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The Ganelin Trio: Creative Tensions

Duncan Heining By

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Imagine a time, not so very long ago, when a foreign Jazz/Improvising Trio created such a stir in Britain that they made the TV news! Imagine the national newspapers queuing round the block for interviews. And imagine London's Bloomsbury Theatre filled with musicians, journalists and arts administrators—not to mention the odd, very odd, raincoated spook.

That noise was the Ganelin Trio in 1984 on their first visit to these shores, from Russia with love. All that noise left confusion and no small amount of controversy in its wake. Over thirty years on, particularly given the collapse of the Soviet Union, it's still hard to get any real perspective on this particular phenomenon. There was talk back then of some kind of elusive, enigmatic Russianness about their music. Critics, musicians and fans—never mind those Fleet Street hacks sent to sniff out a story—were puzzled. Where did this strange, wild take on an African-American music come from? And what did it say about life and culture in that Communist state?

The trio's visit carried with it a frisson of the illicit, the idea that this music was an act of rebellion. There was that thrill of the underground and of Samizdat—that indignation on behalf the oppressed. A whole drama was projected onto their very existence. The anticipation was always going to be more glorious than the consummation.

The first real hearings in the West actually came at least ten years after their formation. Pianist Vyacheslav Ganelin, saxophonist Vladimir Chekasin and drummer Vladimir Tarasov formed as a trio around 1971. Their first recordings were for the Russian Melodiya label in 1976 but it was only in 1982 that their recordings first surfaced in Europe and USA. The fact that the story of that first release is true and all the subterfuge undoubtedly necessary does not take away the fact that the appearance of Catalogue (LEO CD LR 102) in the West has acquired its own mythology. It was smuggled out of the Soviet Union and issued with a disclaimer to protect the musicians from attention from the Soviet state authorities. The music itself added to that sense—other-worldly, fashioned from both familiar and exotic raw materials, poorly recorded but explosively played.

It spoke of oppression and the triumph of the human creative spirit. It gave a glimpse into a world that conjured images of clandestine gatherings of musicians and fans, a subterranean Beatnik otherness at once authentic and brave. It spoke of opposition.

It doesn't matter how much or how little of our imaginings were located in the reality of their experience. There's simply no way that our 'reality' was anything more than our own artificial construct. They were doomed with expectations they could never fulfil. They could simply never be as 'real' as in our imagination. They could never transcend our vision of what they should be. And that's sad, because they were in many ways better than that and deserved better.

Music always derives from relationships and improvised music, in particular, derives from creative tensions in relationships—the collective versus the individual, the performing individual versus the watching/listening audience. Life's a bit like that, too! The first contradiction or tension within the Ganelin Trio was (inter-)personal. By all accounts, the partnership between Ganelin and Chekasin had become fraught by the mid-eighties.

Chekasin's playing and performance reflected some kind of unpredictable force or drive and an inclination to tomfoolery that was a powerful dynamic in some of the trio's best moments. Ganelin was more solid, disciplined and elegant. Clowning for him required a certain licence in both senses of the phrase. Structure and freedom, in effect, embodied in two of its principals—a wonderful tension while it lasted but, ultimately, it could not.

This personal tension was reflected in different musical influences. British jazz critic John Fordham perceptively suggested that on Non Troppo (hatArt CD 6059), Ganelin plays as if George Shearing and Cecil Taylor are fighting for possession of his soul. The washes of sound are certainly Taylorish but Ganelin, classically trained, clings to harmony and structure. The irony or contradiction is that it works! But set that over Tarasov's static conception of percussion and the explosiveness and often downright irreverence of Chekasin's horns and you have a concoction that could overwhelm and intoxicate, disturb and seduce.

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