Music at Marfa’s

Марфин Дом

Running down the center of the city, parallel to the main street, is a historical street for pedestrians called Chumbarovka. It’s lined with beautiful old wooden houses, some of them restored, some not, a giant shopping mall, and statues to the fairy-tale writer Pisakhov.

One of the historical buildings is called Marfin Dom, or Marfa’s House. Last night, Liv, Nils and I went to a jazz festival there with Liv’s fellow Norwegian teacher Irina. Now, when I heard “jazz festival,” my first thought was of a sunny summer lawn with a tent in downtown Pittsburgh, and various jazz artists performing a couple songs and then yielding the stage to the next performer. But, knowing that this was indoors, in winter, and, most importantly, in Russia, I knew I didn’t know what to expect. As usual with Russia, though, I didn’t know just how off I was.

For starters, the musicians were over an hour late, so the music didn’t start until after 10pm. We all came inside, paid for our tickets, and moved slowly into the hall, which was so poorly renovated that you could imagine a pre-revolutionary ball was about to begin at any moment, with ladies in gowns whishing in between the pillars, glittering in the chandelier-light. Instead of rows of seats, there were mismatched tables and chairs scattered around; it seemed like a nice place to have a wedding. The four of us sat in somewhat awkward silence while the Russians happily settled themselves around us with bottles of champagne and cognac, shish-kebab, cakes, pastries, and juice boxes bought from a what looked to me like a church bake sale in one of the wings.

One by one, musicians finally ambled up to the front of the room, set up a drum-set, played a few lines on a keyboard, and then at last, a young man with marvelous facial expressions played a whole song on the violin. Then a drummer joined him and the keyboardist. Then a bass. The first man who’d played the piano moved to the second drum set. Another man with a violin showed up, a pleasant, grandfatherly looking man in a comfy green sweatshirt with an embroidered apple on it emblazoned with “NEW YORK.” He was amazing, totally jamming out, making music like nobody’s business. The crowd loved him.

Norwegian grandpa on an electric violin.

It soon became clear they had no plan, and were just making up music as they went along. They naturally moved one another in and out of the spotlight (but only figuratively– there was some very basic lighting aimed at them, but nothing approaching a spotlight), letting each instrument have a solo moment in turn. Several of them sort of shuffled around the stage and backstage areas, hopping from one instrument to another. This man, especially, would sort of appear from the snack table in the middle of a piece and ponder the grand piano for a moment, then put down a finger as if trying it out, play a couple of lines and then wander off again. Then, halfway through the next piece, you’d realize he was at the drums.

People played with their backs to the audience, wandered around the stage, left in the middle of a piece, talked on stage, moved from one drum set to another without stopping… All in all, we counted at least four drummers, three bassists, and four pianists. It was as if Marfa had called them all up individually and said, “Hey, come on over to my place sometime tonight for some drinks. Bring all the musical instruments you own.”

And then the saxophones arrived, and things got angsty. Three different men appeared with saxophones around their necks at some point. They anxiously hoverd on the edges, waiting for the perfect moment to come in, they started out insecure and then gained confidence with beer, they upstaged one another, strutting their egos, stole the spotlight from other musicians, and, at one point, one of them apparently “borrowed” another’s saxophone without asking.

At around midnight, we thought the show was wrapping up, but instead, all the musicians left the stage area and a whole new batch came on. This is where things got really awkward, because where the first group had been just naturally hanging out and playing music, this female duo’s idea of “jazz festival” was similar to my own, and they weren’t expecting a bunch of other people to be wandering around their stage and their songs. It didn’t help that violinist grandpa, the star of the show, left in the middle of their first song, walking between the audience and the musicians, and eliciting a huge and rousing round of applause as he left, totally distracting attention away from the lilting voice of the singer. They kept their cool and kept on playing, but they definitely got the short end of the stick, playing after midnight, when half the audience was headed towards drunk and the other half was sleepy.

It was a little long, and the end was kind of awkward, but I had a great time. The music in the first half was the kind that made me sit up and want to dance along. It was much more relaxing than the concert at the Kirkha last week.