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.

Those contradictions of a Russian free jazz growing in isolation, fed by radio broadcasts and the expensive, illicit Ornette Coleman or John Coltrane disc smuggled through customs are hard to avoid. It was a jazz grown in isolation and the Ganelin trio were forced to draw on their own sources of experience, knowledge and inspiration to fashion their own music of integrity. This only adds to its charm and beauty. Some of its, often non-western, classical influences sometimes seem clumsy but also serve to create unexpected shapes and contours. Its sources in nursery rhymes and folk songs build a sense of the exotic. Its inspired lunacy and burlesque allow us to share the joke that the lack of any shared, oral language would deny us. And its take on the musics that we know gives us a point of shared reference and reverence.

It's ironic that their one recording, or at least available recording, with 'Western' players is one of their least successful. San Francisco Holidays (Leo CD LR208/9) features the Rova Saxophone Quartet on the two pieces that close each of the two CDs. It must have looked great on paper but it feels and sounds like an intrusion.

It's hard not to see GeTeChe (the group's initials and the way they were known at home) as embodying many of the contradictions of Soviet society, between totalitarianism and socialism and consumerism. Eventually, those contradictions would tear the Soviet Union apart. There's the irony of an indigenous jazz music emerging in a totalitarian society, in the sense that jazz is a music of freedom and emancipation. But there's the also the irony in the fact that our attempts to make sense of the phenomenon necessitate our projection on to their reality.

Take the place humour and burlesque assume in the trio's music on record and in performance—largely the same thing here, though as pointed out subsequently composition played a larger part in the trio's music than we assumed initially. A surreal, clownish humour also underpinned the work of fellow Russians Sergei Kuryokhin and Jazz Group Arkhangelsk. Comparisons that we might make here between, for example, the Art Ensemble Of Chicago or Willem Breuker and GeTeChe stand up in terms of the use of humour to make a more serious statement. However, such comparisons become odorous without a deeper understanding of the specifically Russian/Soviet context within which the trio—and JGA and Kuryokhin—were forced to operate. I suspect that the humour operates as a particular cultural sign, indicating a peculiarly Russian paradox—an anti-seriousness and ambivalence, a cultural raspberry towards state-sponsored culture that serves to emphasise its serious intent but in a dismissive, off-hand kind of way.

In practice, the Ganelin Trio was never the main gig for any of them. Ganelin taught in the Conservatoire in Vilnius and was the musical director for the Russian Drama Theatre there. Tarasov worked primarily as a percussionist with two symphony orchestras in Lithuania, while Chekasin was/is an educator of some note. Clearly, the trio was important to all three—important enough, perhaps, for them to reform, fifteen years after their break-up, for a brief European tour in 2003, which was when I actually saw them perform. But was there also an ambivalence there as well? One might want to hold a butterfly but would not expect it to survive the attention.

Perhaps one of the other reasons the trio disappointed some on their 1984 visit, was that their modus operandi as an improvising group was 'suspect.' Later it became clear that composition was (almost) as important in GeTeChe's music as improvisation. I am also not sure that that particular part of the scene was ready for the buffoonery. I don't think I'm being too unfair in suggesting that the free improv scene could, at the time, take itself a bit too seriously, if only out of a natural defensiveness arising because much of the music biz never took them at all seriously.

And so we come to the records. In 1985, I spent a day wandering round Moscow's record shops in 1985 looking for Con Anima (Melodiya 1976). The best, I could find was a track on a compilation of Soviet Jazz. A few days after I got back I wandered into a record fair in the small market town where I worked and found New Wine, now part of Old Bottles (Leo CD LR112.) It am still not sure why but it was my key into a whole lot of other stuff. Perhaps, it was their use of the standard, "Too Close For Comfort," that gave me the shape and structure to follow it through.

New Wine is alive and healing and, for GeTeChe anyway, light. Non Troppo, which precedes it, is by contrast stately, tragic and elegant. In some ways this makes it the most accessible of the trio's CD's. Ancora Da Capo (Leo CD LR108) has been less favourably reviewed in the past. Some have found it fragmentary and uninspired. Fractious might be a better word. One's fantasy might involve a dressing room spat before the gig(s). But it remains an important work reflecting a different and seemingly very personal side to the group.

Encores (Leo CD LR106) is precisely that and, to these ears, is the most dispensable of their recordings. Amongst their own numbers, it features versions of "Summertime" and "Mack The Knife." (San Francisco Holidays also features a performance of the Brecht-Weill standard.) These two Ganelin performances seem just too cold and calculated—the joke just isn't that funny!

But the jewel of the collection is Catalogue: Live in East Germany (Leo CD LR102). Music of any kind is rarely this good. It's a series of performances from 1977-82 and perhaps reveals a group that found its rationale, surpassed itself before passing its peak. It was in those years that the trio came to our attention. And that's the final irony. We only caught their late flowering.

"Catalogue" offers a good description of its store-setting of the group's virtues, of their use of formal themes and structures, even of occasional use of theme and variation and their capacity for improvisational frenzy. This is the 'must-buy' of the set. In 1987, Slava Ganelin finally got permission to emigrate to Israel. And that was the end of the trio, until their brief reformation in 2003. We got to see maybe a third of their existence. But it is probably easier now to see the trio for what they were. A highly articulate, expressive and brave elaboration of a received form transposed and transformed in an alien or at least new context. The music is not consistent, in either conception or execution. At its best it has a brilliance, surprise and wonder that just is the best of its kind. At its worst it is rarely less than unusual and distinctive. Just listen to Catalogue, to Poco A Poco (Leo CD LR101), Old Bottles and the best of Ancora Da Capo. The Ganelin Trio were truly one of the greatest jazz trios of all time.

This article is adapted from a piece that Duncan Heining wrote for Avant Magazine in 1998.

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