It was at a league ice-hockey game on Nov. 11, 1994, that Igor Butman added another exciting chapter to his life story. The other team, frustrated by Butman’s skill and speed, tried to slow him down illegally, slashing his hands with a stick. Butman turned and faced his attacker, and soon he was rolling around on the ice with his adversary. It was a normal hockey tussle until the Bulldog, living up to his teams’ name, yanked on the ponytail that flowed out the back of Butman’s helmet. Punches followed and both players were ejected, but not before Butman dominated the game with two goals, including the game winner.
Not a bad night for Russia’s number one jazz personality.
Fierce hockey winger Igor Butman is also a saxophone virtuoso, bandleader, club owner and television host. The circuitous route that brought him to star status in Russia is an odyssey.
In July 1962, when Benny Goodman’s orchestra was finishing its historic tour of the Soviet Union, Butman was about nine months old. He was not part of the generation that grew up in the first flush of Willis Conover’s Voice of America jazz broadcasts, but Butman’s father, an amateur musician, was a listener who also attended one of Goodman’s performances.
“My father played drums and sang,” says Butman. “He was an engineer but at night he was playing weddings and other functions with Russian tunes. And then he also played with a Dixieland band called Gamma Jazz. He loved jazz because at the place where we were living there was this guy [Orest Kandat] who played lead alto in the band of Leonid Utesov, an old guy who sang and was very famous in Russia at the time. And because this guy was first alto he was doing a lot of conducting and my father was listening to the Voice of America at his place.
“When I was two years old we had this record [sings], ‘Maria, Maria, Maria,’” kind of a Cuban song, maybe Mexican. It was my favorite and I was listening to this record every two minutes, driving my parents crazy. I was always listening to whatever music we had. I liked the music from the movie Oliver.”
“We lived in the middle of St. Petersburg [which was then Leningrad] and I started to take piano lessons. Then we moved from the center of the city and the teacher didn’t want to come to our house. It was too far for him. My father was always telling me about Benny Goodman and he wanted me to play clarinet.
“But I wanted to play drums. When I went to music school this teacher tested my musicality and ear. He said, ‘Why do you want to be a drummer? You have ears and some talent. Why don’t you want to play clarinet? You have little, short fingers.’ I think I was 11.”
Butman studied for a while at the Rimsky-Korsakov College of Music, but he was not happy with the teaching. His father hipped him to Gennady Golstain, the alto saxophone soloist with the Yusef Wainstain orchestra. “His saxophone is like Charlie Parker,” Butman senior told his son. Switching to alto, Butman studied under Golstain at the Mussorgsky Music School from 1975 to 1980.
“Golstain gave me two records which made a big impression on me,” says Butman. “First The Cannonball Adderley Quintet in San Francisco and the second a compilation of Charlie Parker where he plays ‘Now’s the Time.’ And later he gave me a lot of records: Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, Coltrane Plays the Blues and Sonny Rollins and the Big Brass. So he gave me good ones. I fell in love at first sight with this music.
“He told me, ‘If you want to become somebody, nobody can tell you to practice. You have to do it yourself.’ He was very relaxed about music. He wrote me a blues and he gave me some materials to transcribe. He was also listening to me, playing with me, singing to me. He was a friend, not a teacher. We talked about Jesus Christ, about religion. He was convincing me to pray. I wasn’t praying but I was motivated to practice. He was practicing a lot.”
In 1979 Butman joined the group of David Goloshchokin, one of the important combo leaders in the Soviet Union. “He invited me to join him. I was just 18. He was playing violin, flugelhorn, piano. He could sit in on any instrument and he was grooving. What I really loved about him was that he was an entertainer and a great musician and he could swing hard.”
When you hear Butman you realize that what he learned with Goloshchokin is still very much with him. When he left Goloshchokin it was to join Oleg Lundstrem’s ensemble, the premier Russian big band, in Sept. 1982. “He had asked me a few times. Golstain had played with him. I would say no because I felt comfortable with Goloshchokin, but I knew that at some point I had to move on. I had to go to Moscow. There were more musicians, more things happening.”
