Jazzator: Oleg Mariakhin, Marina Sobyanina, and Sergei Balashov
Slowly, but surely, various bands in Eastern Europe are investigating the validity of crowdsourcing for their careers. One of those adventurous, trusting outfits is the Moscow jazz trio Jazzator, fronted by the remarkable voice of Marina Sobyanina. She is supported in turn by her colleagues percussionist Sergei Balashov and saxophonist Oleg Mariakhin. The band's last outing was entitled "The Dom(e)" in English and "Дом" in Russian. Over the course of sixty-four minutes, the musicians claimed to traverse a wide "range of moods – all the way from drama to comedy and even gentle meditation." As that opening sentence suggested, this was challenging material, and the same baroque wizardry is now in need of a discerning sponsor.
Jazz with a healthy level of aggression
The band have turned specifically to the services of Indie GoGo, where a discussion begins of a third album - and how it might be funded. A detailed breakdown of expected expenses is offered on the site, listing everything from studio time to mastering, artwork, and pressing costs. These modest outlays are, by the artists' own admission, the minimal amounts conceivable; the adjective "minimal" is even capitalized for doubting souls. A slim budget hopes to support a spiraling aesthetic.
A recent interview with Jazzator frames these efforts admirably. We are granted an insight into the physical and stylistic challenges of an acoustic ensemble, operating on the distant periphery of any mainstream. It probably comes as no surprise to discover that the journalist's first question concerned this trio's stage-name. Why did they choose such a peculiar calling card? Balashov suggests that the term "jazzator" contains a "healthy level of aggression. It implies some kind of imaginary mechanism that itself engenders a 'jazz-like' process." From within mundane routine come byzantine, sometimes bewildering movements.
Mr. Balashov then, in more practical terms, points out that neologisms are easier to search online... This dual need for both feisty "aggression" and some abstract, improvisational spirit seems clear when we consider the real-world obstacles facing Sobyanina and her colleagues. Large instruments do not travel easily.
Sitting pretty: Jazzator (Moscow)
Sobyanina recalls, by way of striking example, a visit to a well-known Russian folk/jazz festival not long ago. The artists had to drag their sizable tools on public transport to a distant, muddy venue. "We were really unlucky with the weather. There was both rain and sleet, so we all arrived in a filthy state. The bus driver dropped us off at the wrong place altogether. He got the road signs mixed up. When we stepped out of the bus a rainstorm immediately started... Everything was working against us."
Our music simply asks people to pay attention
These efforts continue doggedly because - as a colleague says - "the last few years have produced a new generation of music fans in Russia. They've no sense of connection to what came before and they're looking for something interesting. They're ready to hear things that are complex, serious, and unusual." Balashov adds that: "Although our catalog includes some knowing nods and winks to an academic audience, there's a great deal of accessible material within our discography, too. We don't communicate in a language that requires any special qualifications! It simply asks an audience to pay attention." Meretricious pop and stentorian rock both prompt an alternative.
Sobyanina adds a related thought: "It's really rather hard to define ourselves - not only do we keep changing, but we do so quickly, too. We've no idea what forms or styles we'll adopt next. Although I reckon there will always be an element of jazz..." And so the call goes out to support inconsistency: wit and wayward magic need a helping hand.
Using a related platform is singer-songwriter Jenia Lubich from Saint Petersburg; she has turned to the crowdsourcing service Planeta.Ru. The founders of that project hope, in a romantic spirit, to uncover and then support a "wealth of talented people with their interesting, unique, and important ideas. Those same ideas, though, might remain purely ephemeral - and a project nothing more than a wonderful plan - if there's no way of bringing things to life. That requires knowledge, skill, and - of course - funds."
Pondering some professional options: Jenia Lubich
Lubich uses Planeta.Ru as one of her web resources, both for news and funding opportunities. The most recent of those updates has concerned her involvement this season with the remake of a classic Soviet comedy from 1971, "Gentlemen of Fortune." Her two songs for the soundtrack, hosted on Planeta.Ru, will act as something of a calling-card and an indicator of future possibilities, all of which could benefit from material assistance.
In the meantime, the Russian press has been keen to group Lubich with other female performers such as Zemfira, Alina Orlova, Nochnye Snaipery, and Obe Dve. Here, atop that wave of gifted artistes, the generational discussions of Jazzator become more lyrical, as Lubich speaks to her experience as a solo performer. In other words, if Marina Sobyanina and her colleagues in Jazzator talk of some "disconnect" between jazz and mainstream contemporary performance, then Jenia Lubich's lone presence on stage does even more to underscore a sense of distance from "massed" normality. A lone voice travels a lone path.
I prefer venues where people are respectful
When asked by a Russian publication last month whether she prefers to play in storied concert halls or modish clubs, Lubich responds: "I'm happy anywhere that people are listening to me. I don't mind whether they're dancing or lying down! Though, of course, I do prefer folks to be respectful. Not long ago, I gave a concert in a small Vyborg club. People had already turned up and ordered their meals. I started the show - and everybody stopped eating! Those who were sitting with their back to me turned around. After an hour, the director of the club approached me and asked: 'Jenia, would you mind taking a 20-minute break? Folks may be hungry, but they're embarrassed to eat when you're playing.' And so we took a break. But then, as soon as I started once more, everybody stopped eating again..."
This kind of captivation has a long-standing, local importance - for the following reason.
There's an inherent logic to the fact that modest - dignified - beginnings, voluntarily set apart from massed enterprise, would be fashioned within a club or cabaret setting. Not only does that milieu take us back to the cafe culture of pre-Revolutionary Russia; once home to intelligentsia (or decadent) enterprise, it now offers a refined, self-respecting mode of showmanship, decades later. Today, as before, both romance and material promise are nurtured in the smallest, most emotionally engaging context imaginable. Niche markets are a fine place to hide from primetime crudity - not to mention imperial collapse.
