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Chris McNulty: A Global Voice

By Published: March 28, 2008

AAJ: Who took care of things in Russia?

In the case of jazz in Russia, much has developed from the efforts of the jazz musicians already over there. Pianist Andrei Kondokov, not only a wonderful musician but a great composer, started bringing musicians over to perform several decades ago. Paul Bollenback was the conduit for me, so we've both been very lucky indeed to be included in that circle. The highly gifted tenor saxophonist, Igor Butman is also involved in bringing musicians over to Moscow. Igor performs with Wynton Marsalis at the Lincoln Center on a regular basis. The cultural exchange has happened through the actions, drive and creative energy of the musicians and their close entrepreneurial partnerships.

Leaving one's homeland aside, I've continued to pursue an adventurous life, it brought me all the way to New York and it's also what brought me to Russia. To perform with and to people from different cultures seems to me to be one of the most rewarding aspects playing music has to offer (minus the long lines at airport security, lost luggage and sleep deprivation).

AAJ: Do you have plans to go back in Russia?

CM: I am actually leaving in two weeks time to tour over there. I'll be in St. Petersburg, Moscow, Ekaterinburg (the Ural Mountains), also Kiew and Khativ, Ukraine. We will be performing in our Trio Delux format: Paul Bollenback, Andrei Kondokov, piano and myself. We'll be doing some festivals, some concert halls and some clubs.

I have my Russian coat ready and hope we're not going to be too brrrrrrrrr... Russia is always an adventure, sometimes just amazing and sometimes tough. I'm looking forward to performing with these two guys though, we have such a great hook-up. Also looking forward to experiencing the sites, sounds and smells of Russia again. I love that black bread, caviar, blini with jam and sour cream but also looking forward to hanging with some Russians. They are really such a warm and passionate people.

AAJ: Talking about that... How do people react to this traditional American music? I know the iron curtain has fallen down quite a few years ago but still...

CM: It depends on where you are. There are audiences in Russia who come out because of a real love for the music and some who are just there because they have the money or someone told them to be there. But it always takes people with a passion to make the connections to bring the artist, the venue and the audience together.

Audiences sometimes take that for granted, the fact that we are up there doing this. They don't see what efforts are made off the stage and how we've made it there. We are there to uplift, entertain, stimulate and inspire so in a way I guess why should they? Still audiences often don't realize how difficult it is to fill a room, especially these days.

In the States we are competing with so many different kinds of entertainment. What I see is that people react and respond to art/music they have not been exposed to in different ways. They almost always see the artist coming from outside as more exotic, more orthodox, especially if the art form originates in the visiting person's culture, I guess audiences believe correctly or incorrectly that it gives them more legitimacy. The crowds turn up either way and the audiences in Russia are often huge. That's a wonderful experience.

AAJ: I suppose we both agree that being a US citizen is not an issue in becoming a jazz musician.

CM: There are great players coming from many different parts of the world playing this music. The players obviously have a reverence and understanding of its origins. So many more musicians from every corner of the globe are mastering, refining and putting their own cultural stamp on this music, either by way of their own folk music, modal traditions, instrumentation, sonic choices or compositionally, so the music is definitely stretching out and perhaps the boundaries are becoming more blurry as a result. I reckon that's OK.

AAJ: What's the trigger behind that?

CM: Education and the Internet have had an enormous impact. There are so many more wonderfully talented musicians and vocalists who were born and remain outside the US. Many studied with the American musicians who were traveling and performing over there decades ago, and many more (including myself) learned a great deal by listening, dissecting and emulating what they were hearing from recordings. There's been more than half a century of sharing, absorbing and mastered the language and I think it has increased exponentially with the arrival of the Internet, freeing up of borders and the availability and access to music data bases and downloading sites (unfortunately bootlegging is rampant over there). So, all this exchange is good for some things and bad for others.

AAJ: How do you thing it will impact jazz musicians?

CM: Only time will tell how this affects our music and our incomes. It doesn't look hugely promising where selling music is concerned, but if it opens up more opportunities to perform live, that's a good thing. At same time audiences, not just in the US, are getting huge doses of other genres of music, cool jazz, blues, pop, hip hop. I heard so much hip-hop in Lebanon recorded by Arab artists, both Muslim and Christian, it was truly bizarre.

The market is saturated with so much music now and it's not [only] jazz musicians who have to compete with that: music, sheet-music publishers, all sorts of areas are also suffering. We have to find a way to attract and lure those audiences back to us, but we can't control what's going on in the big economic picture. Unfortunately I still feel like "real" jazz audiences are shrinking here. I hope not in Russia; it's a great place to perform.

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