A swing at the authorities

Lithuanian immigrant Slava Ganelin picked up some handy improv jazz skills during his childhood, which he'll put to good use at the Jazz Globus Festival.

Slava Ganelin 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Slava Ganelin 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Keeping any cultural pursuit going over the years can be a trying affair, especially if the event is based on music that mostly culls from beyond the mainstream pale. But the Jazz Globus Festival is obviously made of sterner stuff and will take place for the eighth year in succession.
The musicians come from Israel, Russia, Italy and Norway and feature some of the leading lights of the international improvisational scene. These include Norway-based pianist Misha Alperin (November 30); Italian pianist Tony Pancella and compatriot guitarist Maurizio De Fulvio (December 3); and an intriguing wind instrument trio called FreeBrass, led by Russian trumpeter Sergei Pron (December 3 and 5).
There are also plenty of home-grown or home-based acts on offer too, such as pianist Anat Fort, who will join forces with Ethiopian-born saxophonist-vocalist Abate Berihun, double-bass player Avri Boruchov and double bass and percussionist Gilad Dobrecki.
Fort will also be in action in a sideman capacity behind vocalist Ayelet Gottlieb, who will showcase material from her upcoming new CD Betzidei Drachim (On the Roadside). Gottlieb’s instrumental quintet also includes clarinetist Harel Shachal, Udi Horev on guitar and oud, Ora Boazson–Horev on double bass and Dani Benedict on drums.
The festival’s closing slot features the Alliance Trio of pianist-keyboardist-percussionist Slava Ganelin and Russian-born Israeli saxophonistflutist Lenny Sendersky, with Pron on trumpet and flugelhorn.
When Holon resident Ganelin came on aliya from Lithuania in 1987, he was already an established star of the global improvisational scene. He had put out a considerable number of records and performed relatively extensively across Europe and North America, naturally only after gaining permission from the Soviet authorities. In the intervening 24 years he has continued to perform at festivals abroad and in Israel, and teaches at the Rubin Academy of Music and Dance in Jerusalem.
Ganelin has come a long way since his childhood in Lithuania, where he got an early start to his eventual line of musical thought. “I started playing the piano when I was four,” says 66-year-old Ganelin, “and I was improvising by the time I was six.”
Many jazz musicians in Eastern Bloc countries were given a hard time by the authorities, as jazz was an American art form and, as such, was at the very least considered suspect, if not a subversive activity. However, Ganelin says that he was one of the more fortunate artists.
“There was more freedom when I was young,” he recalls. “That was after Stalin. Things were less strict in Lithuania than, say, in Moscow, and we could dabble in experimental music. I was lucky.”
Even so, Ganelin could not exactly saunter down to his neighborhood record store and buy himself an armful of Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington LPs. The most popular clandestine way of keeping up with the jazz vibes coming out of New Orleans and New York was to tune in to the Voice of America’s Jazz Hour program presented by Willis Connover. Mind you, there was frequently some unwanted improvisation on the sound coming out of the radio.
“The authorities played around with the reception, so you often got a lot of static,” says Ganelin. “But that was a very important way of hearing was happening in the outside world.”
Like all his compatriot budding artists, Ganelin’s developmental trajectory was often impeded, or freed up, by the winds of political whims. “When I was about 13 or 14, the authorities decided they should give young people a bit more freedom,” he recalls, “so they set up all these jazz café club places.”
Not that the youngsters were given completely free rein of the record player, radio waves and stage. “There were people who kept watch on what was happening, so there were all sorts of advantages and disadvantages,” he says.
The new initiative was certainly better than nothing. “They provided the clubs with instruments. We had a Steinway, no less! It was a small piano, but it was still a Steinway. We also had a double bass and drums. There were also poetry readings and exhibitions of paintings and photographs.”
In time, Ganelin and his pals started getting opportunities to mix it up with musicians from elsewhere. “There were musicians from Czechoslovakia and Poland and Japan, and that greatly expanded our playing experience,” he says.
The jazz club record player was also well used. “We got records sent to us by people who had emigrated from Lithuania to America, so they sent us LPs by all the greats, including Charlie Parker. I actually didn’t like Parker’s music at the time. Before that, we’d heard all sorts of swing and dance bands, from places like Czechoslovakia, so when I heard Parker and his fast bebop stuff, I couldn’t understand what he was doing, and it was melodic like the dance music I’d heard before.”
But Ganelin soon got into Parker’s vibes and began immersing himself in the works of some of the other founding fathers of modern jazz.
“If you’ve never heard bebop and you’re used to dance bands, what Parker did could sound like he was practicing rather than actually performing music,” notes Ganelin. “A few months later I started getting into [pianist Thelonious] Monk, who was very modern for those times. Then I got into [avant-garde saxophonists John] Coltrane and Ornette Coleman.”
Ganelin’s first foray into the outside world – albeit not quite in the Western hemisphere – was when he and his friends and went to play at a jazz festival in Tallinn, Estonia. “There were musicians from all over, including places outside the USSR, like Sweden and the United States,” he recalls.
The American band was led by saxophonist Charles Lloyd and now megastar pianist Keith Jarrett, then just starting out. At the time, Ganelin had no idea who Lloyd and Jarrett were.
“We played before their concert, and all the foreign journalists said that I played like Jarrett, and they were amazed when I told them I’d never heard him, or of him, before.”
Surprisingly, Ganelin’s formal education was in classical music. “There wasn’t anywhere you could study jazz back then,” he explains, adding however that he makes the most of his formative early tuition to this day.
“I learned composition and ear training, and I use composition in everything I do today. I learned how to improvise on my own. We all did that back then. There were no books that explained harmony; we learned that by honing our listening.”
Today, Ganelin appreciates the hardships he went through to become proficient in improvisational art.
“I see a lot of people today who wanted to be spoon-fed. It’s a ‘give me’ approach. They don’t analyze the music and the way to improvise. They want everything given to them on a plate,” he says. “We didn’t have that opportunity, so we had to understand everything we heard and everything we played. That brought us to a good place in musical terms. Without that training, there wouldn’t be any of this.”
For the last four decades, Ganelin has been putting those hard-earned lessons to good use on some of the world’s major stages for improvisational music and putting out well-received albums in various combos. He maintains a double-edged seemingly contradictory philosophy.
“I compose as I play,” he says somewhat enigmatically. “Books and theory don’t give you freedom. Quite the opposite.”
The Jazz Globus Festival will take place in Jerusalem from November 30 to December 5. For more information: 052-263-444; 621-1777; www.jazzglobus.com