As a new generation of musicians goes in search of a select, intellectually "complex" and "discerning" audience, they turn back to the traditions of estrada, i.e., the so-called "small stage." Whether one is talking of impending revolution (circa WWI), political repression (in the 1930s), or fiscal downturn (today), the most intimate stages in Russia have proven themselves to be the most precious - and enduring. They help small stories avoid grand narratives.
Songs to make men cry
The "cafe chanson" tradition also appears in some brand-new material from Oleg Nesterov and - by implication - his band Megapolis. Following the critical success of his wonderful "Supertango" album in 2010, Nesterov was approached late last year in order to write a few songs for a forthcoming TV series. He remembers the key events: "The story's heroine is a singer in a northern Russian port. She performs in a bar called 'The Last Drop.' I was asked to write something special [for the soundtrack and that character in particular] - it had to touch the heart of any male viewers and, in a word, make them cry." Nesterov then chose nationally famous singer Elka to perform the resulting material - full of consoling sentiment in a heartless, hopeless port. The darkest places would engender the softest songs.
Once Nesterov actually heard Elka enact these sad tales, he admits to feeling "genuine happiness." The sounds of a wavering, heartbroken - and therefore kindred - spirit were priceless. An admission of private misfortune and a flicker of hope occurred simultaneously in a small, informal setting. A local audience would recognize that admission and consequently feel less alone.
It's only fitting, therefore, that these songs of a heartbroken chanteuse are now available on the Kroogi pay-as-you-will service, where sympathy and charity likewise become the beginning of grander social schemes. Hope and affinity become the building blocks of future collaborations.
In a brand-new interview with Afisha, Nesterov has spoken of what he hopes to foster in a studio. What, in other words, should ideally transpire in the face-to-face collaboration of a producer and performer? Might that relationship mirror the context of Jenia Lubich's cafe - with one singer and one listener? It emerges that the extreme closeness of an enclosed space becomes, for Mr. Nesterov, a realm within which an escape from material burdens seems possible. Empathy suggests an alternative to the rough and tumble of crude normality.
A producer should grant a singer's body freedom
Nesterov speaks of three principles that should - hopefully - guide studio experience towards that minor, fleeting ideal. "Principle One: The artist shouldn't understand what's going on around him. My goal as producer is to tear him away from the Earth - and grant him freedom from anything physical. Principle Two: Don't wait for anything to happen. As soon as an artist starts expecting his work to reach #9 in the charts or get serious radio-play, everything's ruined." Spontaneity, in a word, beats planning every time. "Principle Three: Don't rely on anybody. Remember Archimedes, who was still drawing formulae in the sand when soldiers came to murder him. He said: 'Wait just a second, guys. Let me finish this drawing...'"
In short, Oleg Nesterov views his studio work as "making [and then saving] a snapshot for eternity." Amid the fleeting nature of sonic enterprise, a tiny expression of stability, if not permanence, takes shape. Some lasting values are fashioned - between two people, side by side. Once again the sentimental, trusting traditions of cafe culture seem a perfect realm within which to foster the mutual support of crowdsourcing or pay-as-you-will services. One person at a time.
Making snapshots for eternity
Working along similar lines - and also using the Kroogi platform - is Kharkiv ensemble Pur:Pur. A new album appeared from the band on New Year's Day, entitled "Nevertheless." The group's founding members, Nata Smirina and Evgenii Zhebko, spoke to Kroogi as the songs went online. But first a little background...
The last time we visited the band, diminutiveness was validated precisely in the way we hear from Megapolis and Oleg Nesterov's studio work. The last song from Pur:Pur, published this summer, was promoted as "a tender and honest tale of love. Even though July is already upon us, the words of this song will carry listeners back to a cozy cottage, inhabited by two lovers... and surrounded by a freezing snowstorm." Already our heroes were hiding, rather than engaging the world with swagger. Put differently, Pur:Pur's retrospective, fairytale atmosphere was used to weave a narrative not of actively sought romance, but instead of "a moment when two lonely worlds touched... and were joined as one."
A minor register spoke of difficult bonds in an uncaring world. Those connections had to be built from nothing.
Smirina and Zhebko speak today of how the modest, though stubborn raison d'être of that summertime song continues: "The text came into being rather spontaneously, and that theme of first love or [emotional] closeness defined how things developed thereafter. We wanted to use a children's choir at the end of the track, but we couldn't find one! So we decided instead to go to a local theater. We waited until a play had finished and then persuaded the audience to stick around, in order to help us. Nata acted as conductor - she got everybody to sing along, both in time to her gestures and in a friendly tone, too. It was really nice to see..."
Nata convinced to audience to sing along - and help us
Trust is slowly built, both on stage and in social, even material matters. Evgenii Zhebko remembers some of these sentimental connections and how Pur:Pur's private songs inspire social acts. "A young guy came up to us in Lviv, and he asked Nata to say hello to his girlfriend - the next time we play in his hometown. He wanted the girl to know he loves her very much. Another young man even asked Nata to write his girlfriend a letter. He had offended her somehow and he wanted Nata to express his regret: the girlfriend was ignoring him at the time! There are loads of other stories, just like that..."
And so these bands and songwriters celebrate either the improvisational freedoms of a jazz heritage or the acoustic modes of cafe culture. They do so because both the formal liberties of jazz and the sentimental closeness of a "chanson" have proven themselves priceless in some awful historical contexts. Small, earnest songs have been the most endearing in Russia - and the most enduring. Their fidelity to the smallest social unit - two strangers, two lovers - mirrors the professional challenges faced by underfunded artists, too.