Ruslan Sirota: A Journey Away

Mackenzie Horne By

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A thousand first steps is not a journey. So a thousand first steps was my life for most of my life... It was very peculiar and unaware journey. That wasn't me. So your life is a composition and not just a bunch of little pieces of that piece of this piece of that piece.
—Ruslan Sirota
Ruslan Sirota would bristle against the classification of "pianist," "multi-instrumentalist," or "composer." He is, of course, all of these things... which is precisely the point. Raised on the songs of the Soviet and nurtured by the fusion alumni of the 1960s, Sirota has thus far navigated his professional career with an acute sense of sound, unencumbered by futile terminology. This disregard for straitjacketing semantics extends from his musical tastes to his job description. He casts such inhibitors aside in the pursuit of balanced progress. Busy-minded and endlessly fascinated, he is content to scrutinize everything with a frustrated curiosity.

His list of credits is diverse; from Al Jarreau to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Kamasi Washington to Josh Groban, Sirota has proven adept at turning on his musical heels at little more than a moment's notice. For all the things he can do, he has proven himself totally incapable of remaining idle. Nearly a decade has passed between the release of his debut record Ruslan (Roxboro Entertainment Group, 2011) and 2019's A Lifetime Away (Self Produced, 2019); Sirota has made the most of that decade, meticulously refining his approaches to his musical methodology, personal ethos, and the innate relationship between the two.

All About Jazz: How are you feeling today?

Ruslan Sirota: I'm somewhere between excitement and existential despair. Somewhere in that space. There are certain things in my life I'm pretty thrilled with. Certain things I'm perplexed by. I'm not quite sure what one word would describe that feeling accurately.

AAJ: Do you ever experience crashes after big projects like A Lifetime Away?

RS: Yeah, I think that's kind of what happens. Because there's all these expectations and you have this goal, right? You're going to make it happen. And then you kind of work towards the goal, which is that in-between space where most of us are sort of happy, and then you achieve the goal. And you know, every top of a mountain is the bottom of the next mountain. But still somehow my brain is often tricked into thinking that, yeah, once this goal is accomplished, you know, it's gonna be nirvana for the rest of eternity. Then it gets complete and then you're like, "oh... now what?" You're sort of working on that project and you need to set a new goal. And so it kind of goes.

AAJ: What have you been listening to lately?

RS: You know, it's a bunch of different things. Some classical music. Some Mahler. Some Rachmaninoff... always. I was just listening to the complete Miles Davis Quintet Columbia Records recordings. It's funny. Now that I've listened to music for so long, I'll just sort of go to certain specific songs by certain artists, like something will hit me that I want to hear. Like something by Keith Jarrett. And then I'll go look up that song. And I'll go hear some solo piano concert thing that he did in 1974, somewhere in Europe, or just random stuff like that.

AAJ: You play a number of different roles on A Lifetime Away. You're the composer, you're the arranger, you're the conductor, you're the player. How did this album push you to grow?

RS: Well, I was the most challenged by being the human resources manager, scheduler, and the booking appointments guy. The person who has to carry out all the details and all the tasks of getting people and getting them money. To be honest, all the musical things you listed are fun for me to do. I'm not a conductor, but I'll conduct if I have to. I'm not really an arranger for strings, but I'll arrange for strings if I have to. But because of the modern era and the time this record was made, I was also the human resources manager and the assistant. And the executive producer of many things. I am the negotiator and fundraiser and all those tasks I found to be quite challenging because, unlike music, I didn't spend my lifetime mastering any of those other skills.

One of the reasons the album took so long is because it was really challenging to sort of make it all happen. So it's sort of organizing and getting the money together and fundraising and filming a video for your crowdfunding campaign and making sure the video is engaging so that people actually give you money. Now I understand why there is a PR department and all these other departments at record labels because these are all really, really difficult jobs. It's very easy to mess up on them, you know? There are three of four ways of getting it right and a hundred ways of getting it wrong. So to me, the most challenging part was to do all of those things because I'm a musician.

