In a Moscow state of mind

The Fonograf Jazz Band will perform three concerts here.

The Fonograf Jazz Band (photo credit: PR)
The Fonograf Jazz Band
(photo credit: PR)
If you like your jazz-seasoned entertainment dished up with more than a touch of showmanship, then the Thrill of Jazz should provide you with the eponymously proffered sensation.
The act is led by colorful Russian pianist, composer and band leader Sergey Zhilin, who will front the Fonograf Jazz Band for their concerts in Beersheba (May 18 at 8:30 p.m.), Haifa (May 19 at 8:30 p.m.) and Tel Aviv (May 20 at 6:30 p.m.).
This will be Zhilin’s second visit here, although his debut foray was quite some time ago. “It will be the first visit with a full concert tour,” he notes. “Twenty-five years ago, we came to Israel with a fashion show by [leading Russian designer] Valentin Yudashkin. Our orchestra opened the program for the Yudashkin fashion show, and some of the collection was also shown with live music. We gave two jazz concerts. But that was a quarter of a century ago.”
While today Zhilin is best known for high- energy renditions of jazz classics by the likes of Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker and Oscar Peterson, he started out on his musical path with a very different mindset. “I studied at the Central Music School at Moscow State P.I. Tchaikovsky Conservatory [in Moscow],” he says. It seems that great things were forecast for the young student. “I was even predicted the glory of the academic pianist,” continues Zhilin. “I’ve always loved the Romantic composers: Grieg, Chopin, Liszt and Rachmaninov.”
It was this penchant for the amorous side of the musical tracks that led Zhilin to develop a more improvisational approach to the art form. “This tender love for music, filled with great emotional content and texture of the piano, turned my gaze towards jazz,” he explains. “I had records of Louis Armstrong and Leningrad Dixieland – the most popular musical group in the Soviet Union. Dixieland is a traditional style, rather simple, modest by the abundance of harmonic and melodic variations, but, nevertheless, a very interesting style.”
But rather than the leading lights from the cradle of the genre, the teenage Zhilin’s imagination was initially fired by a Soviet artist whose act he caught one day. “The turning point for [me as regards] jazz [was the] very strong motivation [I received from] the concert by [Latvian composer and pianist] Raimonds Pauls at the Variety Theatre [in Moscow], which I saw on TV 35 years ago,” he recalls. “I really liked ragtime, which Pauls played with the pianist of his orchestra.” The keyboardist in question was a gentleman by the name of Raymond Voldemarovich. “Back then, I could not imagine that I would be lucky enough to not only be familiar with Raymond Voldemarovich but also to work with him,” Zhilin continues. “Years later we met and I told him, ‘You became the turning point for me, after which I was plunged into the ocean of jazz.’ He replied with his characteristic sense of humor, ‘Well, I probably did something wrong!’” Zhilin’s next formative point of pianistic reference was jazz giant Oscar Peterson, two of whose charts – Blues of Prairies and Laurentide Waltz – feature in Zhilin’s the current repertoire. “The works of the great Canadian pianist Oscar Peterson had . a huge influence on me. For me, he is still the best pianist and musician ever – an unattainable pinnacle. I even have a program called Homage to Oscar Peterson, which we perform in a quartet,” he says.
While the budding Russian jazz pianist was keen to make strides with his newfound musical love, there were logistical minefields to be negotiated as well. “When I began to pay more and more attention to jazz – I played in two vocal and instrumental ensembles – I was taught how to work with the material, disassemble the notes, but the foundations of any improvisation, of jazz and variety of harmonic and rhythmic solutions, unfortunately didn’t [exist],” he says. The latter refers to the scarcity of sheet music in Soviet Russia. “Problems arose with the selection of material,” Zhilin continues. “In order to have something to play, it was necessary to look for the notes [charts].” The youngster had to learn to improvise away from the piano, too. “I remember one day I found a collection of Scott Joplin [songs] for a children’s performance and reworked it so that it all sounded like Pauls,” he recounts. Zhilin’s musical entourage has been around for quite a while.
“The Fonograf Jazz Band started up in the early 1980s,” he says. “I played in the jazz studio at the Moskvorechie House of Culture. Being an active person, I almost immediately put a band together. But the starting point of the Fonograf, I think, was in 1983. Our first performance was at the Jazz Festival at the Moskvorechie House of Culture. Back then, Fonograf was a traditional Dixieland band.”
One of the highlights of Zhilin’s career was a jam session with then US president Bill Clinton, who plays jazz saxophone. Zhilin had gone to the States as part of the entourage of Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Of course, playing a duet with Bill Clinton was an unforgettable experience – after all, he was a president! I was very worried. [I thought], ‘What if I don’t know the song that he wants?’ But everything was okay. He said, ‘Summertime’ in the key of A. I knew this standard in six keys, but not that one! My hands were trembling, but I played without any error. Clinton, by the way, played very informatively and musically. The second tune was ‘My Funny Valentine’ – thank God, in the conventional key. We were both satisfied with our little jam,” he says.
Zhilin and the Fonograf Jazz Band’s instrumental efforts will be augmented by vocals provided by Irina Bratis and Maryanna Savo in a program that also takes in material by Duke Ellington and Latin numbers.
For tickets and more information: *3221; 072-275-3221; and