Lundstrem put him in a different setting, as a section leader and as a soloist against the rich and powerful orchestral backdrop. It was there he met arranger Vitaly Dolgov, who does most of the writing for Butman’s current big band. “It was a good experience,” he says, “but some of the guys were crazy and very jealous.” Butman left Lundstrem’s band in Dec. 1983.
In Sept. 1984 he became a member of Allegro, the ne plus ultra of Russian jazz groups at the time, led by pianist Nikolai Levinovsky. “It was my dream to play with them,” says Butman. “They were changing saxophone players. I called Nikolai and said I’d love to audition for the band. He said, ‘But you live in Leningrad. You’d have to live in Moscow.’ And I told him, ‘If you hire me for the band, I’ll move.’”
Move he did and because Levinovsky’s book was written for tenor saxophone, Butman began to play the horn that would become his main vehicle of expression. He continued to grow as a musician and as a man but all was not velvet. “Nikolai had such a hard time with some of the musicians. They didn’t understand him. A lot of them were against him but in the long run it turned out that he was right because he had better ears and a better understanding of music.”
In 1987 Butman felt he had to go to the States “to learn more. To really play and really understand what’s going on, I had to play with the best—better musicians.”
He had studied English in school and practiced it with visiting American tourists at a bar where he played with Goloshchokin. This enabled him to communicate with Chick Corea, Gary Burton, Steve Swallow, Louis Bellson and Pearl Bailey, Grover Washington, Dave Brubeck and Pat Metheny when he met and played with them on their trips to Russia. “They would tell me, ‘Man you should come to the States.’ In ’83 Gary tried to get me a full scholarship at Berklee and get me out of Russia at the worst time of Communism.”
When Butman finally arrived in Boston in ’87, he was offered a two-year scholarship to Berklee and Metheny introduced him to booking agent Ted Kurland. He led his own groups and also played with singer Rebecca Parris’ combo. Berklee executive vice president Burton remembers the young student. “On my first trip to Russia with Chick Corea  we played in St. Petersburg. Igor came to the performance and we had a jam session afterwards at the American consul’s residence. It was obvious that he was a natural player. He hadn’t been playing for very long so he was still struggling. He had a little awkwardness technically, and in his improvisation he was still learning to play the lines smoothly and so on. But you can usually tell through the rough edges someone who has got the musicality and it was clear to Chick and me that he had it.
“The next year I came back to Moscow and he was living there and playing in a big band,” Burton says. “So I saw him again and we played some sessions together and hung out. I knew then that he was a hard-driving, ambitious guy. He was determined to get where he was going. Sure enough, a few years later he showed up at Berklee, which in those days was nearly impossible for a Russian musician to manage to do, but here he was.
“He was one of the better players and had the kind of great experience that the better players in any situation always get—more opportunities, invited to more sessions, play in better bands, do more playing, get more experience. During the time he was in Boston he continued to improve as a player, got gigs locally, made friends, made contacts, got established and then moved to New York. He did exactly what the American musicians do when they come to Berklee.”
At Berklee Butman studied with Billy Pierce and Andy McGhee but credits Joe Viola as “the one who really made a difference. He talked about the way I was playing and the way I was holding my mouthpiece. He told me to get higher up on the mouthpiece—and not to use such a hard reed. I was playing a number 5. This didn’t work because the reed cannot vibrate. So I got a little smaller mouthpiece and started playing a number 3. He also helped me with my sight-reading—he was a great sight-reader. He didn’t try to go over improvisation or exercises. But he would ask me questions. ‘Igor, do you want to change your sound? Do you want to have a bigger sound, play in better tune? You don’t have to but if you’d like to I can show you.’ I changed and in a week everything was perfect. He was very surprised. In Russia we didn’t have anyone like that.”
After Berklee, Butman decided to go to New York because, “A lot of the guys were moving there,” he explains. “Larry Grenadier, the bass player and Rachel Z., the pianist who I had played with in Boston.”
