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Open-Air Jazz In And Around Moscow


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Moscow's summer is relatively brief: early June is normally the first really warm time during the year, and the final week of August normally the last; which means that most of the fifteen million people who live in and around the Russian capital try to take full advantage of those three short months. Those who can travel, head to favorite Russian tourist destinations, like Turkey, Cyprus or the shores of the Black Sea; those who own patches of land in the city's nearest vicinities (with Russia's centuries-long peasantry traditions, of whom there are surprisingly many) try to spend as much precious summer time at their dachas as possible. Still, millions stay in the city, and they want fun.

Hermitage Garden Jazz Festival Moscow, Russia August 21-23, 2009

The first jazz festival to be held outdoors in Moscow was the Hermitage Garden Jazz Festival, the first edition taking place as early as 1998, when the festival started the day after the Russian government defaulted the country's economy; quite miraculously, the event held on, and is now in its 12th year. The small but cozy park in downtown Moscow comfortably hosts three thousand listeners on three consecutive evenings, Friday to Sunday (this year, August 21 to 23); the only problem is that by 10 p.m., according to the city's strict noise regulations, the music has to stop—all because of a few apartment buildings right behind the park's green brick wall, no farther than one hundred feet from the festival backstage area.

The Hermitage Garden Jazz Festival's programming is eclectic, but straight-ahead jazz prevails, with relatively modest excursions into "contemporary" field. 2009's line-up included a number of Russian- American collaborations: baritone sax veteran Gary Smulyan joined forces with Russian-born, NYC-based trumpet virtuoso, Alex Sipiagin, backed by one of Moscow's best rhythm sections, pianist Yakov Okun's MosGorTrio (which is a Russian abbreviation for "Moscow City Trio.") Drummer Francisco Mela and a fellow Cuban, percussionist Arturo Stable, played with a Russian band led by Moscow-based, Siberia-born pianist Alexei Podymkin; and trombonist Chris Washburne played with Oleg Kireyev, who is not only a saxophonist well-known on the Russian scene, but also an artistic director at one of Moscow's best jazz clubs—Union of Composers. Other Hermitage highlights included Macej Sikala trio from Poland, Diknu Schneeberger Trio from Austria, and an array of Russian bands.

Of the latter, especially noteworthy is the Oleg Lundstrem Orchestra (below), the world's oldest acting jazz big band, which celebrates its 75th birthday this year. Unfortunately, their last original member, Oleg Lundstrem himself, died four years ago at the age of 89; currently, the leadership torch is carried by pianist Boris Frumkin, who keeps the legacy of Lundstrem's seven decades burning brightly.

Usadba.Jazz Festival Jazz.Estate (Moscow) June 6-7

This festival naturally closes the open-air jazz season; what opens it is, for the last five years, the Usadba.Jazz Festival in early June. Usadba.Jazz can be translated as Jazz.Estate; it is, in fact, held in a beautiful 18th century estate, located some five miles west from the Moscow city limits, overlooking the scenic banks of the Moscow River, sleepy and green-shaded in this area. Some two hundred years ago the estate, several hundred acres large, belonged consecutively to Golitsyns and Yussupovs, the Russian Empire's two richest noble families. In the 21st century, it is the Federal Architecture Museum and Park Reserve that is keeping intact the gorgeous 18th-century park with several palaces, the largest hosting one of the festival's stages in its inner yard, and a great lawn that easily keeps up to ten thousand listeners in front of the festival's main stage. The space inside the main palace's yard, called Aristocrat Stage, is the festival's straight-ahead jazz face; this year, the Aristocrat headliners were the Branford Marsalis Quartet on June 6, and Oleg Lundstrem Orchestra the next evening when this summer's first heavy rain was starting to pour.

A smaller building, the Caprice Palace, deep into the park, had a small stage in front of it, with a suitable dance floor—as it has been given to hundreds of dancers to sweep it, and a bunch of nostalgic Russian neo swing, rockabilly, and just plain dance swing bands to ignite the boogie and jive craze. Between park alleys, an even smaller stage (above), sponsored by LiveJournal.com, was the tribune for young bands—not necessarily straight-ahead jazz bands, with funky and bluesy sounds prevailing.

Two next alleys, with their thick tree-tops, provided enough soundproof insulation from the main stage which featured loud danceable acts, such as pianist Andrey Kondakov's Russian-Brazilian Project with Sergio Brandao on bass and Cafe da Silva on percussion, or Swedish trombonist Nils Landgren's Funk Unit.