And this album was a big project. Playing with strings and dozens upon dozens and dozens of people. Do you know what it's like to book thirty people to record in the studio? Do you know what it's like having to pay every one of them? Printing out all of the music for everybody. Coordinating this many scheudles. Now, the upside is I have a lot of friends who work in the industry who are willing to help out very generously, some for next to nothing and be a part of it just because they love the music and they love me. And so while I did have to put all this work that I ideally shouldn't have to put in, it has nothing to do with music, I still did get the benefits of having real friendships and relationships come through and help me in a thousand ways, in ways which, if I did have my record label, perhaps would not have happened. It wouldn't have been friends helping, necessarily. It would have been someone who the label contracted. So the upside to this whole homemade operation is that I got to be hands on and I got to do it with the people I love. So that was really, really fun. I really am grateful for being able to pull that off.

AAJ: It seemed like you wrote primarily for the other voices on the record.

RS: There's a certain level of honesty that I feel we should all uphold or we should go home if we can't. My honesty looks like putting the music in me before the 'me in music.' I'm lucky because I don't find it to be satisfying any other way. So it's almost like I lucked out. It's like when you tell someone, "wow, you play the blues so well," and it's like, "yeah, I don't know how to play any other style, so I play the blues like this." In my case, putting the music first is the only way I enjoy writing and producing. I make it about the music more than I make it about myself. And I can't help by do that, simply because I don't enjoy it any other way. So I think that's why I can stand behind this stuff I released.

AAJ: You utilize a lot of space on this record. A lot of listeners conflate music with consistent and constant sound.

RS: Yeah, of course and no wonder they do. Look, the music every era, all art forms of any era, be it the 17th century or 19th century or now, reflect true aesthetics, the culture of the times —the spirit of the times. Yes? So that's why Impressionism, for example, is not just a musical genre. It's a set of aesthetic values that also get expressed in architecture and other art forms. So in today's climate, there's such abundance and such overflow of information and stimulation because of the digital age. There's overflow of stimulation and information just for clicks. You just look at your phone for tweets and Instagram messages or Facebook messages, and e-mail, and Snapchat and it's a mess. Someone's calling you and then there's TV and there's YouTube and there's such overstimulation so there's no wonder that today's music reflects precisely that. It's no wonder that so much of today's music is consistent with those same sort of cultural and aesthetic values, those values being a bunch of information (notes) and no space. Stimulation upon stimulation with some more stimulation on top. That's how the world/culture is today and that's much of the music today as well, as a reflection of this world and culture. And hey— it couldn't be any other way. Music is always secondary to culture and springs from it, for better or worse.

That's not to say that I endorse this way of life, or way of making music. I'm just saying it's no wonder that it's like that in our day's music. It's no wonder listeners conflate music with consistent and constat sound if everything else in the world is also exactly like that. I think, lack of space and doing more with more, instead of doing more with less— that's something that Confucius cautioned us against a long time ago. And here I am, centuries later, telling you that it is now a trend in our culture. What is important to remember is that there is a price to pay for this trend. There is a price to pay for being this way and using such an overflow of information as opposed to trying to do as much as possible with less. I'm not with it. I don't condone this cultural trend. So to me, making an album like this is the only thing I could have done in this non- ecnomivsl information age. And I'm gonna make more with a bunch of space in the future, too.

AAJ: Do you keep audience accessibility at the forefront of your mind when you compose?

