouldn’t be just a toilet tank when you have been practicing for a week and just came to move your fingers and practice your keys. When people are listening, and you don’t care about it, you just came to practice the keys. I don’t like it this way. I like it when people who haven’t been acquainted with one another before going on stage and can make a little piece of music together so that it looks like a song from an album. That is so rare but possible.
I’ve another thing called «Sasha Mashin Happy Lab» — this is actually an idea that was born instead of jams. These are previously prepared programs where if some friends/musicians we know come, they can join us, and we can create something spontaneously. But this, in any case, is communication within the musical norms that don’t turn into chaos. If we define it encyclopedia-dry, jam is an opportunity for strangers to communicate with the help of sounds.
And why do experienced musicians have to attend jams?
They actually don’t have to. Just because it would be nice to support the young ones, to create the atmosphere. If we’re honest, then if you’re already on a certain musical level, your task is to catch the best. If you go to the jam to listen to the young ones, you might hear something that’s not the brightest performance. So you, as an artist who wants to improve his skills, will see this as a loss of time. And if your task is to support someone who lacks confidence — if this, for example, is your student, then you come together with him, and your presence itself is a huge support to that person, brings him energy and power to perform and make the first steps. To be honest, I think that the other forms exist that are more useful and progressive. But they most often exist in a society where there’s a lot of musicians. If there are not many, it won’t be possible.
It happens like this in New York, for example — yes, there are the jams, but people don’t attend them to play or create music, but so that someone remembers their faces to invite them to work together. So that they have something, a job. Jam is a hang. You can hear a lot of interesting musicians in a jam. From that whole chaos happening on the stage, you think, «Hey, this musician is worth something». So you come to him and say, «Hey, how are you doing, let’s exchange our contacts, maybe it leads to something». Then there’s another category of jams — home jams when there’s just one drummer, one bassist, one sax player, one pianist, and one vocalist, they’re jamming, but everyone sits two or three hours by his instrument, they don’t have to change. That’s a spontaneous ensemble with no audience present — they just gathered to play, and real music happens there. There’s also time to discuss something in between the played songs, and all of it results in a jazz college of sorts. This way, out of home jams, many great line-ups were born. And the thing that happens in the clubs with no entrance fee in front of the audience is most probably just a way to sell the bar, it often isn’t about the music at all. Sorry if my answer seemed to you a little bit… I’m just telling you what I think.
Every time I meet you in person, I’m wondering about your level of energy. What makes you move all the time, what’s your doping?
Listen, I’ve just been choleric all the time. But during the last few years, I’ve added some active lifestyle, sports, and diet to that. I have a special diet, I don’t consume carbohydrates at all, I eat only fats and salads, fiber, and a bit of protein — it all brings me almost double of my usual energy, my memory skills improve, mood, all inflammations pass. That is a healing story to me. That is just a scientific way to normalize your metabolism, but that side effect is that your brain works way more effectively. For example, I haven’t been able to memorize too much, I wasn’t able to read a page of a book at the first attempt, but now my head works way better. I ran a marathon without any food — everyone around me was drinking sweetened juices, eating bananas, and I was only drinking water, ran 42 kilometers, and didn’t even get too tired. But also, except for this diet, there’s sports, a positive mindset, and a wish to change things for the better — that’s a great recipe itself.
What advice do you usually give to your students?
I always, at the end of every talk, want to tell one thing to everybody, especially the young ones. Students often come to me young, grown-up, experienced, and there’s the same concern that unites them all — they are afraid they won’t make it, they’re afraid they’re worse than the others. They’re afraid that there are some talented and non-talented people, and they think they most probably don’t have any talent. And they believe — if they now, especially if they’re 40 or 50 years old, begin doing something, they’ll just lose time because they don’t have any talent, they will just put the remains of their lives in a direction that won’t anyhow improve their lives. But it actually isn’t like that there are no talented and non-talented people at all, there are even books written about it. And the only thing everyone has to learn is even if you don’t have any prerequisites to begin doing something, you just have to believe in yourself and begin doing what you love. If you maximally invest in it, even if you didn’t have any signs of talent beforehand, you will just make yourself talented. Because talent isn’t something that’s given by nature, it’s something we can unjust make ourselves capable of with the help of neverending practice. Because there’s an option called neuroplasticity in our brains — it means that we can just change our brains according to what we do. So if you’ll simply train a lot, you’ll change your brain and become more talented. You don’t have to be afraid — you just have to do what you love, and that will automatically bring you to success.
