Russian virtuoso bassist Yuri Goloubev speaks to editor Charlie Anderson about his love of jazz.
Tell me a bit about how you started in music.
“Well, I grew up in it. My mum had graduated as a pianist even though she didn’t work much in that realm. She was a music journalist for many years and we always had a grand piano at home. She would practice sometimes so I would always try to put my hands on it as a child. My dad was a scientist. He played a bit of piano as an amateur. That was quite natural.”
“The thing I started to do first was compose. I was becoming more and more conscious and finally I started to learn piano. And then we had this network of music schools for children. So I did two years there then my parents brought me to a specialist music school called The Central School of Music by Moscow Conservatoire, which is what they call a ‘school for gifted children’. It was a very narrow, professional education. You do other things like mathematics and geography but they basically prepare professional musicians. In the children’s music school I studied piano there but I wanted to study harp but there was no place so I did my exam on the piano but I don’t think I would have been taken anyway. I remember how it was: I went there in this room and the panel said ‘What have you practiced? What would you like to play for us?’ and I told them that I hadn’t prepared anything and they went ‘Erghh!’. I told them that I could just improvise and they were absolutely shocked. So I improvised something. It was contemporary jazz and I was always into composition. And I said ‘I don’t want to study piano. I want to study harp’ so it was a total shock for everyone. Since the places for harp are very limited, only one person per year, I would have had to lose one year because that place had already been taken. And they said ‘double bass’ as an experiment as I was nine years old so I was like ‘whatever’. So they assigned me to this instrument which I never studied until I was fourteen as I was doing mainly composition. So I was touching it only twice a week when I seeing my professor. And then, when you’re fourteen, you’re in the grade 8, the so-called competition grade. There are a lot of exams and the idea is to kick out people that might not be good enough. I was very, very scared that they would kick me out so that’s how I started practicing. Then one thing leads to another so you never know. Then I did the five years at the conservatoire and since 1990 I was working in various orchestras and I completely quit classical music in 2004 to devote myself only to this genre. Because for me, at the time, to do both to do it well, to play jazz properly. It wasn’t possible for a series of reasons. So I had to make a choice. That’s my history.”
What draws you to jazz?
“I really like the language, but there was something…there was one particular thing that, in my opinion, is that jazz calls for a constant learning. It’s a constant learning experience because there is a multitude of styles. You cannot learn something to perfection but let’s say you kind of start to master certain things but then lots of other things open up and so and so forth.
That was a very interesting aspect for me which, to be honest, I didn’t have in classical music. And also, in the orchestra, or chamber orchestra in my case for many years, there is a lot of the same repertoire so there’s the risk that you forget how to play your instrument. And even when there are some new compositions, it’s all very limited in a way. At least for me, it wasn’t a learning experience and in the last years [of playing in orchestras] I had this constant nasty feeling of occupying a place of someone who would have appreciated it so much more. Plus my love for jazz that I’d been playing on the piano since an early age, I started to compose. As a composer I was writing contemporary classical music, atonal, twelve-tone music, serialism (and I used it in a tiny way in jazz) so I switched. I think you have to make choices at some point in your life, like what you really love doing. And your choices change.”
Tell us about your work with Gwilym Simcock.
“That’s a very long-standing collaboration. We first met at the end of 2005. I had to record a quartet album for this wonderful German saxophonist (who used to live in Austria but now lives in Italy) called Klaus Gesing. There was a problem with the piano player, he couldn’t make the recording and the drummer that was in the band, Asaf Sirkis (with whom I’d played with before) suggested this young British pianist. Gwilym, I think, was about 24 at the time. I had never heard of him. Klaus Gesing’s music was very difficult, it’s all odd-meters. Now, having worked a lot in England, I’ve gotten used to all this – not that I’ve mastered it perfectly, but I’ve gotten really used to it. At the time it was a very new thing for me and I considered the whole repertoire very complex. I was really worried. I was thinking ‘bloody hell, how will this pianist be?’ because I knew how it was with Glauco Venier who used to play in that band.”
“So we got together and did the rehearsal. The first thing I did at the rehearsal was say ‘okay guys, let’s just play a standard to warm up’ but the idea was to get to know each another. Then I remember about 30 seconds later I remember thinking ‘Bloody hell. This guy is a fucking genius’. And then in the interval I told him ‘the next time I do an album, I’m going to call you’. And indeed, my Metafore Semplici album of 2009 there is Gwilym on the piano. And since then we’ve done a number of various collaborations, maybe ten albums or something like that on various occasions.”