RS: I absolutely do not. Or rather, not in the conventional sense of the word "accessibility.' Here's the distinction I'd like to make. I think what's great about music and also what makes music accessible is the organization of musical material rather than the type of musical material. Any genre can be made more or less accessible through the organization of the musical material. Writing well. Improvising well. Producing well. In any genre. That is what ultimately makes music accessible, no matter how accessible the genre is conventionally considered. Which is why there is a way to play amazing and accessible straight-ahead jazz, even though most people would consider it to be conventionally less accessible. And there is a way to play some really embarrassingly terrible, alienating rock or pop or any other genre that one might consider to be typically accesibly to listeners. Because neither depth nor accessibility is about the type of music you play, or at least nowhere near to the extent most people think. Both depth and accessibility are in the organization of the elements, not in the elements themselves. It's what you do with the musical elements, how you string them with one another. When do you introduce tension in the music? When do you introduce release? Why there? By which means do you do it? Do you create musical expectations in the listener? Do you then strategically break those expectations for effect? Do you have a storyline? Are there chapters in your music? Are there themes? Do they get developed? Can you facilitate a journey for the listener through organizing your musical elements a certain way? If by accessibility you mean those things, then yes—I very much keep them at the forefront of my mind when I compose, produce and play! Because those are the things that ultimately grab the ear and make music accessible. Those are also the things that make music great, which, to be honest, is the actual reason I care about them.

But, to address the spirit of your question, yes -the musical language on my recent album is very consonant and pretty, and would be conventionally considered accessible. I like this musical language a lot. I like this musical language a lot. It's just that most people who write consonant, pretty melodies like that are bad composers who write music for the Weather Channel (if they're lucky to get the gig). The consonant musical language itself can be used as profoundly as any other musical language. If my music is ultimately accessible, it is because I try to write well and present the musical material well. I still like to write really, really well and am as serious as a heart attack about it. I just happen to like consonant, pretty stuff a lot. Most people who write pretty music like this don't try to maximize what can be done with it, and so this 'pretty' musical language gets a bad reputation.

If you take language this accessible and you apply the seriousness of it, you get the Pat Metheny, for example, which I adore. It's about how serious of a musician you are, not about which musical pallet you happen to be working with. I just really love beautiful, consonant, pretty music like this and I try to be as serious as possible about making it.

AAJ: How important is the role you play in terms of being a generational hinge point? Along the way, you had people like Stanley Clarke and George Duke. Do you feel pressure to continue on that legacy so to speak?

RS: You know, I have spent a long time romanticizing music as a young person, and then spent a long time around the very people whom I was romanticizing. My musical heroes. I was really fortunate to be around these people a lot and to talk to them about what it's like to be them, whether they see themselves as I see them, whether they see themselves as continuing the legacy of their predecessors, or starting their own legacy. Because I had the chance to work with many of these people, I was awarded access to what it was like for them to have done it all before me. Some of what I've learned from them is slightly disillusioning and some of it is surprisingly liberating. On the one hand, of course there is a heritage and a legacy and a tradition. Of course we each carry it forward. Of course we have to do our best in doing so. On the other hand the entire enterprise is a lot more casual than one might think. Very often our musical heroes themselves are perplexed by the demigod status others bestow upon them. As far as they themselves are concerned, they often see themselves as just some dudes who were trying to make really good music, worked really hard, got lucky along the way, unlike, say, some of their friends, who were also amazing and worked hard, and, unlike those friends, they succeeded and became famous and influential, while their friends didn't.

And that's that. And now everyone is saying they were continuing a legacy or starting a legacy or betraying a legacy or whatever else music critics say in magazines. They were all just making music together. And the four friends got famous and influential due to a myriad of factors, and the other six friends didn't. And that's that. As far as they themselves saw it, they were just a bunch of guys making music, just like their friends who never became famous. Just like, say, I'm not all that famous and my friend Thundercat, who I've known for twelve years, is famous. Why? Because he's truly amazing and insanely gifted, and because his visual image is culturally relevant right now, and because he is very hard working, and because he affiliated himself with the right people who could push his career, and because he's well versed in the history of American music and he is authentic and unique, and because of many other factors. I played with him before fame and after fame and wrote for some of his famous albums too. And I assure you -what he was doing before fame is exactly what he's doing now -making good music. Expect no one was talking about any of his lineages and musical heritages before fame, only after. Or my friend Kamasi, who was just as amazing, gifted and unique long before he became famous, and long before played on that Ig Kendrick Lamar's album. Kamasi was just as great before all that, but no one gave a crap. Until he played on that big album and then over the course of some few short years he became the messiah of jazz. And now there's all this talk of his heritage and his place in the jazz lineage. Where was all this lineage-talk when Kamasi was playing those same tunes at a Hollywood bar for drunk people twice a week, year after year after year? I did those bar gigs with him and the big festival gigs too, and I assure you -he was just as amazing before fame as he is now. But no one gave a damn until he played on a big, culturally relevant rap album.

