Russia's experimental music scene is thriving after decades of repression, discovers Peter Culshaw
'For you English, football is more important than life or death," says a young jazz fan in Moscow's Dom club, quoting Bill Shankly's famous comment. "For us Russians, it's music."
The deep seriousness with which Russian classical and jazz musicians often take their art makes a refreshing change from our postmodern culture of relativism – and is one reason for the intensity of their performances.
Pop music is completely beyond the pale, of course. "Pop is just business, about money," declares Lyudmilla Dmitrieva, the organiser of the evening at Dom.
We're in a hard-to-find, enjoyably scruffy jazz joint in the south of Moscow, one of at least a dozen jazz clubs dotted around the city, from the low-key Forte to the swanky Le Club.
On stage at the Dom is Sainko, a singer from the province of Tuva in Siberia, accompanied by laptop samples and some fellow members of the Moscow Composers Orchestra (MCO). She tells me later she is "deconstructing the idea of the exotic Central Asian woman".
In places like Dom, experimental jazz hasn't entirely lost the dangerous, underground aura that it had when it was all but banned by the Communists.
There is considerable rivalry between the clubs – the bohemian patrons at Don regard the sleek Manhattan hipness of Le Club as irredeemably showbiz. "Here, we continue the fight against bad culture," says Alexander Alexandrov, the MCO's bassoonist.
The notion of music as a heroic struggle is not a mere metaphor for the likes of Alexandrov, who recalls the KGB shutting down many of his concerts: "Many times in the 1980s some well-dressed gentlemen might arrive and switch the electricity off."
Alex Kan, a Russian jazz writer, described to me how the history of jazz in Russia has been inextricably entwined with politics, from the early years after the Revolution, when the avant-garde flourished (the era of Malevich and Mayakovsky), jazz was embraced and the likes of Josephine Baker played in Moscow to great acclaim, to the famous '30s debates between Pravda (for jazz) and Izvestia (against) as to whether jazz was merely an expression of "decadent, bourgeois individualism" or should be supported as emblematic of the struggle of black people against imperialism.
Experimental jazz lost the argument, and went underground. Kan says that in the '50s it became common to make samizdat records out of X-ray plates, and to publish samizdat jazz journals.
"Some more conventional, Glenn Miller-type bands would be allowed," he says. "Groups like Oleg Lundstrem's, who were relatively tame." As Alexandrov puts it: "What the authorities really hated was free jazz and improvised music – for the reason we loved it, because it was a powerful symbol of individual freedom."
Kan talks about how, living in St Petersburg in the late '70s, having become disillusioned with rock, he discovered artists like Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra and John Coltrane and how difficult – but how exciting – it was to find the records of Russians influenced by these musicians.
"I remember finding the Ganelin Trio's first release with no cover art, no names of musicians, no instrumentation listed." That particular group decided to go to Vilnius in Lithuania, and it was often easier for jazz musicians to exist on the fringes of the Soviet empire, in places like Vilnius or Baku in Azerbaijan.
Jazz under Communism was split between the "innovators" and the "traditionalists", as Kan puts it. "On the one hand, you had state-sponsored officialdom, on the other hand the non-conformist, alternative, subversive underground."
It's a split that exists to some extent today, except that now there is another enemy in the new materialism. (I went to one trendy nouveau-riche club where I was told that to hire a VIP banquette for the evening cost $10,000 for the night. Vodka was included.) "We are still ideological," says Alexandrov.
The MCO is firmly in the innovators' camp, and consists of 15 composers under the direction of Vladimir Miller, although how it is decided whose usually semi-improvised pieces get performed on any one night is a mysterious process – "It depends on the light in the street," says Alexandrov.
The group make their debut in the UK tonight both under the aegis of the London Jazz Festival and as part of the admirably adventurous ACT Festival, who are bringing a selection of the best of Russian contemporary art to London.
Their most recent album, Kharms-10 Incidents, is based on the poetry of Daniil Kharms, an absurdist writer who died in prison in 1942.
Moscow's jazz scene remains as dynamic and innovative as any other. But there is still nostalgia for the days when they were heroic subversives. "It would be silly to say we miss those years of the Iron Curtain," says Kan.
"But I miss that feeling of an explosion, of a revolution we all felt in the '80s. Within our confines we felt an incredible brotherhood. Money did not exist, did not count and was not a factor."