Tell us about the latest album that you’ve done together.
“The duo idea dates back to, I think, 2006. We were on tour with Klaus and during a soundcheck in Austria we just played something, a duo. And I said, why don’t we do a duo record and he said ‘why don’t we do a trio’. But he had at that time, a trio with Phil Donkin and Martin France and I just didn’t want to create any complication. But this idea came from him so we recorded a trio album with Asaf Sirkis [SGS Group Inc. presents…] and then at the same time we did the first gig as a duo, I think in 2008 at a festival in Sardinia. Since then, gradually, every now and again and then finally we did a few tours as a duo. And during one of the tours in March 2013 Christine Allen at Basho Music [Gwilym’s agent] gets a call from the ACT label saying ‘I see they are playing at Schloss Elmau. I’m going to come and record it.’ So it was just incorporated into the tour as we had a concert. We got there a day before so we used the morning and afternoon to record it and then did a gig in the evening, which is a really tiring thing to do. You are trying to really concentrate on the recording and then you are kind of exhausted by the end of it so it becomes really difficult to play a gig. But I must say on the actual CD we indeed have taken something from the recording session and something from the gig. So it wasn’t that the whole day was wasted but it wasn’t very easy. So that’s how that came about. Now we do a series of concerts here and there, it could be small tours or some single dates, to promote the album.”
“And now we are trying to see into some slightly different directions because we all are a little bit used to the approach that you have, let’s say, chord symbols and you have to improvise over the chord symbols and then it becomes the familiar bebopish realm. But actually we just got together a few days ago for a small rehearsal in London and we were thinking that there could be other ways of other sorts of improvisation. Of course there are always chord symbols but we will try in our concert in Brighton, we will see if we can realise a few little plans that have been made during that rehearsal to make it more interesting.”
I saw you recently on television, playing with Gwilym, backing the finalists in The BBC Young Jazz Musician of the Year. What was that like?
“That was amazing. That was really astonishing. I was absolutely blown by the level of those guys. I had one thought, a continuous thought in my mind: I was 41 and I’ve played loads of concerts at the top venues like Carnegie Hall or wherever and supposedly I should play much better than them simply because I have more experience and I actually don’t play better. That was really scary to see these young guys, and it’s brilliant. It’s great but I was thinking ‘fucking hell, I actually have to be up to this mark. It’s really hard’. And with some of them you could go on tour immediately or go and record an album. It’s really astonishing but I just hope that they would be able to get somewhere. Because in the realities of today with this music it’s getting more and more difficult. Maybe my generation is the last one that still has some work and then it’s just really scary what we see with conditions and money. I’m not sure about the UK because in the UK there are still lots of gigs but they pay very little. For example, where I live the quantity of work is…There was this book called Jazz In Italy in 2004. It was a really big book with all the festivals and promoters. And then they published a similar one in 2012 (maybe) and it was about 1/4 the size. That’s how it’s decreasing.”
“So I really wish for those guys to be able to realise their wonderful talents. But then, it’s down so maybe it will go up again. Always it goes up and down.”
So, do you do quite a lot of teaching?
“Oh, very little. I used to teach for a couple of years at a pop and rock school in Milan called Centro Professione Musica, I was doing the jazz course plus the generic theory of music. Then I was teaching for a year at Trento Conservatory in Italy (I had one student there and then he graduated) and finally I just have some private students every now and then. But it’s a tricky area because I’ll think that they have to be aware of what they are going to face, business-wise. Many people are just romantically studying, hoping for… I don’t know what. I’m not a negative person but we have to be realistic. We have some amazing musicians.”
“There was this guy who came to me all the way from Rome, even though I live north of Milan. He had played bass for four years at the time. He came to my place. I was prepared to have to deal with some basics. Usually I see some messiness in the left hand or whatever but what I saw was an accomplished bass player. It was jaw-dropping. He was the best student I’d ever had. Bloody hell. I couldn’t believe it. This guy who had played bass for just four years and was absolutely unbelievable. Unbelievable talent. Then one day he called me up (quite recently) and he told me that he gave up and that he was preparing for an audition to a classical orchestra because he needs money. After playing for just four years, imagine if he played bass for eight years he would just kill almost everyone. But he’s giving up.”
