Campus minister jazzes up Russia

March 30, 2015

Before a recent week-long festival gig north of Moscow with his Vermont-based smooth-jazz quartet Eight02, the last time Saint Michael’s College campus music minister and guitarist Jerome Monachino ’91 was anywhere near Russia was as a St. Mike’s science undergraduate  doing salmon research in Alaska during an off-campus semester.

The vast figurative and literal territory between those places and moments drives home to Monachino a quality he appreciates in jazz and his liberal arts education:  Both cultivate and allow rich expression in fluid professional, artistic or just plain human landscapes.

His long enthusiasm for all those worlds – jazz, liberal arts and humanity– helped Monachino, director of the College’s Liturgical Choir and Ensemble, make the most of his jazz ensemble’s  headlining role at the Jazz on the Volga Festival March 9-16 in Yaroslavl, Russia — a city which since the 1980s has been paired through a “sister city” program with Burlington, Vermont.

Larry Stevens, director of that sister-city program, “saw us (Eight02) gigging around town and heard about us charting with our smooth jazz recordings after going to Los Angeles to record last year, so he got the ball rolling for us to attend the festival,” Monachino said.

Saint Michael’s alumni who used to sing with his choir helped the band with driving and pre-journey accommodations outside New York before their long Aeroflot flight over to Russia. He says the quartet – which besides Monachino features keyboardist Peter Engisch, drummer Lucas Adler and saxophonist Christopher Peterma — were able to raise the $9,000 trip cost through gigs, fund-raisers and fan contributions, while the sister-city program took care of accommodations and meals in Russia.

They played a show every night from Tuesday through Sunday in halls seating from 800 to 1,200 people, some fuller than others, and discovered that in Russia, jazz musicians are something akin to rock-stars.

“People were coming up to us on the street to sign autographs on CD’s,” says Monachino, who loved the warm personal reception from friendly, interesting and spiritual people. “They love Americans and if you’re an American jazz musician, you’re like a rock star,” he says. “A kid named Alex came right up to me and started talking, and I ended up giving him a guitar lesson- — he’d heard my playing on Amazon.”

The band had two interpreter/driver/guides, entertainingly named Gleb and Gleb, who drove them the five hours from Moscow airport to Yaroslavl, a city that has a population bigger than Vermont in its greater metro area, Monachino says. The Glebs saw to it that they sampled traditional Russian food and vodka and had the technical support they needed.

Besides the friendliness of the people, another strong impression for Monachino, given his ministry background, was what he calls “The Christocentric nature” of daily lives that he observed – somewhat to his surprise given Russia’s Soviet history. He saw numerous beautiful churches (mostly Orthodox), and powerful popular devotions such as shrines and icons. “The sacredness of it all surprised me,” he said of the prevailing vibe wherever he went. He also was struck by the number of memorials to World War II, which he says is easily understood given the price Russia paid in lives in that war. He also had a discussion with a Russian veteran of their Afghan war that gave him another perspective on challenges America faces there today.

Eight02 was a headliner of the whole event. “We have about 25 or 40 original compositions that we played in our shows,” he says, adding that during a few jam sessions they played American Songbook standards that proved familiar cross-cultural crowd-pleasers: Moonlight in Vermont, All the Things You Are, Out of Nowhere, Lullaby of Birdland and others. Monachino recalled with amusement that only once did he get heckled, by an older woman who insisted that she wanted to hear Benny Goodman tunes. Another headliner group at the festival from New York City had “one of the best drummers I’ve ever seen and an amazing trumpeter who also was a first-class New York City level musician,” Monachino said. “Others were more our caliber — B- or C-rate by comparison, all Russians, and they were good too.”

“To some people, this style of (smooth) jazz was a new variety and flavor and we weren’t sure how they’d respond, but we got a standing ovation and encore at the end of our first main performance,” he says – even though the band personally felt they could have done much better that night.

“The number one place for us musically was Rostov-Valiky a town outside the sister city, for our last gig,” he says. The architecture was old and impressive with classic Russian flourishes that made Monachino feel he was in a kind of Slavic Disneyland. And the people seemed to connect on a higher level. “You could tell they were with us emotionally,” he says.

“The real thing was making connections with the people there and achieving a certain level of intimacy that goes beyond language — and because of music you can get close and realize that we’re not so different at all, we’re all the same,” he says. “That’s redemptive, because I believe each individual has a slice of the divine to show us more of what God is like, so it feels now like I have a lot of fresh insights to bring back to the community here and to communicate, whether in my playing or through personal relationships.”

“It felt so good to play at the chapel again,” he said, “just to be home, and maybe to not be a superstar, but just have a greater sense of belonging because of all the connections. Going away like that for a while makes you appreciate more what you have here when you return, I think.”

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