Jazz has had a long and complicated history in Russia and the Soviet Union. Beloved in the '20s, practically banned in the '40s, it continued to go in and out of official favor until the end of Soviet power. Stalin confiscated saxophones, and Khrushchev famously revealed that "when I hear jazz, it's as if I had gas on the stomach." And yet only a few years later, the first academic department of jazz education was created at the Russian Academy of Music in Moscow. By then, even if somewhat uncomfortably, jazz was flourishing in Soviet Russia, although few in the West were aware of it. When the American trumpet player Don Ellis heard guitarist Nikolai Gromin at a festival in Poland, he thought it was "Shostakovich meeting the blues."
All of this is ancient history for Russian musicians of younger generations, who cannot even imagine official sanction and are freely engaging in the international jazz scene. Among these is the remarkable pianist, electronic musician, and composer Roman Stolyar. He was born in the great Siberian industrial city of Novosibirsk in 1967, and although he travels and performs all over the globe, that remains his home. He enjoyed a thorough classical education, but early on he became involved with improvisation and the investigation of various instruments and musical traditions.
Since graduating from the academy, Stolyar has embarked on a wide-ranging career, mixing teaching, performance, and composition in various idioms. For him, music seems to have no generic boundaries, so he can combine folk idioms with electronic instruments or play free solo piano, an electronic keyboard, or melodica in an avant-rock ensemble with equal authenticity. He composes for the theater and for contemporary dance troupes and collaborates with musicians and institutions all over the world. When asked for his influences he lists many different composers, from Anton Bruckner to Charles Ives to Cecil Taylor.
Stolyar has never left education: he has a regular position as an instructor in the academy
at Novosibirsk and has recently released a book on piano improvisation. But this has not prevented him from traveling all over the world seeking new contexts for performance. His wanderings have brought him to Ann Arbor, where he has been engaging with area musicians on many levels, including some recent performances with members of the U-M music faculty. He plays the piano with a powerful assurance and a well-developed technique that reveals his embrace of the whole keyboard tradition, from the classics to the most recent contemporary written and improvised music. Stolyar is a versatile composer, but his solo piano work is pianistic to the core, and his modernist sensibility overlays a rhapsodic center. He, too, makes you think of Shostakovich meeting the blues. Stolyar plays the Kerrytown Concert House Steinway on February 15.
[Originally published in February, 2012.]