Diplomatic Don: Kurt Elling Crosses Borders In St. Petersburg

Being an American jazz singer in St. Petersburg is a full-time job, with diplomatic requirements. Kurt Elling has barely touched down before President Putin asks to meet. A four-hour wait later, Chicago hip royalty is introduced to Russia's pseudo-democratic Tsar for three minutes. Ambassador Satch was the name of a Louis Armstrong European live album, back when this was the Soviet Union and jazz was banned, and Elling knows some things have to be done.
St. Petersburg was announced as UNESCO's prestigious International Jazz Day location in 2018, just before delegates arrive for the nation's first jazz conference, Jazz Across Borders. Elling headlines the latter's gala concert with Igor Butman's Moscow Jazz Orchestra, in the State Academic Chapel's gilt-edged Great Hall. Once a more radical saxophonist, Butman is now a music business lynchpin and beloved entertainer, not least as the showman leader of his Orchestra's slick swing machine. He's joined by lauded American pianist/arranger John Beasley and Canadian saxophonist Kent Sangster, before Elling arrives in wide-lapelled, gangster pinstripe. Though his voice at first sounds stretched fronting the big band roar, he luxuriates in Billie Holiday's 'More Than You Know', toying with it like a verbally voracious connoisseur, and relishes punching its booming climax home. Earlier, Butman's young, blind pianist-singer protégé Oleg Akkuratov masters the elaborate, breakneck bop machinery of 'Memories of Charlie Parker', and Alina Rostotskaya sings Russian and Sephardic folk, veering between near-Arabic and operatic styles.

Days are spent in improbably stifling rooms elsewhere in the Chapel complex's corridors. The drama of revolutionary Russia's brief embrace of jazz is sighed over on one panel, while Elling workshops good young local singers, hoping for the influence of “different songs that your grandmother sang to you… that should be in the sound of St. Petersburg”. Local accents and jazz's fabled sound of surprise are, though, in short supply during a dozen showcases. Armenia's Van Quartet do provide gently pleading, Near East melancholy. Russian classical tradition then becomes a sort of blues for the LRK Trio, whose orderly, conceptual approach also splices techno shuffles to polka folk. Evgeniy Pobozhiy's Quartet have hurtling fusion dexterity, but it's pianist Julia Perminova who adds their jagged edge.

Faces repeat across gigs, suggesting a limited, Butman-approved mainstream talent pool. Perminova is related to Butman, but long before I know that, her engaged resourcefulness stands out in one of the nightly jams where showcase sterility loosens, and real Russian steam builds. There's a Miles-like mural in the riverside window of the White Night club where she's playing, and Elling is called up for more scat detente. The next night, sitting at the back of the JFC club, I focus on the unseen, softly accepting melancholy of Vladimir Galaktionov's trumpet, from a cramped, downstairs stage where young women swing each other round in Saturday night abandon. That's where barriers are broken, and jazz really spoken. There, and in conversations with two equally thoughtful Russians with opposite views on Putin, and Stalin, and with banned Jehovah's Witnesses who give me directions in the culture-heavy streets near the Hermitage. In St. Petersburg, as elsewhere, international jazz has an expansive embrace.