Efremov, September 19, 2012: Blog 4

Efremov, September 19, 2012:

The morning after we experienced the soaring cultural and cosmopolitan heights of Tchaikovsky Hall we departed Moscow with 2 vans heading for a small town named Efremov.  It was a 4 hour ride which helped establish our perception of the size of “greater” Moscow, now home to 15 million people, and constantly expanding. Once we escaped the urban sprawl we were starting to see a more typical picture of  the Russian landscape. Mike DeMicco and Chuck Lamb both grew up in upstate New York and they commented that the view reminded them of what you’d see from the New York State Thruway as you drove towards Syracuse.  Of course the highway wasn’t  as robust as our American road system. Trying to find a bathroom on the road turned out to be a constant adventure. You always had to pay for the privilege, and that  certainly didn’t mean you got a pleasant experience for your money. Often it meant an encounter with some old lady who fiercely protected  her bathroom.  If you smiled very politely she might bless you with some actual tissue paper.  At the gas stations we also noticed that there was usually some kind of official looking guard, (in paramilitary camouflage togs no less) looking suspiciously at all travelers as if they might be plotting to pull off  an elaborate caper to steal tissue.
We continued our drive through vast agricultural lands, which were surprisingly green with Fall’s golden colors popping up in the trees bordering the fields. Finally we got down to a 2 lane road, drove through some cornfields and started seeing signs for our destination of Efremov. We soon discovered that this municipality apparently imported potholes.  We’ve never witnessed so many streets desperately in need of some asphalt filler.  The local drivers had the very deep holes worked out and skipped around the roads at crazy angles to avoid taking out the front end of their cars in a particularly dangerous  pit. Our mission in this town was to have a musical encounter at the local music school. Obviously this was a town that had seen better days and it reminded us of a town in the Southwest along the Mexican border. 
Nearly every building was in fairly desperate need of repair; window replacement, wall repatching, failing brick facades, crooked  and collapsing roofs etc.   But we also saw some new construction of private homes and it did seem like a middle-class was starting to emerge. Some element was starting to change the situation and we were seeing glimmers of an improving community. We observed that even in this humble environment it was impressive that there was a music academy that was obviously important to the people. The reason we came to this exact town is that one of the tour sponsors was the American company Cargill. They now employ many of the people in the town and they are trying to help reach out to the community and do some nice things for them. They are trying to establish a sense of hope and a belief that life is improving with their presence. Providing jobs is one level of bolstering a community but there are people at Cargill  like our contact person Lena Kasparov who spend their energy trying to bring special events to the town. It was explained that they have never had an American jazz group …. ever in this town.
Chuck & Mike Outside Efremov Music School 
Band Unloading (Note Woman in Background)

The music students started off our musical encounter in a small recital hall in the academy. Images of all the great composers, (with an emphasis on Russianmasters of course (akov) stared down from on high. A boys choir of about 20 kids aged 6 to 9 years old took the stage (with white shirts and crooked clip-on bow ties) to sing a popular song with a title roughly translating as “Carolina Breakdown.” It was really cute and since we had found this song on You Tube (knowing that they were going to sing it) we were prepared with a lead sheet and some chord changes. The choir Master asked if we would do the song again with them. So we joined them on stage and naturally jazzed it up with a walking bass line, some Scott Joplinesque piano playing,  Freddy Green guitar  chord chugging, and straight ahead brush work on the drums. It instantly sounded so much hipper and the packed hall plus the choir kids were thrilled to hear the instant transformation. The crowd started clapping along on 1 and 3 with great enthusiasm.

That became the first little lesson as I explained (with the help of the interpreter) how the hi hat on the drum set closes on beats 2 and 4  and that clapping along to jazz is better if you clap on 2 and 4. They got it and right away took to it like ducks to water. Then the “recital” continued as a petrified  girl came up and played a Classical piano piece for us. She was followed by a blazing button accordion prodigy who flew through a piece that owed much to Joplin’s style.  Next a 12 year old  boy with a cello played something that was kind of like “Flight of the Bumblebee” with very fast bow work. They asked us to take the stage and we played Mike DeMicco’s tune for them “West of One” in a compact form, 1 chorus each. Then we started talking about rhythm and time signatures and the Blues. We played “Blue Rondo” which includes all of those elements. We were joined by Vlad Lavrik on trumpet, and Maxim Rubstov on flute, both musicians from the Russian National Orchestra who have a passion for music education. They both came from very small towns like Efremov, both have mothers that still teach piano in their small home towns, both went to such community music schools, and both of them are heroes who made it all the way to Moscow and into  the biggest touring orchestra in Russia! Their careers give hope to these kids that it could happen to them as well. The audience loved seeing the Russians jam with us. Then we broke off into small groups for master classes.

Vlad and I went to a different class room and did a brass clinic for about 10 kids and 2 adult musicians who played trombone. They were very curious about jazz and improvisation. Unplanned, Vlad started playing the melody of “Old McDonald Had a Farm,” which I didn’t know was a common melody in Russia. Of course I joined in jazzing it up. We explained that improvising with each other was like an unscripted musical conversation and that the most important thing was to listen and react. Chuck was upstairs with a big crowd of piano players. He had them play some little melodies and then he wove them into elaborate improvisations. They reacted like it was a musical magic trick. Mike had the biggest audience, I guess because the Russian traditional string instrument balalaika is somewhat similar  to the guitar. They just wanted him to play and show them all the things he could do from bent Blues lines to beautiful “chord melodies.” Dan’s presentation on drums and time signatures was integrated within our set. Those kids were so welcoming and so proud to be with us, and excitedly asked for autographs and pictures to be taken with us. Starting last year the whole town knew we were coming and were planning on this collaboration with us. Our tour co-ordinator said it couldn’t have come off any better.  But it sure took a lot of advance work from Mary Ann Allin and her contacts at Cargill Company like Lena, for which we are grateful. 
Boys singing “Carolina Breakdown”
Vlad & Chris w/Trombone group
"In the Mood" on Balalaika

We reassembled from our master class rooms to hear the “folk ensemble” that was now set up on stage. A motley combination of instruments greeted us, a front line of balalaikas, electric bass, 2 accordions, electric keyboard drums and 2 flutes. Which touching Russian folk song did they play? “In the Mood”!   And this time the audience WAS clapping on 2 and 4, apparently they really had learned something already that day.  To see the extremely sturdy Russian women playing the melody on “In The Mood” with their balalaikas was a real trip. It is great to know how American Jazz reaches out around the world, even into rural Russia. The next thing that ensemble played was a wild Russian Romp through many tempos and it sounded like what I imagined a Russian Folk Ensemble might sound like. So there we have it, lots of surprises, shared musical joy, and beaming children’s faces. Then we had to dash off to be ready for the concert that night in the bigger hall in town. But that will have to be the subject of the next blog because we check out of the hotel now and are on to our next adventure!
The Music Director presenting Flowers
The Gang