Through tenacity and talent, tenor saxophonist Igor Butman worked his way through the nascent jazz scene of the Soviet Union in the late-1970s and the 1980s, attracting the attention of leading American players and eventually emigrating west, to the birthplace of the music that had so captivated him.
Then he went back home.
Bandleader, impresario, and charismatic musical ambassador, Butman has been called a Wynton Marsalis-like figure in his homeland, raising the profile of jazz and building audiences not only for high-profile American acts on tour but for homegrown talent like himself.
He’d been living and working exclusively in the United States for several years when he began moving back and forth to Moscow in the mid-’90s. He saw new potential in the jazz scene he’d left behind in 1987.
“I brought some American friends and did some tours. But there was not really any reason to go back to New York, because I feel like I’m doing something important in Russia, for myself as well as for jazz and people who love jazz,” Butman, 52, says on a Skype call from what he describes as a friend’s mansion in the south of France. “I want to share this music. And I know there’s a lot of people who can share the music in the United States and the world, but who’s going to do it in Russia?”
After giving up his more traditional studies in classical clarinet, Butman got his first break at age 18, playing saxophone in one of the top groups in the relatively meager jazz circuit of late-’70s Leningrad. (“I was the best saxophone player among not many saxophone players,” Butman recalls wryly.) By 1980 he’d become entranced by a woman from Boston and fixed his mind on the then-improbable goal of relocating to the United States.
Butman moved to the somewhat more robust music scene of Moscow and caught the attention of Americans who were able to tour the Soviet Union in the more restrictive political atmosphere of the time. Gary Burton in particular became a fan, and tried to lure him to Boston with the promise of a scholarship to Berklee College of Music, where Burton has long been a prominent figure. Butman correctly predicted that he wouldn’t get official permission to leave the country for an American music school, and settled for the chance to sit in with folks like Burton and Chick Corea, Dave Brubeck, and Grover Washington, Jr., when they came through town.
Once he finally secured permission to leave the country (at age 25), Butman quickly immersed himself in the Boston jazz scene. He remembers Monday night jam sessions at Ryles, when famed guitarist Pat Metheny (a sometime-instructor at Berklee) would sometimes turn up unannounced and sit in. It was a welcome opportunity when Butman got the chance to back vocalist Rebecca Parris in her gigs at the Regattabar. It may stir some local memories when Butman brings his hard-charging Moscow Jazz Orchestra to town for a gig at Scullers on Thursday, with guest vocalist Alan Harris in tow.
A new love interest in Russia provided Butman his first incentive to go back home, but he saw there was opportunity for an ambitious jazz entrepreneur. He opened a self-styled jazz club in Moscow (and later a second), founded the country’s first major jazz festival in 2000, and became the amiable host of a television show on which musicians and other pop culture figures would drop by to chat about jazz.
When Russian president Vladimir Putin hosted Bill Clinton in Moscow, Butman’s band provided the soundtrack. (Clinton later called him “my favorite living saxophone player” and traded public quips with Marsalis about being invited over to drink vodka together.)
“I felt like it’s a big responsibility because we have so many differences in our politics, but I thought if we play good, they can talk about something we have in common — a passion for good music, not only classical that we’re known for but also for jazz,” Butman reflects of the state visit.
A collaboration with Marsalis in Russia led to an invitation for Butman’s full band to sit alongside the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra for the latter’s season-opening concert in 2003. Butman had by then become his nation’s most prominent proponent of jazz.
“He’s full of energy. He’s full of ideas,” says pianist and composer Nick Levinovsky, who gave Butman one of his early jobs in his band Allegro, and for the past several years has collaborated in Butman’s big band, the Moscow Jazz Orchestra, focusing on mainstream jazz of the post-War era. “It’s great working with him because anything he’s planned to do, it’s come through. There is no single plan that he didn’t achieve. That’s great.”
Levinovsky wrote the songs on the group’s 2013 album, “Special Opinion,” which integrates electric, fusion-oriented elements into the big band context. Previous efforts made a point of assimilating classical music, particularly that of Russian composers.
It’s a perennial topic in American jazz circles to bemoan — not without reason — its prospects for the future. But from Butman’s perspective, there’s plenty of opportunity for growth.
“I’ve been traveling in India, I just went to Singapore, to countries that are not very familiar with jazz,” he says. “It’s how you play music. If you play it with passion and you play it on a high level, then it can move anybody.”
Due to a reporting error, an earlier version had the incorrect name for the group’s 2013 album. It’s “Special Opinion.”