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Svetlana Marinchenko: Making Jazz Between Times

Svetlana Marinchenko: Making Jazz Between Times

Courtesy Svetlana Marinchenko

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When I heard John Coltrane, I realized I am going to do this, and that is it.
—Svetlana Marinchenko
So many people around the world have been influenced by the art of John Coltrane. Svetlana Marinchenko, a pianist from Moscow who now lives in Germany, is surely one of them. After listening to his album A Love Supreme (Impulse! Records, 1965), she decided to dedicate her life to music. Since then, she has recorded three albums and traveled the world performing her original pieces. It was a great pleasure to have this conversation with her and learn more about her unique story of getting into the world of jazz.

All About Jazz: When and how did you start playing piano and going into jazz?

Svetlana Marinchenko: I started playing piano when I was seventeen. I never learned classics. So my journey was just immediately into jazz. I have always loved music. I was always with my headphones on. I listened to all kinds of music, except classical and jazz. I was never into instrumental music. I never faced it anywhere. But I always had this dream: I want to play music. It was irrational. I just wanted to do it.

I was going to become an actress. I was in theater college. And at some point, we were reciting poetry, and some people were playing in the background, and it was a jazz band. I became friends with them. One of the guys just started showing me some jazz stuff. When he showed me A Love Supreme by John Coltrane, I just lost my mind. I felt like I wanted to do that. Whatever it takes, I want to be there. Because his music is so spiritual. Coltrane is pretty difficult to perceive. Well, his late albums, I can agree, but A Love Supreme is beyond energy. It is so amazing, I wanted to do it. So, Coltrane is the reason. A Love Supreme particularly.

AAJ: Since you started learning music relatively late, how did you catch up?

SM: Well, I am a perfectionist. When I am doing something, I want to do it well. I cannot do it just whatever. So it took a lot of effort. I would never recommend anybody to go this way. The first melody that I was trying to transcribe took eight hours of work. And the melody was easy, like some folk melody. I do not remember what exactly it was but nothing complicated. I just did not understand how it works. It took a lot of effort, like eight hours of practice a day, every day, for five years, I guess.

AAJ: And when did you get into college?

SM: After three years of practicing.

AAJ: What is the name of the college?

SM: Mussorgsky College of Music, in St. Petersburg.

AAJ: Do they have a jazz degree?

SM: Yeah, they have a jazz degree there.

AAJ: Who were some of your mentors that helped you to become a professional musician? Someone you met or someone that you listen to.

SM: I listened a lot to Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett. These legends, big guys, people on the border of modern and old jazz. In real life, it was Andrey Kondakov, my teacher in St. Petersburg. He is a pretty famous pianist. He believed in me and helped me with everything so much. I am thankful to him.

AAJ: Any people in Europe that continued helping you?

SM: In Germany, I had a teacher who played only bebop and maybe he gave me something. I had a nice teacher, Konstantin Kostov, from Bulgaria. He was not my main teacher, but I took a lot from him. He is an amazing guy. Christian Elaeasser also helped me a lot with my master's.

Moving abroad

AAJ: At what point did you decide to move out of Russia and why?

SM: I finished Mussorgsky College of Music, and they were people who gave me a lot. But the thing is that I felt, because I started very late, I needed too much time to catch up. Even if I was practicing like hell, it was not possible to catch up. And when I was coming to a jam session in Russia, sometimes you can get a tough reaction if you play something poorly. I just got a little bit tired of it. I wanted to live with more freedom and a little bit more respect. Even if you are not perfect. I wanted to experience something else. I just felt that I needed it.

AAJ: What year was that?

SM: 2015.

AAJ: How did the move abroad change your life?

SM: For sure it changed a lot. First of all, I found what I wanted to find at that time. It was the right atmosphere for me to grow. Some people are motivated by teachers yelling at them or humiliating them. I feel so bad about that. I am very sensitive to those things. For me, Germany has the right atmosphere to grow, have less fear, go to jam sessions and express myself somehow. Now I do not care who is in: I will play as I play. In Russia, it was tough to play in a jam session at that time when I was not so good. That was the number one reason. Even though I was considered a talented student and everybody spoke well about me, I felt this criticism everywhere and so strongly. I was sensitive to this. So, I found what I needed: a more relaxed atmosphere.