We return to this talk a year later. Did your crazy lifestyle change during the last year of the pandemic?
Actually, all of it depends on a person instead of pandemic — on the tasks he generated and the goals he puts. In my case, this year became even more active in spite of the fact that there were almost no tours and moving around — I wasn’t losing time, sitting at home, and learned a new profession. A year ago, I only began dreaming about becoming a sound engineer and beginning to record music, and just a year later, I’m doing it professionally. Only a year ago, I took the books about sound recordings in my hands for the very first time, and the moment that crazy quarantine began, I was sitting at home and thinking — «Okay, what should I do now, I’ll have so much time». I actually was happy — I didn’t have so much time in my life ever before. Sound recording was one of the dreams that couldn’t come true because of neverending tours and work. So everything had stopped, I sat down in my favorite chair in the kitchen and began reading quite a lot of tutorials. I started every single day by dedicating a couple of hours to educational videos on the topic, and recently I’ve recorded a jazz trio in the best Russian recording studio as a sound engineer for the very first time — that recording was a special prize for that trio’s victory in a contest. And I thought that’s the best moment to try. Of course, I asked another sound engineer to help me and watch so that I don’t fail somewhere, but I’ve recorded them, edited it at home where there’s a little studio now, and mixed it all. All the cycle was on me, and this recording is ready for its release and will soon be published. My crazy lifestyle has changed indeed — it has become crazier. [laughs]
How did you adapt to a temporary, although long-drawn reality?
I just began doing more things connected to music editing instead of playing drums. And I overtook the most significant part of the label work — during almost all this last year, I was sitting by my laptop and editing the material we’re doing to release. During this last year I lead a lot of workshops and online lessons — during the first months of it I was earning money with these lessons only and realized there’s not a lot of difference, because during my lessons we mainly discuss not just some technical and drums questions, but some more essential things that can be of interest not only to the drummers but to all musicians overall. Some large-scale things that people don’t usually think of. Some beginners mistakenly connect the ability to play with the technical skills, but it doesn’t work like that. Learning technique is just the beginning, that is an unconditional skill that’s necessary, although it doesn’t mean an ability to play. Ability to play means the ability to formulate some more important ideas and bring them to the people who listen, using music. And that’s the most important. It’s pretty easy to talk about such things online as well, so I didn’t face any difficulties with teaching.
What do you currently dream of the most?
I’m still dreaming about learning to compose, at least on a primitive level, that’s something I lack the most now. I still dream of running the 60 kilometers that I still haven’t, although I ran 42 kilometers on December 31st, and that wasn’t easy — it was raining ice that day, and even the ones who were just walking down the streets were doing it with major difficulties. It wasn’t fast, and it took us more than 5 hours, it was madness, but we’ve done it. Last year I got my own «Sasha Mashin Happy Run», and every single Saturday at 10 a.m., we get together, some 10 — 15 people, and run.
Of course, I’m only human, and I miss tours a lot. To be honest, sitting in one place to me is a huge challenge, just as being locked in my cell. I’m thrilled that some gigs are returning slowly — some tours around Russia, concerts, concert halls are working here, I’ve recently been to Minsk, and that was amazing — go somewhere and feel like being on the road again. The road is what inspires me a lot. When you’re on the road and dream about the things that will happen in your life in the nearest future. That is a way to meditate, realize what’s important and focus on essential things.
A workshop of Alexander Mashin on developing his musical skills and the sense of rhythm is a part of UNESCO International Jazz Day Latvia 2021 program: www.jazzday.lv.