See what I mean? We're just trying to make good music. And sometimes that music comes out in the vein of current culture and the culture embraces it and runs with it, and then you become a star. And then everyone thinks you have a legacy that someone's gonna continue or something. In reality it's just a bunch of dudes trying to make good music and succeeding or not... and becoming famous or not... based on a hundred different reasons and timing and this and that. No one has time to think about heritage or lineage. Real musicians are too busy writing the second part for that difficult tune they have to record next week. Romanticizing is for the fans. So there is not all that much pressure. Just do music. Try to be honest. Try not to bullshit anyone. Try not to bullshit yourself. Challenge yourself. Put yourself outside your comfort zone. It'll stimulate you, it'll stretch you and grow you. And then if you succeed in doing that, with some luck, you'll sell some records... or not. And if you do that consistently enough, people will declare you a legend... or not. That's the way it is. That's how my musical heroes see it. That's all they were ever trying to do. That's all I'm trying to do, too.

AAJ: What is your earliest memory of the music? What's the first thing you remember in your interaction with this art form?

RS: I have a couple, but I think it's either hearing my dad's wedding band or someone came over to the house and dad gave them a lesson or something. I just remember hearing this and hearing music. It's like, "what is this thing? Why is it making me feel good? I don't understand what this is. I don't understand what I'm feeling and why I'm feeling." My mother and father said that when I was a year old or even younger, there was one particular song from the Soviet Union—and that unless they played that the song, I wouldn't fall asleep. So they had to play that specific song over and over and over and over again if I was going to sleep. So that sounds like I already was making some kind of distinctions in music because no other song would do. It must mean that I already had some kind of relationship to music. Otherwise, why would I care which song? I wish I had memories of that, but I don't. And then, of course, after that, I think it was either my dad's band or one of my dad's students that came over the house and I heard music. I was like, "what is this thing? Oh, my God."

AAJ: How has your understanding of your own life really impacted the way that you make art?

RS: Oh, where do you start? Because I'm such obsessive-compulsive type, I'm all about the details and I'm not all about the big picture. Or at least that's my natural propensity, so to speak. I think the longer I live, the more I'm starting to see that the bigger pictures actually matter a lot. Where is your life headed and where is the direction and which direction is this going to go? My relationship to the big picture became sort of healthier. And I started to understand that there needs be an overarching narrative to things. And it could be any narrative you want, but there better be one. Otherwise, it's an incoherent creation.

I first discovered this issue in my solos and improvisations and then I had the chance to reflect on why that is and that perhaps there are other areas in my life where I'm experiencing similar challenges. I realized that my life was very fragmented and lacked overarching narrative. And so did my music and so did my first album. And so more of that started coming together and I realized, "okay, so I learned there needs to be some kind of overarching narrative and it can be any one of my choosing and I can change it every couple of years if I like. Or every decade. But I can't change it every other week." A thousand first steps is not a journey. So a thousand first steps was my life for most of my life. And that's what my first record sounds like. It was very peculiar and unaware journey. That wasn't me. So your life is a composition and not just a bunch of little pieces of that piece of this piece of that piece. So your album is a composition and not a piece of this piece or that piece or this piece. All those things kind of inform each other. Not sure which impacted which more, but the two are obviously related.

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