Minimalist: an Espresso with Yakiv Tsvietinskyi

January 27, 2020

Jazz in Ukraine

Yakiv Tsvietinskyi is one of the most brilliant Ukrainian trumpet players and we had an opportunity to interview him.

 Why did you choose to study jazz? Was it easy in your country? What path did you follow?
I don’t think I had a choice. Even though my entire childhood was in the village of Illarionove in Ukraine and was far from any live music, I was fortunate enough to grow up in a family of music lovers and my father is a huge fan of jazz and Brazilian music. One of the earliest memories I can recall is that I had a cassette with recordings from the radio “Promin” broadcast. It was probably the only radio station that played jazz music in Ukraine in the ’90s. One side of the cassette was James Brown and the other was Friday Night in San Francisco, a live album by Al Di Meola, John McLaughlin and Paco de Lucía. I started playing piano at the age of 6, but later I fell in love with the trumpet. I remember how I was just hypnotized by the look of the instrument on the Miles Davis’ Doo-Bop cover. I know that’s a silly motivation to play the trumpet but it definitely worked. Anyway, thanks to my parents, I was pretty sure that jazz was my thing. I never had doubts or questions about what sort of music I was going to play when grow up.
In music college, it was tricky to learn how to play standards and improvise with no jazz teachers but I did receive good classical training. I had no idea how to start playing jazz and it took a while to figure out the basics of harmony and improvisation. Formal education provided me the knowledge about the music I didn’t plan to play but it did help me with composing later. My trumpet teacher, who was actually an amazing trombone player, always supported me in my jazz enthusiasm and provided me with the professional qualities that helped me on my way. All the other skills I got from records, books, and other musicians.
In general, I experienced some resistance from the academic surroundings in Ukraine. Many of the professors were really skeptical about jazz; there was a lot of post-Soviet stereotypes and prejudice involved. I wouldn’t care about those if it wasn’t a global issue for musical education institutions in Ukraine. That’s one of the reasons I’m really passionate about teaching now. I remember some negative comments about my participation in my first jazz ensembles, that I “betrayed the classical music” and that I will “unlearn how to play the trumpet”. But it was definitely not as bad as it used to be for Soviet jazz lovers. Some of my older friends who lived during those times had problems with the KGB because of their interest in American music. Now it’s a totally different situation though and I believe that we’re finally getting rid of all that narrow-minded perception of music and art in general.

Anyway, after many years of self-education, I received a Fulbright grant and studied in the US for two years. I was mentored by the great Scott Cowan, Andrew Rathbun, and Keith Hall. I got an opportunity to get lessons from Jason Moran, Kenny Werner, Ralph Peterson, and many other great musicians. I finally now consider myself a well-educated Ukrainian jazz musician.
How do you write music? And arrangements?
Usually, it is a complicated and time-consuming process. But, on a rare occasions, it’s not. First, I try to come with a concept or a sort of energy and the mood. Basically, I try to come up with the meaning of the music and its place in the world. Also, before writing, I think about musicians who will perform it. All the parts are usually suited to specific people, with their strengths and weaknesses, their tastes and personalities in mind.
After these tasks are done and I have some sort of vision in mind, I start to research music with similar concepts. The latest project I did was music for Double Quartet, basically a jazz quartet with a string quartet. For the first couple of months the only thing I did was analyze scores, read books on instrumentation, and watched YouTube lectures on string writing. In addition to this I would listen all day long to Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky, Lyatoshinsky, Bartok, Hindemith, Schoenberg, Shostakovich and almost every jazz album with strings that I could find. Usually by this point it is pretty clear how and what to write.
Then I sit at the piano, start playing and singing the melodies. I try to avoid writing chord markings so I’m not limited by standard chord structures. I think of sounds, rather than functions. The main priority for me is the motion within the voicings, the melodies within the texture. Because of this, the piano part is usually the densest one but, fortunately, I know how to keep it playable. I test it myself and I don’t write things I can’t perform on a keyboard with my own fingers.
In terms of arrangements, I do pretty much the same thing as my own writings. First I define the motives that make the composition itself. Then everything is the same – idea, research, playing, then writing.
Which musicians inspired you the most?
I have a long list of musicians I look up to. But in terms of my playing, I can tell that Kenny Wheeler, Tomasz Stanko, and Ambrose Akinmusire made a significant impact on me. I love the freedom they have within the sound, flexibility and openness of their lines. Also, they are much more than just performers. Their music is extremely individualistic, unique and brave.
Also, I draw inspiration from the originators of styles, genres and cultures: Louis, Charlie, Dizzy, Miles, Tom Jobim, Ornette, and Krzystof Komeda. It is something that we all should learn – how to create something that doesn’t exist yet, how to use our past to create our future.
I would say that I get inspired by any player and composer who makes music with passion and higher ideas in mind. Many Ukrainian musicians inspire me: Yuriy Seredin, Dennis Adu, Dima Bondarev and many more. These are the people that make art in difficult circumstances but never complain about it. It’s something that I should learn too.
How do you choose the musicians to play with?
I love musicians with great ideas rather than just good players. It’s always easier to collaborate with passionate and open-minded, creative people. Usually, I play my music with musicians I know well and resonate with personality-wise. We have things to talk about beyond music and then this conversation continues on stage.
Fortunately, I have many people I want to perform and record with from all around the world but the music I’d write would be different for each of them.
How would you define the jazz scene in your city/country?
The Dnipro jazz scene is small but very friendly and supportive. There are around 2-3 established jazz ensembles and probably 2-3 very promising student bands and the community is growing fast. We don’t have any places with background jazz gigs but we have two jam spots and a place to perform original music and jazz concerts regularly. Almost all of the musicians here are related to the Dnipro academy of music: faculty, accompanists, students, and alumni.
In terms of the national scene, the majority of Ukrainian jazz musicians are oriented to mainstream jazz and bebop in particular. There are many great jazz cats in Kyiv, the capital, but in other places, the community is not very developed yet. Despite this, I think in 2019 there were more jazz releases in Ukraine than any year before.
Unfortunately, very few local musicians think about our place in the international jazz community, and what we can offer. Ukrainian jazz is not known in the world yet, but, in my opinion, if we start thinking about our authenticity a little more, the possibilities are endless. I know it’s a complicated and non-linear process but I hope we are on the right track.
Which are your next projects?
It’s almost a year after the release of Minimalist, and now I’m preparing to record and release my Double Quartet project. I learned a lot last year; it was the densest artistic period I ever had. And with all the knowledge I got about strings, academic music writing, and compositional techniques I preparing myself for a chamber orchestra. But before that, I’m thinking about writing music for a trio with piano and drums and make it even quieter than the Minimalist. The concept is not settled yet since I still have plenty of things to take care of with Double Quartet, but I hope this time it will take less than a year to release a new record.

Minimalist: an Espresso with Yakiv Tsvietinskyi copyright Jazzespresso 2020.


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