Moscow’s White-collar Fight Club

October Boxing ClubWhile you won’t see Brad Pitt getting a bloody nose from some anonymous office face with chronic insomnia, Moscow’s new October Boxing Club hints at a similar concept.

As with many imported cultural trends from the West, white-collar boxing has made a belated arrival in Russia. Playing on an idea that emerged in New York during the 1990s, the club aims to provide relief for those who spend too much time in a pent-up working environment. It’s a way both to get fit and express unreleased emotion in the ring.

“Our target audience is higher-income men starting around age 35,” states the club’s owner Elena Malova, a petite blondinka who looks like the last person you’d expect to meet in such an establishment. “Our first members are from many different spheres – bankers, TV personalities, designers, PR managers…”

“But people who want brutal boxing go to other clubs,” adds sporting director Yury Koptsev. “Here the atmosphere should be calm and friendly – more about people who want to do sport for fitness than boxing in itself.”

Parched pink brickwork surrounds shiny new punchbags and running machines on the club’s premises at the old Red October chocolate factory, a riverside swathe of premium real estate with views of the Kremlin. Any lingering sweet aromas have been displaced by salty sweat and the rubbery, painty smell of corporate fraîcheur.

“Three other gyms have opened recently in Moscow, but they’re definitely not as cool as this place – they’ve got no gear, no girls and no coaches,” says Malova’s daughter Evgeniya Kuyda, an editor at Afisha magazine. “There are a few other clubs as well, but they’re just for pros and the conditions aren’t very nice.”

With 80 members and counting after just two months, the niche appears to be there. Sergey Povarnitsyn, a mysterious social philosopher with a dapper English accent, thinks it was October’s classy décor and appeal to a “bohemian system of values” that won him over. And although big earners are rather more frugal than in the wild 1990s or the booming 2000s, Moscow will always be home to a certain number of people with cash to burn.

“Every boy wants to fight just like every girl wants to dance,” concludes the owner, Malova, when asked why people choose to take up boxing – which ranks behind several other sports in Russian popular culture. Opening it up to new segments of society may well turn out to be a fruitful enterprise.

Published @ Russia! magazine, 18/8/10 – click here for original.

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Hazmat Modine // Wade Schuman

365 – Day 189

Wagner Park, NYC, 8/7/10

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Chisinau: the real media revolution is underway

In April last year, Moldova made international headlines when its exotically-titled “Twitter Revolution” triggered an election rerun, toppling the Communist party from power after eight long years. Reports that the popular micro-blogging site had been used to gather thousands of activists, protesting electoral injustice, were soon proved inaccurate. However it did precede a genuine revolution in more traditional media in the landlocked eastern European country.

“Twitter wasn’t really used to organise protests, but it acted as a vital source for foreign journalists to find out what was going on,” explains Mihai Moscovici, a marketing manager whose own account served as a key information conduit. “But the events brought Moldova to the front of the infosphere in eastern Europe, and one could even say a real media revolution is happening right now.”

A liberal, pro-democracy coalition – the Alliance for European Integration – has been in government since the second ‘post-revolution’ vote. Despite an ongoing constitutional crisis over presidential elections, lifting the previous regime’s information monopoly and reviving free speech have been immediate priorities.

On a sprawling compound in suburban Chisinau, the evidence is impressive. At the headquarters of Publika TV, blue neon corridors lead to a space-age, open-plan newsroom/studio area lined with plasma screens. A young team of top journalistic talent has been assembled. The channel, funded by €4.5 million from Romanian investors, launched on April 7, 2010 – exactly one year after the chaotic political upheaval.

“This kind of project simply would not have been possible under the Communists,” says Natalia Morari, a journalist and activist who hosts Publika’s main political talk show. While living in Moscow, her investigative reports earned a place in the Kremlin’s bad books, and it was a youth organisation she founded – ThinkMoldova – whose peaceful rally sparked the unrest in 2009.

“Our whole media landscape has changed dramatically,” Morari continues. “As a journalist I feel more free. From the point of view of consumers, it’s a very good thing, but there’s a risk we could repeat the situation of Russia in the 1990s – when people woke up in a country where they had lots of freedoms, and they didn’t know what to do.”

The new atmosphere of openness has caused confusion: “People are surprised to see our channel criticising the new government,” says the presenter. “They thought we would become its weapon and be good to the coalition, but it’s our job to be tough with everyone – communists, liberals or democrats. For our media market this is something completely new.”

Other positive steps include a management overhaul of the state broadcaster, number one source of information for the general public. Internet access is spreading as broadband becomes affordable, while the IT sector is being actively developed. And another 24-hour news station, Jurnal TV, was opened shortly before Publika.

