Moscow on the Trinity
Gregory Slavins is alert and attentive, even intense, behind the piano at Sambuca restaurant in Deep Ellum, but he's not constricted by his creativity like some virtuosos. Around him, the pre-Christmas swirl of drinks and dinner turn, especially warm in the holiday glow; most people listen to conversation--or blather--not the expository tears and oddly challenging blocks of chords that the pianist essays in the course of unreeling standards like Herbie Mann's "Funky Samba" or even Slavins' own compositions.
"It really doesn't bother me," he says of the din and inattention. "At least not yet." His voice still bears the accents of his Russian home, where he was classically trained from the age of six. "I'm used to it; I played restaurants and cafes in Moscow, with trios and quartets. I played all kinds of music," he explains, "but I couldn't play jazz full time there."
In 1990 he left Moscow and made his way to Dallas. He has long since grown impatient with the usual first-order questions about his journey. "We're talking about music, not Russia," he exclaims anxiously. "When I first came here, there were millions of the usual questions--'How is Russia?'" he relays with a slight snort at the unanswerable vastness of such a question.
"Here I can play jazz all the time," he says, "but I like all different kinds of music: Iranian, Azerbaijan, Armenian, Jewish. I play Arabian music with [noted local percussionist] Jamal Mohamed." He looks at you; his brown beard is thick to the point of being wooly--that and his round glasses give him a scholarly, almost Hasidic air. Several months ago he released his debut, Inspiration, which came about out of a musical collaboration with local jazz stalwart James Gilyard, whom Slavins met at some now-forgotten jam session. "I liked his playing," the pianist recalls, "and when I met him, he was a very nice person, a very intelligent musician who got a good sound and had very good timing." Gilyard produced and played bass on the effervescently intelligent Inspiration and also gigs with Slavins in area clubs like Sambuca.
Live, Slavins plays a classically informed jazz hybrid, dropping in hints of stride piano, ragtime, and familiar tunes in order to get the crowd's often-fickle attention. "You can do that when you're playing [for people]," he allows, mimicking some old vaudeville piano pounder. "That dadadadad-dadad. You wouldn't want to hear it on record, but it's a matter of technique. You must know what has gone before--Art Tatum, James P. Johnson, Oscar Peterson. You don't have to play like them, but--like in classical, where you have to know waltzes and Chopin--you have to know about people like Art Tatum."
Inspiration mirrors Slavins' affection for standards, and covers three: Sonny Rollins' "Airegin," "Groovy Samba," and the tried-and-true "Green Dolphin Street." "I did it," Slavins says, "but I changed a little bit of the harmony, because I didn't want to play it the way millions of people already had." The disc also contains four of Slavins' original compositions and two of Gilyard's.
"You have to know about all music," he says before retaking the stage at Sambuca. "A lot of music was written by Bach."
Gregory Slavins plays Sambuca in Deep Ellum on Wednesday, January 28.
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