Dmitry Baevsky: Russian Jazzman with Local Ties

Jun 21, 2017

One of the most exciting jazz discoveries I've experienced in recent years involved the Russian-born alto saxophonist Dmitry Baevsky and a restaurant in the tiny (pop. 1600) Massachusetts-Vermont border town of Colrain, Mass. While hosting Jazz à la Mode on a Thursday night in 2008, I got a call from a woman in Greenfield urging me to find coverage for the following night's show so that I could hear Baevsky at the Green Emporium. I knew the restaurant as a country getaway housed in a 19th Century Federal brick mansion that specialized in Prince Edward Isle mussels and superior, thin-crust pizza. I'd never heard a lick of music there, but the caller knew my tastes in jazz and assured me I'd be impressed by Baevsky. 24 hours later, her assurances were confirmed.

As it turned out, I'd heard Dmitry only a few months earlier on guitarist Joe Cohn's album, Restless, but the caller made no reference to the recording and her emphasis was on his Russian roots rather than his name-- not that I would necessarily have recalled it. The following night at Green Emporium, I took note immediately that Dmitry, who was accompanied by local pianist Stephen Page, was filling the room with his sumptuous sound without the benefit of a microphone. Once seated, the lady from Greenfield introduced herself and said she'd played a role in connecting the St. Petersburg native with the local area almost 15 years earlier, and that Dmitry was paying a quick visit and playing this hastily arranged gig. In 1994, a band of musicians with ties to UMass made a tour of Russia. The local contingent included bandleader Jeff Holmes and saxophonist Bruce Krasin, and when they played the White Nights Festival in St. Petersburg, they encountered the 18-year-old alto player. Dmitry had grown up in St. Petersburg, the son of Michael Yasnov, a children's poetry editor and anthologist who's well known in the region. His mother was a translator, and while neither parent was a professional musician, his great-grandfather, Moisei Beregovsky, was a renowned ethnomusicologist who'd specialized in Yiddish folk songs and Eastern European Jewish dance melodies. 

Dmitry's parents were supportive of his early interest in music, which began with guitar, and by 14 he'd begun playing alto saxophone in a local youth big band. When he was relatively new to the instrument, he sustained a broken leg in a soccer match, an injury that proved to be fortuitous. As he said last week over breakfast in Northampton, "Everything in this life happens by chance." He used the month-long layoff from sports to really dig in, and within a few weeks, he says he went from "trying to get a sound to suddenly I could play." By the time he met Holmes and Krasin, he was a local standout who quickly earned an invitation from them to attend Jazz in July in Amherst. Plans were put in place, and the following summer he arrived in Amherst to attend classes led by Holmes, Billy Taylor and Yusef Lateef. With their encouragement, he auditioned for and won a scholarship for the jazz program at the New School in New York. But before he moved on to the city, he spent a semester at Greenfield Community College, where in exchange for leading a jazz ensemble in the school's music department, he immersed himself in ESL courses. That was 22 years ago, and now the 40 year-old has lived more than half his life outside Russia. His main address for the past few years has been Paris, where he lives with his wife Marina Chasse, who manages jazz artists, and their newborn son Joshua. Baevsky returns about once a year to visit family and sit-in around St. Petersburg, but when he plays the White Nights Festival on July 1, it'll be his first high profile appearance in the city of his birth.

Under the aegis of the New School, Dmitry dove headfirst into the New York scene. He took lessons with saxophonists Vincent Herring and Chris Potter, and played formative sessions with guitarist Peter Bernstein and drummer Joe Farnsworth. He credits South Hadley native Farnsworth with hipping him to the importance of knowing song lyrics, a lesson that began with "Embraceable You." Today Dmitry echoes not only Hadley Joe but Lester Young, Ben Webster, and Miles Davis in saying, "Ideally, I'd like to know the lyrics to everything I play." During his early years in the city, he played hundreds of restaurant gigs with Joe Cohn, drummer Phil Stewart, pianist Hod O'Brien and others, and rather than fall into what he viewed as the trap of playing lucrative wedding gigs, he worked a day job for about six years in a New York office where he ran errands and did computer work and bookkeeping.  When I counted off the names of great musicians of yore who supplemented their incomes with general business gigs, he noted that back in the day, players got to play standards on those dates. "Today it's all Brittney Spears, which doesn't transfer well to jazz." 