However, there is a lingering danger this could all vanish as quickly as it appeared. Early parliamentary polls will take place in November – along with a referendum on direct presidential elections – aimed at resolving the political stalemate. The ruling Alliance’s ratings are neck and neck with the Communist party. While another coalition remains the likely outcome, no one would rule out a surprise.

Published @ Monocle.com, 25/6/10 - click here for original.

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In Sergiev Posad

365 – Day 150

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Chaotic justice – a therapeutic election post-mortem

After a long day of attempting to simultaneously translate a chronology of the Soviet art world while taking in the BBC’s excellent election coverage at the corner of my screen, I felt the need to release a few thoughts into some kind of vaguely coherent shape.

First of all, this election – mangled and muddy as the results may be – seems to me to genuinely reflect the UK’s public mood and general attitude towards politics at the moment. The current state of total chaos seems almost bizarrely dictated by a flawed yet viciously accurate brand of twisted logic. Is it poetic justice?

Major misgivings regarding both main parties have played out. People were tired of the government, but the opposition didn’t seal the deal. Despite gaining momentum towards the end of the official campaign, the Tories didn’t do a good enough long-term job of promoting themselves as serious contenders. Questions always remained. For months (and even years) on end, they failed to come up with any substantial policies. No amount of glossy PR could hide this lack of substance.

The Liberal Democrats’ recent poll numbers turn out to have flattered them, as people retreated into the arms of their familiar old flames, the Conservative and Labour parties. As much as I wanted it to, this underlying conservative (small c) mentality does not surprise me in the slightest.

While most people on a London bus would not have recognised Nick Clegg before the TV debates, they would even now be equally hard-pressed to name any senior Tory apart from David Cameron. The party is a one-man-band. Why? Because, despite all Dave’s talk of change and a new Conservative image, he never managed to escape haunting accusations of the “Same Old Tories”.

He may have acted quickly on the expenses scandal and purged several heinous MPs, but this makeover is only skin-deep. The Ashcroft affair, Chris Grayling’s comments on homosexual B&B clientele and Philippa Stroud’s religious loony revelation all tainted the polished, cleaned-up aura that Cameron wanted to radiate. There was also this small incident of ethical and procedural violation on the Commons floor.

For all his efforts to present himself in a leader’s light today – and Tory talk of higher seat gains than Thatcher – Cameron has ultimately failed. He has not delivered a majority. He has not decisively defeated a Labour government crocked from 13 years in power, battered by the expenses scandal and led by a man better suited to backroom policy-making than public relations.

To me, the whole bigotgate incident (finely documented here) was almost more shocking for Gordon Brown’s sheer lack of charisma in his original encounter with Mrs Duffy. He stands there, looking down on her, pointing a finger like he’s been insulted and talking in a technocratic, statistic-riddled monotone which made me cringe. Perhaps here, tucked away in Moscow, it’s easy to forget just how un-engaging the Prime Minister really is.

Nick Clegg has indeed emerged as a key figure – but not as triumphantly as so many hoped. Rather than raising their share towards a century of seats, the Lib Dems ended up with fewer MPs. Great expectations have not materialised.

However, Clegg certainly succeeded in energising the campaign. His first two debate performances were a typhoon of fresh air which looked like it could sweep away all the dust and cobwebs as it roared into the House of Commons. But in his third clash with Brown and Cameron, he almost started to sound just like the broken-record rhetoric he’d previously railed against so effectively.

Despite this clearly unrealised potential, the Lib Dem leader is destined to be a mere footnote in history if he fails to use his position to instigate real systemic change. He needs every modicum of the wit and guile displayed during the debates to somehow tease out a transformation of our crippled voting system.

Cameron’s electoral reform “committee” is a no go. Clegg must not relent in his pursuit of proportional representation, no matter how many small concessions are thrown at him. Britain’s archaic system must be brought into the 21st century – especially if the country wants to maintain its reputation as a shining beacon of democracy. Speaking of which, the fact that hundreds of people were denied their right to vote by inefficient administration is simply criminal.

We can only hope the Lib Dems, now presented with the first glimpse of genuine clout in many of their political careers, will not sell out their core values for a shot at power. They need to find the right balance between standing by their goals and acting in the national interest.

Make Dave sweat a little, but not for too long.

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Terror Reflections

Monday, March 29 was just the start of another working week in Moscow. Huge crowds of people descended into the metro system – a rumbling, winding maze of tunnels, walkways and escalators.

Within a single hour, two suicide bombers struck at the heart of the Russian capital. Blasts shook key stations on the busy red line, which dissects the centre of the city – first at Lubyanka, home of the FSB (formerly KGB), and then Park Kultury, a ten-minute ride to the south.

Park Kultury station, March 29

By mid-afternoon, everything at Park Kultury appeared to be calm. Police were out in force, but many were smoking or chatting idly on their mobile phones. Ambulances were gathered around the vestibule connecting the red line to street level (above), but the station’s main entrance across the road was open. A small group of photographers, TV cameras and general bystanders clustered behind the barriers.

