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Tālis Gžibovskis and honest music

Aleksandra Line

Sometimes hard work is better than giftedness you lack

Evilena Protektore

Tālis Gžibovskis is a drummer who’s well-known for wider audiences for the bands he’s played at — «Modo», «Eolika», «Sīpoli», «Vecās Mājas», «Patina». Studied music theory at the Rēzekne Music high-school, Gnesin Institute in Moscow, Riga Teacher Training and Educational Management Academy, Latvian University. He is a Doctor of Pedagogy, drum teacher, Jāzeps Vītols Latvian Music Academy lecturer, head of Jazz music program at the Riga Dome Choir school, one of the co-founders of Saulkrasti Jazz festival. In 2020 became an Officer of The Order of the Three Stars.

The name of Tālis Gžibovskis is well-known among the fans of rock and jazz music. I’ve talked with his current and ex-students numerous times, and each of them is eternally remembering his studies — not only he taught them the history of rock or playing drums, but also some life lessons that stay in their minds forever. I’ve waited for a long time to talk to Tālis with my sound recorder turned on: we’ve been acquainted for many years and talked about things now and then, but it seemed that he’s so much to tell, so I’ve no idea what to begin with. At some point, I just couldn’t stand it and came to visit — one has to begin with something…

So I come to his room at the Riga Dome Choir school, where his student is already sitting and listening to a composition. Tālis puts his finger to his lips and shows me — now keep silent, sit down, listen. So we’re sitting there and listening for some time. I immediately fail this improvised exam and have no answer for the question: what is this we’ve just been listening to. It appears we’ve just heard a composition called «Blindman» performed by the «Vecās Mājas» band that was never previously released. After listening and right after getting some strict but caring advice from Tālis, the student moves to another room nearby for practice. I turn my voice recorder on.

How is it, being Tālis Gžibovskis? How does it feel, reading «legendary» in other people’s descriptions about yourself?

You know, I won’t be pretending — I don’t feel like this. All these descriptions aren’t made up by me. As I keep saying — I haven’t voluntarily joined this party, haven’t been paying the membership fee, haven’t invented the bonuses, and haven’t said that I need it. At first, I felt quite embarrassed, but now I put up with it. The composition we just heard — these are the things I’m really happy about, the fact I had this in my life. Normunds Šnē is standing at the sound desk there. After we talk, I’ll put something else for you to listen to, something that’s not there in any archives yet.

What do you get inspired by the most — in music and outside it?

If I must answer in general — I like honest, open music the most. Of any genre. When it’s music that exists not because of your own ego, not because of the money, not because of some self-confirmation. Musicians who don’t care about how others value them are the real people. If you’ve done it all honestly, then don’t spend your time thinking whether you’ve played it well or not really — you just believe in it. It’s just the same in love — are you really interested in what your neighbors think about your love? Or your relatives? If someone gets interested in this, it won’t end well. And if you’re not interested, then you’re for this person — or this music — until the very end.

What was a turn from rock to jazz music in your life?

Raubiško. We’ve been at one event together in some context, and it all began somehow. I can’t tell I’m a jazzman myself — we just liked doing it all, we really did. It was something different. You have to mature to reach every single thing. Have you heard of «Ekspress A»? There was such a unit in Latvia, and we were all part of it — Mārīte Veisberga was the main singer, then there was a trumpet, a violin, cello, drums, we had a concert life on the second category stages. It seemed interesting until Raubiško came and turned our brain in a completely different way. Then I was ashamed — I remember this feeling very vividly now — shame, sweat, and my eyes turned down. I felt uncomfortable with what we did, and then we tried to change these things.

And now, when you’re a musician, a teacher, and a festival organizer — isn’t it difficult to juggle between all these roles?

See, each of the roles has different intensity at different times. You’re not just one or the other all the time, the emphasis changes. And we really don’t know what comes in the future — thank God there’s this day, thanks for the opportunity to do things on this day. We really don’t realize how much resources we’ve been given, and the resources really are tremendous. It’s just equally impossible to realize how little we need so that all of it doesn’t exist anymore.

Do you think you have to use all your resources, trying to get all that’s possible from life?

