Alexei Zoubov,head with saxophone
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        The Unforgettable Duo with Igor Saulsky

        August 14th, 2008 by Alexei Zoubov

        This is one of the many upcoming posts that are not about the present per se, although the events and people mentioned had an enormous influence on who I am today, and definitely on how I play, percieve music and life today.

        My duo with Igor Saulsky lasted for about 2 years, from my forced departure from ensemble “Melodia” to Igor’s departure to USA in 1980.

        Igor Saulsky was (and probably is, although he completely dropped all his music activities in early 90-ties, or even earlier) one of the most talented musicians I ever encountered. His father, prominent Russian composer Yuri Saulsky, conducted the first semi-professional big band I ever played in. It was a band put together in late 1956 for the sole purpose of participating in the Moscow International Youth Festival in the summer of 1957. There was a jazz competition within the festival and Soviet apparatchiks wanted to have Soviet participants in it, our band served their purpose.

        Well, I digress. I will return to this pretty strange and exciting time in some other post. Igor was just a little boy then. He vividly remembers playing with empty vodka bottle under the table, while his father and I were finishing another bottle right at this table.

        So, much later , in 1978 I was already dating my American (second) wife-to-be, which led to my expulsion from my job with the Melodia Record Studio and its in house ensemble. At that time dating an American girl was definitely an anti-Soviet activity.

        I suddenly got a lot of free time on my hands and decided to put together my own group. From the compositional point of view, my inspiration then was Weather Report, so I transcribed some of their charts and wrote some of my own in the same vein. Igor Saulsky, whose musical abilities were practically unknown to me then, became a member of my group on recommendation of his father.

        The group was a total disaster. We rehearsed for about two months, got absolutely nowhere and I had to abandon this hopeless enterprise before going completely nuts. The bassist and the drummer where fired and I was left with Igor, who was really shining all through these disappointing rehearsals.

        Igor wasn’t a jazz musician in the traditional (read: conservative) sense. He had a decent classical training and has played in several rock and fusion bands. What attracted me to him was his intuitive understanding of what music is for and ability to deliver the musical emotional message with honesty and passion. He was also into Keith Jarret’s solo works and had a similar to Keith’s touch on the piano.

        While attempting to drown my misery in a cup of Chinese tee at Igor’s place and trying to figure out whom of the Moscow musicians we could consider for the group, I suddenly heard Igor say, “Why don’t we just play as a duo?”.

        To tell you the truth, I wasn’t really enthralled. I really wasn’t able to imagine what the hell we could play together in this format. Nevertheless it was clear that whatever we play, it won’t be “jazz” as I played it before. I said “yes” mostly out of the desperation, and it turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made.

        I was sure that this conversation will be the end of this idea, so I was astonished to get a call from Igor the next day. “This coming Saturday we have our first concert. We will be opening for the rock group “Time Machine”, he said.

        “Why the f–k did I agree?” was my first thought. There were only two days left, we never rehearsed anything, we never even talked about what we were going to play and playing the first set for a rock-oriented audience was, in my understanding, akin to suicide!

        I got to our first and only rehearsal with a determination to go through several days of torture with poise and dignity. Unexpectedly enough, our get together turned into a very pleasant experience. Igor played me some of his tunes, which I immediately liked. Then I showed some of my staff that I hoped would be usable, then we went through a few Russian folk songs, then some short motifs popped up as if from nowhere, some simple, but unusual chord sequences were considered and adopted. Then we went through our tunes, and having immediately assumed that there will be no real “blowing on the changes”, we trimmed and cropped the melodies to make them useful as themes in a larger composition, not stand-alone tunes.

        And then we made a chart of the whole set, that was supposed to be from 50 minutes to an hour. There was no music notation, there were boxes with the names we gave to “themes”, boxes were connected with arrows, crescendo’s and diminuendo’s, rising and falling drawn waves. Some spots were marked with the symbolic drawings of explosions and waterfalls. What we were trying to do, is to draw an emotional map with intermediate destinations, suggested routes and methods of travel. We paid special attention to the final destination, then I suddenly realized, with some surprise, that Igor intended to sing in the finale, as well as in some spots in the middle. Well, I really didn’t want to fight it, although I never trusted singers in general.

        I’m taking some time to describe this brainstorm session because that’s how we planned each of our many concerts that followed. This method never failed.

        Although I was happy with the rehearsal, the prospect of playing all this esoteric staff for rock-n-roll fans made me uncomfortable. I was trembling all through the remaining time and right until we got on stage. Then I was only concerned with doing the best I could and keeping the lines of communication open. Right from the start I felt that we are getting better and better response from each other, that we are creating a good story and telling it well, and that the audience is getting getting more and more interested in the process and anticipating and enjoying the plot and execution.

        We had extremely good response and even (absolutely unexpectedly) played some encores, which, out of necessity, were absolutely free.

        That’s how this duo started a string of concerts, most of them just us playing two sets, some of them before large audiences of 1500 – 2000 listeners. We were never perfect, we couldn’t be, each of us was far from perfect, but there was a desire to be sincere, honest and tell musical stories that any audience could relate to, that made the duo successful and popular among jazz fans, rock fans, classic music lovers and even unsophisticated housewives.

        Regretfully, there are no remaining professional recordings of any of these concerts. While on my tour to Russia in the autumn of 2006, I talked to music critics and producers that tried to find anything that could be published. In all these years nothing surfaced. I have only fragments, and those are on pretty bad quality cassettes.

        As i mentioned before, in 1978 Igor emigrated to the States. It was, I think, in 1980 that I visited him in Washington, DC, where we recorded three tunes, two of them his compositions, on a fairly decent tape recorder with two decent mikes, but all that was left was a lousy cassette copy. You can hear one of his tunes here: November Joy Link.

        Please come back to the music page on my site – I will be placing more excerpts from our duo works soon.

        Posted in Jazz, Just Stories, Music, Musicians, That's how it was..