Within hours the system was back up and running, but anxiety afflicted commuters. Moscow’s central ring road, the Sadovoe Koltso (Garden Ring), was suffering traffic levels even more brutal than usual; the photo below was taken on March 30. Rush-hour congestion is serious even in normal circumstances, but an infectious sense of paranoia had exacerbated the situation. The emergency services were on high alert – police and ambulance sirens seemed to be squealing past my bedroom window every five minutes.

Garden Ring road, March 30

March 30 was declared a day of national mourning. The next evening, down on the platform, a mass of flowers, candles and condolences had been building up (below). A constantly shifting flow of people stood in silence, gazing blankly at the temporary shrine almost in disbelief.

Park Kultury station, March 31

While terrorism and militant attacks are nothing new to the country, more than six years had passed since the last such act in Moscow. A typically Russian sense of steely resolve and determination to soldier on was tempered by grief and residual shock – pretty much every person would pause to stand and stare before continuing their journeys.

Park Kultury station, March 31

Similar scenes awaited at Lubyanka station (below), which was first to be hit on Monday morning. Many believe it was targeted for symbolic significance – the infamous Soviet-era KGB had its headquarters here – and the area lies within walking distance of the Kremlin itself.

Lubyanka station, March 31

The same evening, a remembrance gathering was held on Lubyanka square. Thousands of people attended the wake, but a couple of hours later the place was virtually deserted. Forsaken. Three policemen watched over a sea of candles.

Lubyanka square, March 31

The bombers took 40 lives, wrecking many more, and dozens remain in hospital. Chechen resistance leader Doku Umarov has claimed responsibility, promising this will not be the last attack on the Russian heartland in a video statement posted on YouTube.

The Guardian reports that the Moscow strikes came in response to civilian killings in a February counter-insurgency operation.

On March 31, suicide blasts caused 12 more deaths in Dagestan – a republic neighbouring Chechnya in the troubled North Caucasus. In these regions, far from the westernised, developed side of Russia, such incidents are part of everyday life.

As the Caucasus conflict now looks certain to intensify, we can only hope Moscow will not be a main battleground.

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Christian Scott: Breaking Boundaries, Crossing Lines

Christian Scott is lounging on a black leather couch, easy and relaxed before taking to the stage at a Moscow jazz club. The cold, gloomy Russian capital hosted the New Orleans trumpeter's quintet for a trio of gigs in February 2009--including a show at the US ambassador's cushy residence, in front of an elite audience of officials, dignitaries and this scruffy freelance journalist.

Diplomatic functions do not represent a major part of the group's touring schedule. Maybe Scott was a slightly surprising choice for such an event: on the same evening, it was Russian saxophonist Igor Butman's tight big band which produced a sound more reminiscent of what might, on foreign shores, be expected from the stock phrase "American jazz."

Puzzled faces were certainly in evidence, but it is a tribute to the music's chameleonic quality that by the end of a short set, appreciation was unanimous. "We've been lucky enough not to have a demographic," Scott explains. "We've played concerts where they'll have 70-year-old blue-haired ladies, or young teenagers. We've played for audiences of kids with Mohawks and black nails, right through to people who are just into hip-hop and gold teeth and all that type of stuff. It ties into the concept: the music is for everyone."

Musical Origins

Scott has enjoyed a privileged rite of passage into the jazz world. "I started playing trumpet when I was 11. I'd been around music my entire life; my mother was a classical bassoonist, and my uncle is the saxophonist Donald Harrison. So I decided I wanted to play jazz, and I asked Donald if he would teach me, if I could be his protégé. He took me under his wing and let me live with him for a year-and-a-half, and after that, I guess he thought I was good enough to go on the road and start playing. So when I was 13 or 14 I started to tour internationally."

This is clearly the source for a deep well of self-belief. Asked if it was tough to compete with the vast number of musicians coming out of New Orleans and the wider USA, Scott's answer displays unflinching confidence: "No. I know this sounds strange but I think part of it is that I was very fortunate to have my uncle at a young age. Most of the things kids were trying to figure out, I had already learned from being on the bandstand.

"It's like basketball. If you're 12 and you play basketball with 12-year-olds, you're going to play on a 12-13-year-old level. But if you play with 25-year-old men, you're going to understand different things that kids don't know. Kids play basketball and they're just playing the sport, but 25-year-old men know that basketball is really trigonometry--it's angles. You have to know the triangle offense, the zone defense, you know there are angles in the way your body pivots; there are all these different things, but a kid doesn't know the science of it. So when I was growing up, I was always sort of ahead of the curve: my friends would be learning their scales, but I'd be trying to figure out how to interpret, like, the Satie! It was different. I never fell into that kind of trap thing by having to compete with my peers. I was always competing with people who were much older than me."