“But I really hope that these times will change. And of course I’m saying this just because I’m based in Italy and I can witness a situation there. I have not lived in the UK where there is a lot of things going on. I’ve played in a lot of countries but you just play and go home. Jazz is such a narrow field.”
Are you interested in other styles of music outside of jazz?
“Occasionally, now I listen to classical music, but not so much. I would turn this question in a slightly different direction. Now it is very hard to give a definition of what jazz is, stylistically because if we go back to the Sixties it was much more clear, in my opinion. Now, if yesterday you were at this gig, a lot of non-jazz type. Non-jazz language has been used. This recording with Gwilym, for example, we do some things on the border with classical music. We actually did one classical tune and I just did a short solo and he did an intro. There are so many realms now and jazz is so huge so you can listen to many different types of music and you would still class it as ‘jazz’. It’s so hard to say. I don’t listen to rock or pop or metal. But out of that, anything. Lots of colleagues or students very often will give me CDs to listen to. Sometimes it can be very good stuff.”
Do you think you’re influenced by the American tradition, the European tradition or a bit of both?
“Hard to say. When I was growing up I grew up listening to…not everything…but I started with more early jazz (such as Louis Armstrong or some of the big bands) and then as I grew up I was gradually progressing to Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Chick Corea and so forth. At the same time I’d always had an interest in contemporary classical music that I had been composing at the time. So I wouldn’t know what has influenced me. There’s this question that I always hear which is ‘who is your favourite bass player?’ and I always say ‘nobody’. There are always these people who have perceived something, some influence. And living in Russia, European jazz wasn’t known there at all. American jazz was very well known. Then as you grow up, you open up to various musicians and styles. Maybe something that had been influencing me ten years ago won’t be influencing me now. Two completely different things.”
“I remember in 2001 I released an album called Toremar Island and it has two sides. Some of it has some influences of contemporary classical music but others it’s just swing, really bebop language. It’s funny because now I wouldn’t write this kind of music, I wouldn’t play it. I guess we change.”
“CD-wise I’ve been often trying to show my side as a composer rather than as a bass player. So finally I came up with this album called Titanic For A Bike, which is where I thought I would act more as a bass player. Almost all of the tunes are mine still, they may be a bit more simple. That’s what I thought at the time but then I was listening to it recently, just by chance, and I thought ‘actually that’s not as simple as I’d hoped it would be’, from a compositional point of view.”
“I’m plotting another record but I’ve not decided with who or when. I have a set of tunes that I want to be united by an album, to feature them on one album. It will probably be with a trio, but when I write I always think of the soprano saxophone. But then there’s also the business aspect. It’s very hard with a quartet but with easier with a trio. With a quartet you need two cars and there are extra expenses. With a quartet or quintet we have to do only high profile events that pay enough. It’s impossible to put on a project larger than a trio, on the road, to do a series of club dates, in my opinion. Its possible but then we’re only going to get something very little.”
Is there anything else that you’d like to say?
“I don’t want to sound pessimistic because it’s not about that but in everything we have to be really aware of what we are doing and what is happening. There’s a very important aspect in my opinion when I teach there’s often a good moment to communicate this: We have to develop an objective perception. So we think ‘I played shit’ or ‘I played great’ but neither are good. You have to objectively remember and realise what went wrong, how it went wrong, when and where it happened. I’ve been thinking about this for many, many years. When I go to the studio to record an album, this happens as a sideman, especially, quite often, like maybe once a month or something like this, in various bands. I’ll play a take and I really don’t have a need to listen to it at home because I perfectly know what happened. And it is very, very rare, it has happened a few times, but rarely, at home I will choose a different take than I thought would be the take in the studio. So, I don’t want to make an example of myself but what I want to communicate is that we all have to try to develop this sort of objective vision, to be immediately realistic about what’s actually going on. That would greatly help personal growth and development. I think it’s a very, very, very crucial factor.”
Yuri Goloubev appears with Gwilym Simcock on Wednesday 9th July, 2014 at St. George’s Church in Kemp Town, Brighton.
Tickets available from www.brightonticketshop.com
For more on Yuri visit:
Duo Art: Reverie at Schloss Elmau is available on the ACT label.
(Photo of Yuri Goloubev courtesy of David Forman)