AAJ: How and why did you choose Germany?

SM: Germany was the only country where you can study for free as a foreigner. So I just went for it. I actually got a scholarship in Berkeley, Boston, but I could not go because America did not give me a visa. It was a crazy story. They just denied my documents. Even though everything was covered.

AAJ: I mean, Germany is also tough about giving visas.

SM: Not so much. For sure, you have troubles as a foreigner. In Western countries, you always have troubles.

AAJ: So, you moved to Berlin and then to Munich?

SM: No, Munich was the first. I was studying in Munich, and then I went to Berlin after studying.

AAJ: What was the name of your school?

SM: Hochschule für Musik und Theater München [The University of Music and Performing Arts Munich].

AAJ: You already mentioned that the atmosphere became more relaxed for you. In your mind, how is being a jazz musician abroad different from being a jazz musician in Russia?

SM: Germany is more connected with the whole other world than Russia. You have amazing players here. In Berlin, I played with people who I would never expect to play with, great artists. In Russia, you have great people, but Russia is kind of boiling in its own sauce. Berlin is a place where everybody comes. A lot of great people are coming, and you can jam with them. Berlin makes people smaller in a way. So I would say the main difference is the openness of Germany to the exchange. Russia is isolated.

AAJ: What about other places that you went on tour?

SM: In terms of people who come to your concerts, they are so hungry for art. People were literally crying at the concerts. And this was instrumental music, no singers. It was so amazing. In Russia, Georgia and many of these countries, people come after a concert, and they are so sincerely shocked and touched. It is amazing. In terms of the audience, these countries are just something else, but in terms of money, it is bad.

AAJ: In terms of money, how did those tours happen?

SM: I did not get much profit out of it. You can manage to tour, eat and live, but you cannot call it professional. You do not earn so much money.

AAJ: How big was the band?

SM: A trio. I normally go with a trio because I am a messy person when I am trying to organize something more than three.

Svetamuzika

AAJ: Tell me about your previous band, Svetamuzika.

SM: It was such a long time ago. It was the first band that I recorded an album with seven years ago. It does not exist anymore.

AAJ: Who were the musicians you played with?

SM: They were nice musicians. I played with Anton Davidyants on the bass, Pyotr Ivshin on drums, and my St. Petersburg colleague, Gena Rubtsov, on guitar. It was a cool experiment. We went on tour once and played in many cities in Siberia when I released the album.

AAJ: Did you start writing music for that band or did you write music before it?

SM: I started it from the beginning. I needed to improvise a lot because I was not able to read notes. It is a creative process. I guess I just love to do it. It was one of the reasons why I started making music.

AAJ: What were some of the first pieces that you wrote?

SM: "Dangerous Connection," Railway," "Love Space," from the first album. There were some even before it but it was what only history remembers. Maybe they are somewhere on YouTube.

AAJ: Do you define yourself in some particular style or is your style kind of eclectic?

SM: I do not like to say that I am a jazz pianist. I mean, I can play jazz, but I do not identify as only a jazz pianist. I think music is evolving and you are in music evolving. If you are not evolving, you are stagnating somewhere. And I would not like to do this. I am producing beats. I like modern music.

Recording and touring

AAJ: What were some of the highlights of your recording projects?

SM: I guess every album was a highlight. I already realized two. The first one was Present Simple [ArtBeat, 2015] by Svetamuzika. Then, I moved to Germany. It took a lot of time to release the second one, Letters to My Little Girl [Losen Records, 2021].

I recorded with Ofri Nehemya. This is the drummer of Shai Maestro. That was a big highlight for me, for sure. The release was in the times of COVID, which is why it was no tour, no nothing. We were just sitting at our screens.