Despite this whirlwind initiation, Scott's feet stayed firmly on the ground. Rather than taking off headfirst into a full-time musical career in his teens, it was parental advice which guided him along a more cautious path. "I started traveling early," he says, "but there was always this thing of my mother saying she wanted us to finish school, as she didn't have a chance to do that because of having us. So, instead of going on the road, I decided I would go to Berklee."

A fundamental philosophical difference influenced this college choice: "I had a full scholarship to go to Juilliard, but the ideology doesn't work for me. I don't have this notion that jazz is more important or valid than any other type of music. That's the sort of doctrine you're given: this is the hardest music in the world, played by the most intelligent musicians, which is bullshit to me. I think that no matter what you do, if you feel you're an artist and you want to create, then your art is just as valid as mine--because I'm no more valid than you are."

The trumpeter isn't afraid of disagreement. At times, it seems he even enjoys it--but not simply as argument for argument's sake. Scott says what he thinks, but he also thinks carefully about what he's saying, presenting refined and logical views in an articulate manner. And this makes his flair for unorthodoxy all the more compelling.

Take Wynton Marsalis, for example. Everyone in jazz has an opinion, and Scott, a personal friend, is no exception. His debut album, Rewind That (Concord, 2006), received a Grammy nomination and significant critical acclaim--but Marsalis was less complimentary. "I had Wynton tell me my music wasn't jazz because the main rhythm wasn't swing," Scott recalls. "He was like: 'If it's not swing, it's not jazz.' So I said to him: 'Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory, Scott Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton, Papa Joe Oliver--all these guys aren't jazz musicians. All of those early New Orleans guys are not jazz musicians.' He was like, 'no, they're jazz ...' And I'm like 'no, they're not, based on what you just said, because swing was invented in Kansas City in the '20s! And jazz predates swing. That rhythm is a perversion of jazz, so how can you say this denotes what the music is when it's a perversion? It's an offset.' That was the first time I ever saw a Negro turn red. He was done."

A Broken System

The issue of Marsalis, Juilliard and the jazz "system" they represent is a hot topic for Scott. Its flaw, in his eyes, lies in the lack of creative dialogue and a prescribed, almost universally accepted set of values which is rarely questioned. The Establishment.

"I feel like the archetype jazz musician now, in the last 25 years, has bought into a type of insincerity for the sake of musical survival: they'll do whatever they have to do to survive musically. The problem with this is that individuality is not paramount anymore--you have all these people who sound the same making records that sound the same. The fact of the matter, in my opinion, is that when you start a healthy dialogue where people disagree with each other, you force them to actually be creative. It's like having an argument: you know how you might have a stance on something but it's not until someone calls you on your stance that your brain starts working. That's basically all it is. My thing is: it's not about me, I would rather the music is better so the next generation of musicians is better. Because what happened is that there's a 10-year gap where the musicians are sadder than their predecessors. That's backwards. You're supposed to be better than them. I know that sounds fucked up, but you understand what I mean."

"Let's go back to basketball. Magic Johnson was a great player, right? He was a great player 25 years ago. Now, do you know who LeBron James is? If you put LeBron James versus Magic Johnson, LeBron James would kill Magic Johnson--he's just better. It's just that during that period of time, Magic was the best. You have to judge it against the context, that's the thing. During that time, Magic was the best in the world but today he'd be mediocre. Just because the guys now had the opportunity to see him and study what he did. So what I'm saying is for jazz musicians, it's like you have Magic Johnson, and then 20 years later you have guys that are worse. It doesn't make any sense. I meet these jazz musicians, they're playing, and I'm like: 'What the fuck have you been listening to? It doesn't even make sense. Go get these 20 records and they'll show you how to connect the dots; they already showed you how to do it, you can't ask for any more!'"

Another eloquent sports metaphor, indeed, but this was one stance which definitely needed calling. Isn't jazz sounding healthy at the moment? Why are there so many people who don't seem able to connect musical dots in the most basic way? And how did this sour phenomenon come into existence? Unsurprisingly, the answers were waiting.

"The problem is that jazz has turned into an academic thing. And what people don't realize is that it was done on purpose, because there's a horrible structure in jazz right now. Fuck it, you can write this, I'm going to say it. At the top of the hierarchical structure are people like Wynton Marsalis. Now, on a personal level, I love him--I can call him up right now, and we'll talk about basketball--but the fact of the matter is that we disagree on some very fundamental levels.

"He got to this place where he's at the top of the pile, and then he decided he was going to tell everyone else in the country what to listen to and how to play jazz. Let's think about that. Let's say it's kung fu, or whatever. We have the highest master, who is all the way at the top of this pile--he studied all this stuff, everything there is to study. If he then tells everyone else just to study two forms of fighting, when he knows eight, that's going to mean everyone else coming up under him will not be able to take him down because they haven't amassed the knowledge he has. They don't have that wealth of knowledge.