Upon arrival in the Apple, Butman went to Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach section, where a large Russian immigrant community is situated. He got a job playing in a band at one of the restaurants-cum-showplaces that are part of that area, but he also began to become involved in the New York jazz scene. He played and recorded with Grover Washington Jr., and Billy Taylor presented him as a guest soloist in one of the pianist’s Metropolitan Museum series of concerts.
In between gigging and playing puck in New York and beyond, Butman found time to teach alto sax to then New York Ranger and current Pittsburgh Penguin superstar Alexei Kovalev. I frequently heard him play at the Russian Samovar, a restaurant and bar on West 52nd Street where he would perform on Wednesday nights. Butman’s playing was passionate, joyous and hard swinging, but he was also a tender balladeer. Vibist Joe Locke, who has collaborated often with Butman, observes: “Igor has a complete understanding of the tenor saxophone tradition. He also has the heart and soul of Russia combined with the urban street feeling of America—Trane and Sonny [Rollins], but also Stanley Turrentine.”
Locke, Eddie Gomez, Lenny White, John Abercrombie, Adam Nussbaum, Andy LaVerne, Cindy Blackman and Tommy Campbell were some of the musicians Butman took with him to Russia during the time he was still living in New York. His dual citizenship enables him to work in both countries. On one of his trips back to Moscow he met his wife-to-be, Oksana. After they married he planned to bring her back to New York but she was unable to obtain a visa. As the bureaucratic wheels ground slowly, all kinds of other, positive things began to happen for Butman in Russia, such as more tours, festivals and concerts; hosting Jazzophrenia, a weekly TV show on which he talks about jazz with musicians, actors and artists and airs films and videos; and, since 1998, part ownership in Le Club, Moscow’s hippest jazz venue, where he appears with his big band and quartet, and has presented such luminaries as Monty Alexander, Ray Brown, Kenny Garrett, Randy Brecker, Al Di Meola, Mike Stern and Vincent Herring. When in Russia, Wynton Marsalis often jams with Butman; the trumpeter returned the favor when he invited Butman to be a guest soloist with the Lincoln Center Jazz Band. Marsalis says, “I love Igor Butman’s playing and I love him personally. He has a great feeling for the music and for people and he’s a phenomenal musician. He has great ears, great reflexes and he comes from a family of musicians.”
Of all his recent accomplishments Butman considers “The Triumph of Jazz,” a tremendous concert that thrilled the capacity audience on Feb. 5 at Moscow’s 2,500-seat Rossiya Concert Hall, his crowning achievement to date. Asked to put together a gala night to celebrate the 10th anniversary of a Russian arts award ceremony, he assembled an evening of talent you could normally hear only if you went to a three-day festival. Using his big band as a base, he added Zurich-based drummer Billy Cobham and ex-Buddy Rich lead trumpeter Joe Giorgianni and backed such guest soloists as saxophonist Joe Lovano, trumpeter Randy Brecker and singers Kevin Mahogany and Dee Dee Bridgewater. Separate sets featured Elvin Jones’ Rhythm Machine and the duos of Gary Burton and Makoto Ozone and Toots Thielemans and Kenny Werner.
There was a tremendous reaction by the press and public to the concert, but Butman’s first love is playing, not promoting. “I enjoy this music so much, I love it so,” Butman says. “I want to share that with these people. I knew that they will love it. They did love it. I will be bringing people to the club but I don’t want to be a professional promoter in a concert hall. I don’t want to interfere with my being a musician.
Miles Davis Kind of Blue (Columbia); Wes Montgomery with Johnny Griffin Full House (Riverside); Stan Getz Sweet Rain (Verve); Mel Lewis and Friends with Freddie Hubbard, Michael Brecker, Hank Jones, Gregory Herbert, Ron Carter (Horizon).
Tenor Saxes: Selmer Mark VI and a one-of-a-kind “Falling Checkerboard” L.A. Sax that once belonged to Richard Elliot. Otto Link 9 Star mouthpiece and Rico Royal 3 and 3 1/2 reeds. Soprano Sax: Yamaha with Selmer G mouthpiece and Rico Royal 3 reed.