But there was a real benefit to restaurant work. As he related it to Gilad Edelman, who wrote the liner note essay for his  2010 album Down With It, "I learned to play so quietly, it was incredible. I had to, because I really wanted to play. Some places...you have cats sitting three feet from the bell of your horn. So I think that's how I developed...an ability to play super quiet, and...my love of playing in the lower register, because people wouldn't complain as much." He also told Edelman that his lineage as the son of literary people influenced his approach to improvisation. "I think soloing is analogous to language. If you listen to the greats play, there's some kind of logic to the way they do it. It's like learning English for me. I can speak properly, but it's boring; the idea is to be funny, creative, find different combinations of words that make people think."

In 2003, Dmitry made his recording debut on Lineage Records, a New York label operated by guitarist Ilya Lushtak. "I had only four days notice," he recalled last week. "Cedar Walton and Jimmy Cobb played on the date, but it wasn't enough time to get really nervous." The album,  with John Webber was on bass, includes "Klactoveesedstene" by Charlie Parker and the Dizzy Gillespie classic, "Tin Tin Deo."

The album generated enough buzz for Joe Segal to request Dmitry's presence when he booked Walton ("bring the Russian!") , who'd long been a regular at Segal's Jazz Showcase in Chicago. When Baevsky got the call from Cedar, he thought it was a put-on, possibly by Webber, who's a skillful mimic, but it was Cedar indeed. Working with Walton was a heady experience for the young saxophonist, who says the composer and former Jazz Messenger, "was a gentleman all the way through." Dmitry impressed Segal over the course of the week and left with an assurance that he'd be invited back with his own combo, but when he called the club owner a few weeks later, all he got was a brusque rejection.  Recounting the experience 12 years later, the show biz sting still seemed to smart. 

Baevsky was in Northampton on June 13 for his fourth appearance as guest soloist with the Northampton Jazz Workshop. He'd also played a couple of nights at Smalls Jazz Club during his whirlwind visit to the States. Smalls offers live music every night of the year, and its policy of scheduling a couple of bands per night and hosting an early morning jam session places the West Village nightclub at the epicenter of the New York scene. Dmitry began sitting-in at Smalls 20 years ago, and that's where he was heard by Marc Edelman of Sharp Nine Records. Edelman's a hard bop maven with his ear to the ground for excellence, and he eventually produced two albums on Dmitry, Down With It in 2010, and The Composers in 2012. Since then, he's released a pair of superb sessions on the French label Jazz Family, Over and Out in 2014 and The Day After earlier this year. All four offer a heady mix of originals and two or more by Walton,  Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, and Gigi Gryce. The romantic in Baevsky guided his selection of rarely heard Duke Ellington originals, including "Mount Harissa," "Tonight I Shall Sleep," "The Feeling of Jazz," and "Self-Portrait (of the Bean)." At Northampton, he played Billy Strayhorn's Ellington classic, "The Intimacy of the Blues." Dmitry's deep, resonant tone is a highlight of "Self-Portrait," which Ellington composed for his 1962 album with Coleman Hawkins, aka "The Bean."

Jazz fans often ask if I know the particulars on the economic status of players like Baevsky who show such an obvious commitment to the highest standards of the music, but generally work far from the spotlight of festivals and concert halls. I answer with a shrug of my shoulders and an appeal that for anyone who loves the music and feels heartened that musicians keep emerging who keep it alive on bandstands and MP3's, it's important to keep showing up for their gigs, buying their records, and expressing thanks.