"So the problem with jazz musicians now is they're trying to figure out: 'Why do I still sound like John Coltrane? Or why do I still sound like Charlie Parker?' It's because when you were 10 years old some asshole told you to only listen to Parker and Coltrane and nothing else. So you only studied that, while the asshole who told you to do it was listening to Sonny Stitt, and he was listening to Sonny Rollins, and all this Stanley Turrentine, Gary Bartz and all this shit! And you let him tell you only to listen to these two people. This is why you can't compete with him. You've been bamboozled. He tricked you into buying into his system so you would never be able to take him down."

On Record

Scott weaves together threads of thought to construct a strong critique, a net to snare the jazz system, in the same way he creates music. He speaks of being able to freely write notation as if it was text. From the first pulsing guitar riff on "Rewind That," the opening and title track on its namesake album, the atmosphere is enthralling. Throughout the disc, catchy hooks and hypnotic grooves in an R&B or hip-hop vein are developed individually, taken to different levels and mixed around--while elegantly layering up and holding firmly together at the same time. Cutting through it all is the icy, breathy tone of Scott's piercing trumpet. One wants to listen more, rewind and shift the focus of attention.

The release was heralded as a game-changer in critical circles, with Billboard magazine declaring it "arguably the most remarkable premiere the genre has seen in the last decade." Sales were high. An uncharacteristically charismatic debut, Rewind That was a statement of intent--the then 22-year-old Scott had already found a distinctive compositional voice of his own.

It was a notable departure from the quasi-formulaic process expected of freshman jazz players on major labels. Their initiations almost always comprise a fairly predictable standards songbook, with a couple of originals at most. Rewind That was the opposite: the only standard in sight was a jumped-up version of "So What," laid down over a rippling backbeat, with a burning guest solo courtesy of Donald Harrison's snaky alto sax.

"When I signed the record deal, I told them: 'I get to make the music I want to make, and you don't have anything to say about it,'" Scott recollects. "Now, there are pros and cons to that situation, because of course they want some things, and you have to do stuff like paying an extra dollar for a CD--which doesn't bother me because I'm getting to make the music I want to make. But that was the stipulation. I make the music, you put the record out and sell it."

The jazz community saw this move as controversial. "The problem was coming from other musicians. I was getting calls from people I knew, like, 'man, I heard you signed a record deal, you'd need to do a standards album because they put the money on you.' Everyone knows that if you make a standards album with a major label like that, you're going to make a lot of money. But that wasn't important to me, I wanted to make the music I felt was relevant at the time. I would even get into arguments with my uncle about it--he'd be like 'yo, man, you need to do this, we've cleared a path for you and should take that path.' But I'd rather do whatever I want."

Scott's goal was to find out "if you could make your own record the way you wanted to and win." "You don't have to follow a model," he continues. "People make excuses in those types of situations--they might say 'well, no one's ever done that before...' That sounds like an excuse, and an excuse is just an opportunity in disguise. If no one's done it, then we'll probably succeed, because at least we have one thing on our side: we'll be the first ones to try."

With Rewind That, Scott believes he won--"it changed a lot of people." His next CD, Anthem (Concord, 2007), was eagerly anticipated. Recorded and released in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, to many it seemed a moving tribute to the devastation of New Orleans. Darker, broodingly meditative moods and minor themes almost invited such a conclusion.

Scott, however, is quick to dispel this reading of his work. "My album wasn't a Katrina album. Not at all. I think that's callous, and, to be honest with you, when I found out the record company was sort of using that to market it, I had a huge argument with the product manager--like swearing at each other, like pushing. Because the thing is that I have friends--girls I grew up with, who were raped in the Superdome--and people that were murdered, all types of stuff. I didn't live that experience, and that's part of what we do, too; we try to make the music as sincere as possible.

"I wasn't there when the hurricane happened, I was in Boston--so I'm not going to write a song about the hurricane hitting and 'oh, wow, here's me' because I was fuckin' in Boston! You know what I'm saying? I don't think that's OK because I didn't have the negative aspects of that experience so I don't think that's my right to write about it, even though it's about my hometown. I can write a song about losing my home, because that's an experience I had, but the hurricane hitting and the water and being afraid--I didn't experience any of that. So it would be callous of me to write that a song like that. I don't think it would be fair."

This stance led to disagreement with another high profile figure, friend and fellow trumpet player. "I had an argument with Terence Blanchard about it--he didn't like the fact I said what I said, but that's how I felt." Blanchard's album A Tale Of God's Will (A Requiem For Katrina) (Blue Note, 2007) was released around the same time as Anthem. Featuring a full string orchestra, it represented a personal lament on the disaster and won a Grammy for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album.

