Happy55 are a jazz duo from the southern industrial city of Voronezh; they gather critical acclaim as if were lying around on the street. Take, for example, the following two quotes as a starting point: "One of the most original musical projects in Russia today"; "These guys from Voronezh аre rock-solid in all areas. The music is all their own, their line-up's very unusual, and the way they think about their craft clearly goes beyond the limits of what's commonly accepted."
The way they think about their craft clearly goes beyond the limits of what's commonly accepted.
We need not look very far in order to find even more dramatic assessments from eye witnesses of their live work: "The music forced everyone to stand still, slack-jawed and open-eyed, as they tried following along with this driven, freestyle jazz." Is more required? "It's complicated music, but the performers are up to the challenge. It's simply beautiful. A marvel!"
The backbone of Happy55, as mentioned, is a twosome: pianist and composer Iaroslav Borisov (on the right in our first photo) and drummer Aleksandr Bitiutskikh (left). At times in their history, however, they have expanded to the dimensions of a quintet by adding a bass, two flautists, and female vocals. Borisov and Bitiutskikh - as noted - write all their own material; when we add the formal uniqueness of their performances, we have before us an ensemble who claim "to be one of a kind, at least in terms of Russian music. Maybe in all of Europe, too!"
Not to say modest.
Even though "uniqueness" per se makes parallels with other artists tricky, Happy55 give it a go. They see occasional overlaps with the bare bones of Philip Glass, perhaps the "post-bop" of The Bad Plus, and even the instrumental passages of prog-masters Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. That's a very rare combination indeed, requiring a spiraling sequence of adjectives: "jazz, classical, modern avant garde, fusion, minimalism, and rock(!)."
The comparisons that pop up in the Russian press dip in and out of these many potential comparisons: "Happy55 are a 'mystery-group' or 'surprise-ensemble,' perhaps. Some people sense a leaning towards a club style in their work; others notice Glass's minimalism, maybe a straightforward reproduction of what art-rocker Kit Emerson used to do... The range of opinions is pretty wide!"
A recent interview helped both to reduce repetition and bring some order to bear.
Bitiutskikh (right) admitted that he has no professional musical education; his only lessons came from a local alcoholic. "He's already passed away, and I was only at his place once. He really liked to drink, and once I swapped a bottle of vodka for a lesson. He said to me: 'Sit down and play.' I sat down... and started playing. 'Woah!' he shouts; "Hold on a sec!' Then he sits down himself: 'Look, this is how you play the drums.' He played for approximately sixty seconds, drank the vodka... and sent me home."
"All the same, I understood him. I mean really understood. You mustn't be scared of the drums. You've got to hammer away at them. No slowing down, either... So I never studied anywhere; I just watched and played a ton of different styles. If I'm going to stay with music, it'll be in the style that I'm playing now. Generally speaking, I'm employed in the IT industry, and I earn pretty good money. There've been offers from bars and cafes; you know, playing at weddings and so on."
"They offered even more than I'm earning now. I went to one of their rehearsals; the whole thing made me ill. Better that I earn my living with computers, and then play the kind of music that I actually like."
Better that I earn my living with computers, and then play the kind of music that I actually like.
Borisov's introduction to music was more conservative; it did not involve transparent liquids. His mother had a great love of the piano, but since that's hardly the most affordable of instruments, she had to make do with an accordion. Borisov was later shipped of to the local music school - as soon as word got out that a piano had been purchased there.
He says, as a result, he has no "piano-less" memories from the age of seven onwards. "I've liked all kinds of styles since I was a kid. My Dad was a huge music-lover. He had about 500 vinyl recordings. I listened to them all, even when I was as young as three or four."
He continues: "There are even some recordings of me from that age. I'm rolling around on the floor, chewing the microphone, ripping up the guitar strings, and singing something or other. I'm singing some kind of repeated motif - complete nonsense, of course. I just keep doing it for ages."
As the picture below shows, there came the point one day where he stopped sucking the hardware and learned to sit upright for extended periods.
The result of all these efforts, year after year, is what we have in this post. Journalists remain in awe: "The first time I heard you play, it was in Voronezh. There weren't any electric guitars, just some kind of strange quintet: there were two flutes, a bass guitar, the keyboards, and drums. The flutes really caught my attention; somehow they worked together harmoniously - yet sounded both unusual and unexpected. That, it seemed to me, was the band's basic concept."
It's a freedom that Happy55 use to avoid the constraints not only of provincial weddings, but the equally stultifying limitations of the mainstream, too. One writer asked the duo whether they use the freedom of their format to play any given number for "two... or maybe even fifteen minutes." Borisov responded that the choice was more likely to be between "thirteen or fifteen minutes! We don't do anything according to the definitions of a radio-friendly format. We never have, and we never will. Radio has absolutely nothing to do with our work."
All the more reason to put it online.