I’ll tell you this way. What is this all from life? One of my teachers put it a nice way — when you come to the fifth question in a row when you can answer yourself why you just won’t have any questions anymore. Why are you doing what you do, why did you come to interview Tālis at the moment, for example? And why does Tālis respond? It’s just the same about the music. I sometimes ask my younger colleagues who come to do something — can you survive without the drums? Then there’s a short pause, and they answer — yes, I can, I guess. So then survive without them, let’s not meet again. And if there’s someone who really cannot survive without the instrument — well, let’s see if something can be done here.

Evilena Protektore

Was it Lev Tolstoy who said once that if a writer can survive without writing, he’d better stop…

I’ll be honest — I had a period of life when I was reading the letters and works of Tolstoy and considered it a real school. These are the greats, without any piety or hypocrisy — people like this are rarely born. Back then, I survived my pedagogical downfalls really hard — I had some when my ex-students didn’t become such high-class musicians as I wanted them to. Here also come these thirty years behind the iron curtain — that’s a huge part of life when compared to people who were born in this environment. I was put into the big band where all the guys were right after the army, and I was a green cucumber who didn’t have this experience at all. I didn’t even have any idea how to do this, I was 14 or 15 while the others were 20 years old — so go play that big band! And it was the only school big band in the whole country at that time, in our little Rēzekne music secondary school. But thank God I was put into this situation, and I’ve survived. Just try to imagine what a struggle it was for the guys at that time. I think I also got really lucky with all my teachers.

Speaking about your students — I sense and hear it all around that your reputation among them really differs. What do you think about it?

Sunshine, I can just respond to you, and I’m not ashamed of my response — I’ve been so lazy that I know all these shady moves when you can just persuade yourself — well, not this time, maybe later. And when you realize what you lack in life just because you haven’t done it then… These ten thousand hours you have to spend studying it’s a real physical way of living. How much time do you have to dedicate to any instrument — voice, piano, drums, to be at least a bit above average — how many years of your life do you spend on it? Quite a lot. And even if you spend your time and practice, there’s one more thing — we cannot measure how much God has given us. For example, Dave Liebman once said: «It doesn’t matter which instrument you’ve chosen, every musician has to play the piano for 2 hours a day to get closer to the level of a normal musician». Very simple thing — then you see harmony, see the melody and the rhythm.

So you believe in talent as well?

See, there’s a dual situation again. There are really good amateurs — we need people like this as well. Here’s a big band, score, go play. There’s one more little category — special artists — one like this can keep silent for two weeks, and suddenly he has something, and it’s genius. But you really can’t count on him if you have a recording tomorrow. You need amateurs you have to rely on. But maybe you need these geniuses as well, whom you can wait two weeks for. And it’s by any means not a comparison of who’s more important or who’s better.

Do you see examples among your colleagues or students when an initially non-gifter person has reached a high level of playing with just the hard work he’s spent on it?

Sometimes hard work is better than the giftedness you lack. The gifted ones are enough with what they have, and at some point, it’s not enough anymore — the ones who work hard go further. At least, if we’re speaking about performing arts.

Do you follow what your students do apart from the school as well? Do you listen to recordings?

Yes, definitely. Whether they know it or not is another question. You happen to care about what you put into them, at least from a distance. We’ve found a situation with one of my oldest students when we both listen to one jazz long-play per day. And actually, I can realize most of it. For example, today — just don’t laugh — my colleagues have a pile of vinyl, and I decided to listen to one today. It said «accordion in jazz». And there’s nothing bad about the instrument. So today I listened to this vinyl, both sides — it’s a Norwegian, 1971, ten jazz standards, just solo accordion. And I’ll be honest — I can’t define my emotions to you right now, but they are different from what they were before. Nor good nor bad, just categorically different. If you tidy your garden regularly, you’re happy about one flower and other ones, happy if there’s no tare, but then you have to weed the garden. It’s just the same in playing or listening. You can’t learn everything too quickly, right before the deadline for the exams.

That listening part actually makes me sad most of the time — the fact there’s so much music in the world that our life isn’t enough to hear at least a decent part of it…

I comfort myself with what my colleague once said — if 90% of the music wasn’t recorded, our civilization wouldn’t lose much. And sometimes the reaction follows — what, really? And then you take literature. Go to any book store and see: first top bestseller, second, third, fourth — what’s this, is it really what humankind reads nowadays? It has absolutely nothing in common with literature.