"It was like, 'OK man, alright, I know you weren't in New Orleans when it happened, you know, you're very paid, everything is alright, your house didn't get touched by an inch of water--I know it 'cause I know where you live, I've been to your home!' When that album came out, everyone kinda jumped on the bandwagon, and sort of made my album synonymous with it. And that pissed me off! I was very angry. Anthem was actually about socio-political concerns all over the world. What I'd seen is that everywhere I went, people were vying for a voice and they wanted to be heard. I like to talk to people, share stories, sit down and converse--and I realized there's a lot of pain going on and people wanted to get that out, so I wanted to try and make an album full of small anthems that people from different experiences could relate to. It wasn't about a fuckin' hurricane."

A CD/DVD double set, Live at Newport (Concord, 2008), brought more positive reviews and increased media attention--including towards Scott's dress sense. He's been hailed as "jazz's young style god" by JazzTimes magazine. One publicist at a London gig was overheard saying he'd never worked with a jazz musician who had such an eye for style. However, the man himself is rather baffled by such talk, putting the claim down to popular stereotypes. "People were coming to the conclusion that I'm a 'fashion guy,' and it fucked me up because I never think about that shit--like, at all," Scott elucidates.

"On a daily level, the funny thing is that my friends laugh when they come to a concert and say 'you're the same on stage as you are in your daily life.' It doesn't change--I'm still a crazy motherfucker, I dress the same. What I wear to gigs is what you'll see me walking around the hotel in. I don't really think about it much, it's just how I dress. I get a lot of hookups because I have a shopping problem; I get given stuff because they know I'm going to talk about it when people ask me what I wear. But I don't think about it: my shoes are dirty, my pants are probably a little too tight, my socks might be dirty, and this jacket's not ironed. I don't give a fuck. But people see it and they say 'well, I'm used to looking at an African-American guy who's got a T-shirt and a chain on, and this guy dresses more closely to the way a European would dress,' so they automatically say, 'he's more fashionable than the others.' It's true! I can contextualize where people are coming from when they see that but I don't think about it at all."

Moving Forward

Almost exactly a year since the Moscow gigs, Scott is in London for the launch of Yesterday You Said Tomorrow (Concord, 2010), his first studio album since that dramatic sophomore release. His stock has risen. A month trawling the roads of Europe is underway. Two sell-out concerts at Ronnie Scott's club are talk of the town; a constant stream of interviews, from blogs and the BBC to national newspapers, is on the agenda.

"This album is a totally different animal," says an understandably tired Scott in the bar of his hotel. "I'm waiting to see how it will be received because this is nothing like what came before." But he seems far from concerned at this apparently radical deviation from a successful recipe: "I'm not worried, I think when people hear it--whether or not they conclude they like it--they'll have to at least say 'this is not some shit I've heard before.' And I think it will take more time for people to come to conclusions about how they really feel about it."

The CD was recorded over four days under the attentive ear of legendary engineer Rudy Van Gelder, now in his 80s, who came out of retirement especially for the project. Mixing took "ten times as long," according to Scott, who was writing the music "all day and every day, for nearly three-and-a-half years." He adds that his current sidemen--Matthew Stevens (guitar), Milton Fletcher (piano), Kristopher Funn (bass) and Jamire Williams (drums)--are a group he's been trying to assemble for the last four years.

Conceptually, his vision is clear. "I wanted to create an album that sounded like a hybrid between the way we play now--how we incorporate and blend ideas and textures from this generation--and couple it with the type of depth musicians played with in the '60s. And to marry not just sounds and palettes from this era, but also from that one, to have two different time periods together in the music, so it's more dense."

Dense it is. Scott's trademark ostinatos remain intact, but his new band sounds more unhinged than any of the others. Yet there is control. The first track, "K.K.P.D.," is propelled by waves of frenetic beats from Williams, a source of endless energy at the kit. The quintet follows a recent jazz trend of Radiohead covers with "The Eraser," before intermittently mellowing out and turning up the heat over eight more originals, all but one penned by Scott. He duels with Stevens' alternately luminescent or gritty guitar on several cuts, while Fletcher and Funn provide a shimmering, shifting backdrop. Traces of both Rewind That and Anthem are certainly detectable, but Yesterday You Said Tomorrow represents the next stage of evolution, a powerful, expressive document on the current phase of Scott's artistic growth.

"It sounds like what I hear in my head, which is fucked up," states the trumpeter, with a faint tone of surprise. "It's weird because every album I do I feel like I'm getting closer to that sound. You always hear musicians talk about the fact it never sounds like how it is in their head. It's the only album I've made that I can really listen to. I can listen all day, every day, and I always find something I can hold onto that I didn't notice before. It's incredible. And I made the motherfucker!"