AAJ: Were there any challenging moments, other than the album being made during the pandemic?

SM: The second album, Letters to My Little Girl has nine songs. We recorded everything in one day. I met Ofri Nehemya one day before. So it was extreme, but also cool. Challenging moments for sure. You need to be perfect because everything on the recording is easy to hear. Perfect but at the same time relaxed and into the flow. This is challenging to do.

AAJ: You said you recorded the second album in Germany. In what studio in Germany?

SM: Realistic Sounds in Munich.

AAJ: And the first one was in Saint Petersburg?

SM: Yes, in Melodiya.

AAJ: How did you fund the projects? Were they sponsor-funded, grant-funded or self-funded?

SM: The first one was privately financed by my ex-husband. And the second one was financed through crowdfunding, on Startnext.

AAJ: Can you recall some funny moments of your touring life?

SM: Once we were on a Russian tour. We played with Makar Novikov and Alexander Zinger. We were flying from Moscow to St. Petersburg. My father was helping us with tickets. He was buying tickets on his Russian card. We got to the airport and figured out that our tickets were on the wrong date, the wrong month, one month after. We were having a masterclass in St. Petersburg and then a concert. We had to buy new tickets like crazy. But we had time before this flight, and Makar Novikov lived near the airport. We are going to him and having some dinner. And then we realize that we are super late for the second flight. I have keyboards with me that I need to give them in the luggage. So we are running into the airport and trying somehow to pass, and it is not possible anymore: we are late. So we are going with my keyboards and with everything, just poker face. Somehow, we ran through the whole line and sat on this plane. That was a funny moment.

AAJ: How were your concerts in Georgia and Armenia?

SM: There were just super nice concerts. We had such a blast. It was great energy.

AAJ: What cities in Georgia and Armenia have you toured?

SM: We played in Batumi, Tbilisi and Yerevan.

AAJ: How long was your tour?

SM: This one was two weeks, and it was relaxed. We were playing not so much, not every day, maybe every three days.

AAJ: If you were going to imagine your dream tour, with no limitations whatsoever, where would you like to go?

SM: Wow, it is a difficult question. I would like to go to Japan with my trio— that would be cool.

AAJ: What about the United States?

SM: I have a feeling that in the states, there are so many great players. They are not so much interested in some Russian girl from Germany. But every country is interesting somehow. I was working even in Bangladesh one time. India is interesting. Australia is interesting. States are interesting. I am a traveler kind of person. I like to visit places.

AAJ: So you would do a world tour?

SM: I would do a world tour, yeah. But physically it is difficult to tour.

Letters to My Little Girl and Between Times

AAJ: Tell me about Letters to My Little Girl. How did you come up with the idea for this album? What was the story behind it?

SM: The four years during which I composed the music for it were intense for me in terms of going through some crisis periods and thinking about myself and life. I was going to psychotherapy, and they were speaking a lot about the "inner child" and the love that we need to give to that inner child. I normally digest emotional happenings through music. The album Letters to My Little Girl was like messages to my inner child. The whole concept of the album is the way from darkness to light.

AAJ: What would you like your listeners to get out of this album?

SM: This album is a musical description of evolving. It is just beautiful music. It is one of the steps in my development as a musician and as a person. That is why I think it can resonate with people. Listeners can relate to the feelings I wanted to transmit. This is always my thing: I want to transmit feelings.

AAJ: What project are you going to release in 2023?

SM: Between Times, with my trio. The war and everything related to it had a huge impact on this project. I feel between times somehow. I need to think about it. I still do not know what to say.

AAJ: What label is it going to be released on?

SM: I think it is going to be released on Neuklang, a pretty famous label in Germany.

AAJ: Who are the musicians that joined you on this project?

SM: Tobias Backhaus on drums, Niklas Lukassen on bass and Taisia Chernyshova on vocal.

AAJ: So, there will be some text?

SM: Yes, and one song will be just with the piano and vocals, a Ukrainian folk song.

AAJ: Great, looking forward to your release.

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