My first education is the theory of music. I vividly remember that situation when a teacher came, and we talked about Soviet music, and she just put us a vinyl to listen to without any comments (we were listening to the music a lot these days) — so all our group just looked at each other and began laughing our heads off. It was an ordered opera, Soviet work, and someone who has very honestly documented everything note by note arranged a terrible playing of a bunch of kolkhoz brass orchestra. It was performed dead serious, though, and in a context with the whole opera. A generously arranged music to depict this taste. There were times when a brass orchestra was a must in each and every kolkhoz. And I remember this emotion up to this day. The teacher seemed content, reached her goal.

Do you follow what’s happening in the Latvian jazz environment nowadays?

I do, overall. I like the bands that play together for a long time, and their sound is really different, categorically. I put a question mark to jam version bands. Oscar Peterson’s band, Brubeck’s band — people haven’t changed much there, so you feel they all breathe in one lung. There’s another quality, I think, and it’s important enough to me. Jazz is music for a relatively narrow circle of listeners. It’s quite popular in Latvia at the moment, thank God — that no-jazz time and a lid closed on top of the jazz spirit is breaking through and working well. You can ask in America how popular jazz is there, how popular it is in the major countries like Germany, Great Britain, Spain, and other places in Europe. To me, jazz as art and improvised music is essential. It’s just the same in life as in music — nothing’s straight usually. The presence of mistakes is just your normal way of development, and you have a chance to learn from it. Of course, not every mistake can be justified, and balance is that magic word you have to stick to — you can’t be the fastest player or the most genius composer all the time. We don’t lack high-class performers in our small Latvia.

This year you became an expert on the State Culture capital foundation committee as well. What were the reason and the goal for this decision?

My colleagues said maybe it’s meaningful to do something there. I agreed because it seems interesting to me how it all works from the inside. I think the best case I’m the one who reads the project and gives his opinion on it. I said it like this to my family — if you agree to the opinion you have to help Pēteris, then Jānis tells you, «Tālis is a bad guy because he didn’t help Jānis». If you help Jānis, the others will say, «Tālis is a bad guy because he helped Jānis». If you help both Pēteris and Jānis a little bit, both will say, «Tālis is a bad guy because he didn’t help everyone properly». And then the question is as follows — if you’re ready to hear you’re a bad guy, then what are the reasons for being there at all? The economy is definitely not — I have no idea what economy there is, and it’s not something I’m interested in. I’m interested in a mechanism that can support talented musicians and good projects.

What is your recipe for tirelessly doing great things and keeping on going?

I really don’t think I have been doing great things all my life. People I had to be together with have been a present to me, and they mostly were the ones I’ve learned from. And believe it or not — if anyone told me when I was over 40 that I’m going to be a teacher or a part of the educational institution — goddamnit. But it somehow turned out like this in life that it evokes enthusiasm in me now. As well as the teachers I have to spend my time with. But there are many things I haven’t understood yet. There’s no such thing as right or wrong. You can bang your fist on the table and tell — now go play the piano for three hours per day, and you’ll become a pianist eventually. Maybe you can skip banging the fist, just go to an instrument and play for three and a half hours every day yourself. You have to have some kind of order — order of mind, order of spirit. Back then, there was a usual thing called calligraphy in schools — a lined notebook where you had to write big and small letters in some order. And now when you’re all into your computers — can you even tell what your handwriting is…

If we return to music — my sons were small, some seven and five years old. So we went to the Great Guild to listen to Joe Zawinul’s concert really in doubt — the guys were small, that concert will most probably be long… We were sitting in the hall in the very corner on the right side, where the boys could be sitting on a windowsill. The musicians finished playing, the concert ended, and my sons asked — are we returning back to the second part? Two hours and fifteen minutes have passed. The kids were five and seven. You simply can’t tell them what’s good or bad, they don’t have an opinion yet, but what was happening on stage just canceled counting time. This is something about the honesty of that music.

Tālis keeps his promises, and after we’ve talked does put «something different» to listen — so we hear one more unpublished composition performed by «Vecās Mājas» many years ago. Tālis Gžibovskis has much to tell and much to give to the others, and I sense it — I always do — that this jazz talk will continue in the future. While accompanying me to the door, Tālis says: «Take care». He says it the way I immediately believe it all.