Despite obvious satisfaction at how things are going, certain issues are starting to bother Scott in the midst of his small media circus. "I can tell you what I'm sick of being asked about: I'm not terribly concerned with people doing the whole Miles Davis thing. I couldn't care less about that. Man, Miles Davis is dead. Leave that shit alone. If Miles was here, he wouldn't be thinking about me doing what I'm doing--he'd be like 'man, fuck that dude, Christian Scott can kiss my ass.' And I'd be telling him the same shit back. Yeah. He was known for being a bit of a jerk."

A 2009 tour with Marcus Miller, recreating Davis' classic album Tutu (Warner Bros, 1986), could have done Scott more harm than good in this respect. While in one sense there is no greater compliment, it's easy to see why his relentlessly progressive mindset spares no time for raising ghosts of the past.

Scott also reacts negatively to the frequent assumption that his music contains a political element. "I don't think I'm political, I just speak about my experiences. It's weird. I come all the way over here and people think they know me and understand what I'm talking about. You may be able to fathom it to a certain extent, but unless you've been in 100-degree weather picking cotton or cutting down sugar cane, as far as I'm concerned, you can shut the fuck up about it. That's how I feel about those types of things."

The Future

This kind of bold, confident statement has set Christian Scott apart from the day he signed the Concord contract. His emerging position as a leading figure in 21st-century jazz music looks more assured with every release, but he is the first to put things in perspective: "There's been all this hoop-la made about the palette we've been working on," he said in Moscow. "People have been calling me one of the main architects of a new sound of jazz. But I don't see it that way, because all the things I hear relate to stuff I heard before.

"I've had the experience of being around a lot of older musicians. I learned all these different styles and all the old guys said 'amen to what you're doing, if you have a vision.' So I've never bought into 'this is what it is, and if it's not that, then it's wrong,' because most of the older musicians don't feel like that, they just create. I'm not buying into trying to please people, worrying they won't like my music."

Zipping back to the London interview, Scott states that the title Yesterday You Said Tomorrow reflects a palpable sense of urgency throughout the new record. "When you listen to the document," he explains, "it's obvious you're listening to a group of young people who are intent on some type of change."

Scott and his quintet are on a mission to change the way people think about jazz. With an accessible persona, explosive yet thoughtful tirades against a rotten establishment, a democratic message of musical equality, and subtly crafted, thoroughly contemporary and fresh-sounding compositions, he has all the tools to do just that.

Mr. Marsalis, you'd better watch out.

Published @ allaboutjazz.com, 9/3/10 - click here for original.

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Barbacana / Troyka - Vortex, 5/3/10

Saxophonist James Allsop
The bassless Anglo-French quartet Barbacana made strong impressions right from the start: James Allsop’s supple tenor sax led the way, as the others gradually joined in to create a compelling collective improvisation with tight melodic interludes.

This was the story of their set. A constantly shifting dynamic spectrum, ranging from full-volume, rowdy sax blasts and singeing electric guitar to near-silence and an organ that sounded like tootling computers, showed the players were really locked in together. Fresh from a couple of gigs on the other side of the English Channel, this was certainly a good time to catch the exciting new band.

Allsop and keysman Kit Downes were joined by Parisian duo Adrien Dennefeld (guitar) and Sylvain Darriffourcq (drums); all displayed an enjoyment equal to the audience as they attentively listened to each other, rising, falling and fidgeting as one. Perhaps tune structures did get a little predictable, but this did not detract from the pleasure of the moment.

Troyka, a talked-about London trio with a recent release on Edition Records, were next up. Downes was on keys again, joined this time by drummer Joshua Blackmore and guitarist Chris Montague.

They favour a jam band aesthetic – open, loosely structured, slightly wonky grooves have gained much attention. But something seemed to be missing on Friday night. It may have been that the new material Troyka were trying out is not yet fully absorbed; it just sounded a little flat after all the energy and flair of Barbacana.

Compositions seemed to meander, lacking the leadership role which Allsop’s pyrotechnic saxophone had played so effectively for the previous group. While Montague on guitar occasionally managed to unleash a pleasingly acidic Scofield vibe, these instances were all the more notable for their rarity.

With the crowd showing signs of disquiet, the trio sought to raise intensity levels. Only then did heads start to move. A lively, attractive potential is clearly there, but it felt like they had really got going a little too late in the day.

Published @ The London Jazz Blog, 8/3/10 – click here for original.

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Downhill with a difference: Moscow’s real wacky racers

Real-life wacky racers

An unclassified dispatch from last year's colourful 'Tazovy Downhill' annual bowl race, an event organised by Muscovites to raise their dreary winter spirits. The 2010 contest will take place on February 28.

