The language of jazz has no boundaries, if you ask the nineteen students who entered the first international Jazz Improvisation Competition held jointly between Sonoma State and Belgorod (Russia) State University.
Earlier this year, jazz students from each school submitted YouTube files of their improvised solos to a panel of six judges, three from each school. The winners were announced during SSU’s spring jazz concert, where they performed their winning solos live, via Skype, in Weill Hall.
The contest began when Boris Mochalin, a Belgorod music professor, invited three Sonoma State professors – Doug Leibinger, head of jazz studies, John Stanley, music education adjunct, and Brian S. Wilson, department chair – to participate in an educational exchange. They spent ten days in fall 2012 working with students at Belgorod’s performing arts high school, at its music and dance conservatory, and with musicians from the municipal “Filarmoniya” philharmonic society.
"Wow, they're technically great musicians,” Leibinger said. “They played very difficult solo transcriptions note for note with great feeling and sound, but were very hesitant to let go of the written music.” Because purchasing music online is expensive in Russia, there is a dearth of published jazz charts. In fact, the conservatory jazz band learns its repertoire from painstaking, handwritten transcriptions of recordings.
SSU/Belgorod International Jazz Improvisation Competition
And the winners are:
American First Prize — Matt Camgros, drums
American Runners-up — Josh Greenberg, guitar and Ricky Lomeli, drums
Russian First Prize — Andrey Zhuyukov, guitar
Russian Runners-up — Vitaly Nekrasov, guitar and Vlada Seredina, saxophone
Leibinger donated a stack of his own music to the group and charged them with a new task: Learn to improvise. “Don't get me wrong,” he said. “I met and performed with some very accomplished improvisors there, but the younger students (and some older) needed a big push to get over the cliff. Once they did, some great things happened!"
The exchange culminated in two enthusiastically received performances: a jazz big band concert led by Leibinger on which he also soloed on trombone, and the Filarmoniya wind orchestra conducted by its music director, Yuri Merkulov, sharing the podium with Stanley and Wilson, who conducted several of his own compositions.
The visit also generated a memorandum of cooperation between the two universities to establish and assist each other in creative events and educational exchange.
The competition will take place again next spring. "We're talking about adding some other American and Russian schools to the contest, and possibly doing our judging live via Skype,” said Leibinger. “The more interaction that we can bring between the countries, the better."