Of Russia, Raj and all that Jazz  

Saxophone virtuoso Igor Butman enthralled Mumbai with his music
In frame: Igor Butman
In frame: Igor Butman

Raj Kapoor and his films have always been a favourite with the Russians. Little wonder that saxophone virtuoso Igor Butman, a Russian, chose to play the original Bollywood showman’s popular song Mera joota hai Japani at his Mumbai concert recently. For Butman, born in Saint Petersburg in 1961, the nightly broadcast of jazz on Voice of America served as lessons before he moved to the US to study at the Berklee College of Music in Massachusetts.

One of the pioneers of the jazz scene in Russia—the genre travelled from the US to the Soviet Union in the early 1920s—the jazzman and Mumbai go back a long way. Butman performed his first concert in the city in 1988. Since then, a number of tours over the years helped create a strong base of listeners.

The quintet started the session with the tune, Blues for Wynton. It was a tribute to the American trumpeteer, Wynton Marsalis, with whom Butman has collaborated multiple times. Then the band turned the clock back and belted out the 1931 Duke Ellington classic, It Don’t Mean a Thing. The band also churned out classics from the Brazilian Bossa Nova template with songs like Minina Moca and thought-provoking originals like Nostalgia. Nothing could stop the music, not even when bass player Nikolay Zatolochiny broke a string in the middle of a tune. He continued playing as if nothing had happened.

Businessman Suresh Dias, a fan of old school jazz, attended the concert with his family. “I wanted my kids to understand the difference between traditional jazz music and the music they hear today. Butman beautifully kept the jazz language intact while traversing through different trajectories,” he says. Aradhana Behl, a music teacher at a school in Pune, came with a couple of her students. “The sound of the saxophone has so much authority,” she says.

Russian jazz celebrated a century last year. The genre was popular in the Soviet Union, before “politics ruined it. Now Russia again has a good jazz scene with 60 festivals. We have financial support and special grants from the president for artistic forms,” says the jazzman, who wears his friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin on his sleeve. “I love him as a human being and as the leader of our country.

Maybe he had to make a few unpopular decisions, but I support him,” says Butman whose friendship with Putin cost him a Grammy. His album, Only Now (2022), was a frontrunner, but the artiste’s association with Putin following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine upset the apple cart. But the musician is defensive of his friendship with the Russian premier. “He made a big difference in our relationship with the arts, and we have support from the government because of him. Putin admires and appreciates all styles of music,” he says.

Besides Bollywood film music, Butman was exposed to Indian musicians like sitar maestro Ravi Shankar and Dr L Subramaniam during his stay in the US. “My experience in the US helped me grow as a musician and entrepreneur,” says the musician, who runs two jazz clubs in Russia and owns a record label. He also collaborated with American jazz musician and composer Chick Corea when he was touring Russia. 

“I met Chick in 1982, and since then, we have been in touch. I played with him on his Russian tour. In 2008, I asked him to record Russian music for kids. The album sold good numbers, and we were prepared to tour together again, but he died before it could materialise,” says Butman, a favourite of both Putin and US former President Bill Clinton. The artiste feels music can unite world leaders. “One can find solutions to problems while listening to music,” he says wistfully, channelling John Lennon’s iconic song, Imagine.

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