An expectant group of thickly-coated people is gathering in the park at Orehovo, 15 minutes’ walk from its namesake metro station in south Moscow. It’s the last day of February. This year’s winter, although delayed in its most virulent cold snap, has been traditionally Russian; a light snowfall is settling nicely, coating the local scenery in a fresh veil of pure white.

Winter sports are popular here. Finding entertainment in freezing conditions is no problem for a nation accustomed to three months of sub-zero temperatures. Obvious options like skiing, snowboarding and ice-skating are essential, but a little creativity can lead to endless possibilities.

Established in 2005, the Downhill competition is one such novel concept: rather than using skis or boards, people race each other in bowls. As the appointed time draws nearer, a plethora of bizarre vehicles appear on the hilltop. Some contestants have procured typical household basins, decorated with zany motifs. One team boasts a four-person frigate vessel anchored on a raft made from tree branches. Baking trays, customised snowboards and even a toilet seat complete the array.

Contestant number oneOrganisers call out the last chance for registration. People line up along the sides of the slope, ready for racing to commence. There’s an excited buzz in the atmosphere. Cameras everywhere. Initial heats will cut the 60-strong field down to three finalists. Cries of “davai! davai!” fill the air as the contest begins, with three luminous yellow-jacketed participants jostling for position. A few minutes later, we have the first breakage – a trail of pink plastic fragments leaves one unfortunate competitor sans bowl after less than three seconds of descent. Could that be a record?

More comical moments are to follow; in addition to the speed challenge, an alcoholic prize is on offer for best costume. As with the vehicles, people have put time and thought into their ideas: we have two lads in orange jumpsuits wearing old Soviet gas masks, one guy in a dubiously acquired police uniform, various snow angels and a fair amount of randomly unidentifiable creations.

Back to the race. Our eventual winner, posting an impressive time of 8.19 seconds, is a 30-something opera singer. Known only as ‘Repka’ (radish), he actually enjoyed a double victory, also capturing the best costume crown. It was a fine effort – an inflated yellow foam bodysuit that made him look twice his weight, topped off by a green fabric headpiece to represent the vegetable’s stalk. The design was inspired by an old Russian fairytale: a family is growing radishes, one of which becomes so big that it’s impossible to pull from the ground. Only when a whole group of people and animals join the effort do they manage to dig it up, with a tiny mouse making the decisive contribution. The moral of the story: every little helps when people work together.

This mysterious yellow fellow turned out to be something of an extreme sports enthusiast. “I’ve had this costume since a bike competition when 1500 people dressed up and cycled 25 kilometres all over Moscow,” he explains. “We went right past the Kremlin – it was great, so cool. I’ve also been to the Tian Shian mountains in Kyrghyzia and to Albrus, the highest mountain in Europe, where I broke my ankle.”

“For this race I decided I just wanted to show off my costume, mainly participate in that competition – not so much the downhill thing, maybe fifth or sixth place. I didn’t expect to be the winner! That was not my aim; it’s even a little bit inconvenient for me, I am feeling slightly uncomfortable about it.” After a flurry of attention at the awards ceremony, our champion looks anything but uncomfortable. Sitting jovially on an upturned bowl, he offers cognac and snacks to one and all while his little black dog yelps excitedly.

Dmitry Maltsev, a lawyer who came in third place due to a vehicular malfunction, is not devastated about the loss. “I’m alive – that’s the main thing,” he says, glancing down at his “modernised” snowboard and its adjoining shattered bowl. “The most important thing about today was that it’s not serious. You’re participating, you’re trying to do your best, but it’s not serious – no one is angry, and I’m fine about third place. It feels like first place!” In fact, he did secure a victory of sorts, recording the competition’s fastest time of 7.65 seconds in his preliminary heat.

The four-man frigate vesselBesides the obvious comedy factor, people have revealing views about the Downhill event’s popularity. Elena Sudakova, one of the organisers and a professional skater, thinks it is partially due to the stresses of the season. “We want to have fun and cheer people up! The Russian winter can be boring and depressing with long days and bad weather, so the end of the winter is good,” she says. With the brutal onslaught of economic crisis afflicting many Russians, this winter gone by will have seemed an especially tiring one.

The larger-than-life Repka has another insight: “Many people work a lot in offices. It’s very stressful, very routine and they are like robots. But now we are here to let out our emotions: we’re not thinking about money, we relax, we drink champagne from the bowls, we drink cognac, we communicate with each other; it’s great to see foreigners here too. That’s why I go to the mountains, ride bikes and do all the things like that – to relax.”

As a spectacle, the Downhill contest draws comparisons with that great British traditional quirk, the Gloucester cheese-rolling. Unsurprisingly, Repka knows about it – “maybe I will go there for my next project one day,” he states thoughtfully. “But for now I am happy here with all these crazy Russians riding on bowls.”

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Alexander Mashin

Sasha Mashin
Charlie Wright’s, London, 10/2/10

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