Those two major festivals as the summer season's opener and closer mean than there's something in between. There is, though not necessarily within the city limits. In July, there's two jazz (or jazz- sympathetic) festivals in the Moscow region, both in so-called "science towns."

Pushchino Jazz Days Puschino, Russia

A science town is, basically, a residential area around a campus that holds a bunch of scientific laboratories, institutes, and the like—a phenomena wide-spread during the Soviet era when all the science in the country, both fundamental and applied, was owned and supported solely by the government. Pushchino, a science town 70 miles south of Moscow, is built around the country's biggest complex of biology research facilities. The Pushchino jazz enthusiasts run a jazz festival back in the 1970s and 1980s, known for the largest Russian Dixieland parade across town. With the decline and fall of the Soviet Union, which caused a long and painful crisis in the science funding and, therefore, a crisis in the lives of "science towns," the tradition broke for the long fifteen years. However, in mid-2000s, a group of local enthusiasts raised some resources to start the Puschino Jazz Days again. It is still on a very modest level, most of the concerts during the festival's two-day run being indoors; but the Pushchino Dixieland Parade, once famous Jazz Days' opener, is back (below)—though now it's limited to just one trad jazz band marching across town. Nonetheless, the public really loves it.

MuzEnergo Jazz Festival Dubna, Russia

A Dixieland parade, on a similarly modest level, also marks the start of another science town festival, only it's in the opposite direction, about 80 miles north of Moscow, in Dubna. On the shores of Volga, Russia's (and entire Europe's) biggest river, here in its upper portion, the 65-thousand-big Dubna is the seat of the Moscow State University Nuclear Physics Institute and the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research, one of the most significant international nuclear research facilities. The periodic table's 105th chemical element is Dubnium, named so because it was discovered in Dubna in 1968. The city's reasonably high educational rate means that there is a lot of audience ready for complex music forms, jazz included. This is pretty much the formula for MuzEnergo, Dubna's thrice-a-year festival, which offers prog rock, jazz rock fusion, ethno fusion, and jazz.

MuzEnergo's summer edition (below) is being held outdoors, on a nice pinewood clearing on the taller right bank of Volga River, just a few blocks away from the city's quiet downtown. This year, on July 18, the MuzEnergo lineup consisted mostly of Russian bands of a very diverse stylistic range.

Two bands represented the Eastern part of Russia: the Funky House Band from the city of Ufa is a strong funk fusion unit, with dynamic electric bass foundation provided by its leader, Oleg Yangurov, who polished his abilities during his many years of work in the jazz clubs in Bangkok, Thailand, and Tokyo, Japan. From the city of Yekaterinburg, a younger group, the Free Spoken Band, offered a tricky, though slightly under- rehearsed, prog rock program. But the jazziest act came from Kiev, Ukraine—a group led by prodigious trumpet player Dennis Adu (below), who was born in Ghana and raised in Ukraine.

The festival program was closed by Zventa Sventana, an ambitious band from Moscow; they try to marry Russian ethno folklore singing and jazz funk fusion—and not without success, though their lead singer, Tina Kuznetsova (pictured below with Sventana), is still more a jazz singer (which is her education and years of experience) than a keeper of centuries-old ethnic traditions to which she is apparently new. It is obvious though, that under the guidance of the second singer, Alyona Romanova, who holds a degree in ethnomusicology, Tina is gradually mastering the ancient art of folklore singing which, during the decades of Soviet-era oppressions towards "reactionary past," almost became extinct.

NuNote Lounge Festival
Moscow, Russia

MuzEnergo is not the only "jazz-friendly" multi-stylistic open-air jazz festival in and around Moscow. There is also NuNote Lounge Festival in downtown Moscow (early August), which was this year headlined by the Afrobeat patriarch, Tony Allen, the rest of the line-up producing various electronic sounds, sometimes with a jazzy flavor. There's also Metafest, a blues/funk/rock-improv open-air event well outside of Moscow, which also has a smaller Moscow edition in late August. This coming weekend is also marked by an outdoors festival with mixed jazz/blues roster, the Runway Festival, which opens the program of the week-long AviaMax Aviation Show on the Zhukovsky airfield, 25 miles southeast of Moscow.

A Muscovite jazz listener is weatherproof, well-trained for cold resistance by Moscow's seven-months-long winters, and eager to have his favorite music any way it is available. Even the economic recession this year has not prevented him from coming out—so far. Hope such loyalty and determination will continue to help keep this music alive in the Moscow capital region.

Photo Credit

First photo on page one by Vladimir Korobitsyn

All others by Cyril Moshkow

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