Regina Litvinova (new album with Stephan Urwyler ‘Kinder Schweigen’)

The great American pianist Richie Beirach has said of Moscow-born pianist Regina Litvinova: “She was already a fully developed musician when she first came to me as a student in Leipzig. Now she is my colleague and I learn a lot from her.” Litvinova tells the story of her move from Russia to Germany where she now lives, and also explains the background to Kinder Schweigen (silent children), her new album in duo with the Zurich-born, Bern-based guitarist Stephan Urwyler. Interview by Charlie Rees

Regina Litvinova
Photo credit: Christian Buck

LondonJazz News: How did you meet Stephan Urwyler, and how did your duo with him get started? 

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Regina Litvinova: I met Stephan through (drummer) Christian Scheuber – they had been fellow students at the Swiss Jazz School in Bern. A little later, Stephan invited me to Vals in Switzerland for a duo collaboration – that happened around 2008. We played some concerts in the famous Vals thermal baths, a building designed by star architect Peter Zumthor. He liked our music and would occasionally come round with his wife and listen to us.

That’s how our duo came into being – shaped by the beautiful Vals mountains, the Alpine air and the Vals water and stone… but also by the meeting of two different musical cultures, which is why our first CD is called Valser. In the years since, there have been several concerts and tours abroad. Stephan and I have also worked together in other formations: He was involved in a special project and CD recording with my Extreme Trio (with Christian) in 2008. The CD was called Regina Litvinova Extreme Trio plays the music of Richie Beirach. The great thing is that mutual inspiration is definitely still there, after all this time.

LJN: What made you decide to record your latest CD live? 

RL: It was my idea to produce a kind of anniversary CD and definitely live. Live is the most honest form of recording, and that is something which is aligned with our ideas about music-making. We celebrated 10 years of working together in 2018, and I am very happy about that. We recorded it in Michaela and Walter Hoffmann’s unbelievable “Klavierhaus der Kurpfalz” – they have supported us in a great and loving way. We recorded our concert with an audience between the Steinways from their collection.

LJN: You have called the album “Kinder Schweigen” (silent children)…. please explain to our readers what the meaning is behind that title…

RL: Yes, it does need explaining… It is about a dark chapter in Swiss social history, the “Verdingkinder” (contract children) who from the early nineteenth century were taken from their parents, often auctioned and then exploited by farmers for cheap labour. In many cases, they suffered difficult and tragic fates. The practice was only outlawed in about 1960. 

When we composed and put together the pieces for this CD at the very beginning, it was not yet clear what character the CD would have. It was a friend of mine, Birgit Ellmerer, who happened to draw my attention to this subject. Then I read a book in which Verdingkinder tell their stories, Versorgt und Vergessen (provided for and forgotten) by M. Leuenberger / L. Seglias. For me, it was a shocking and profound emotional experience which was later reflected in my music – more precisely in the piece Kinder Schweigen. I dedicate this piece to all those children. The Verdingkinder kept quiet about the things that had happened to them, what they had had to endure…

Stephan found the image we used for the album cover on the internet, and we found out that this picture is about two Verdingkinder, both boys, at work. The photo is by the photographer Paul Senn, taken around 1940. Through this and many other photos, he had tried to draw wider attention to this topic which had moved him very much. 

With the kind permission of the Kunstmuseum Bern and especially of Mr. Markus Schürpf and Mrs. Patrizia Grab, we were able to use this very touching picture as the cover of our CD. 

LJN: How did that piece, Kinder Schweigen, end up becoming the title of the project itself?

RL: Somehow it just had to be… Although this CD is very multi-faceted, it also sounds *hopeful*: we have one piece of 3-tone improvisation; a beautiful, almost a rock ballad by Stephan “DeHai” (Urwyler’s alias) entitled “At home”; but also a couple of hymns and a piece composed by me with the improvisation elements of ‘new music’. As it developed, the piece “Kinder Schweigen” became the main focal point of the album – and also its title.

LJN: You studied, played and recorded with pianist Richie Beirach and the late drummer Christian Scheuber for many years. What are some of the lessons you learned from those experiences?

RL: There were very many formative and enriching lessons that I took away with great gratitude for life: What jazz is. What the jazz tradition is. What is swing? What is improvisation? What makes a good or great jazz piece or jazz standard? What is strong bandleading? What is right for the role of director of a festival? How do I pass on information? And very importantly, how to play jazz, how to find your own voice in this complex type of music and develop it and find a vision – this is certainly not an easy task… Finally, when and how do I cross stylistic boundaries…?

Jazz pianist & composer Richie Beriach is, among other things, a fantastic crossover specialist. In his very fine way, he combines jazz with classical music. That is art at the highest level! I always like to tell the audience that Richie’s pieces are the new standards of the 20th and 21st centuries… And that is exactly what they are! 

Christian Scheuber learned jazz drums and swing and the whole spirit of jazz from a great cat, American drummer Billy Brooks in Bern – this was jazz direct from the source. Chris really was one of the best jazz drummers in Germany. All that he had learned and become – including the spirit – he transmitted to us!

LJN: Your duo with Stephan Urwyler has its very own sound. Was there a particular album or ensemble that inspired that sound, or is it something that has grown through years of playing together? 

RL: It is something that has grown over the years of making music together, as well as interpersonal interaction, friendship and unforgettable shared experiences.

Regina Litvinova with Stephan Urwyler
Photo credit: Rolf Häsler

LJN: You grew up in Moscow… what was it like to be a young jazz musician there?

RL: My musical upbringing essentially took place inside the Moscow Conservatory. Thanks to my mother, who placed a lot of value on my encounters with music and art in general, I heard and experienced a colossal amount of classical music of the highest quality there. 

I only discovered jazz when I was 15. It wasn’t easy to be a jazz musician at the time. It was the transitional period after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Jazz was not that accessible, and certainly not popular. There was still a lot of prejudice – it was underground music. For example, our neighbours once set fire to our front door because, in their view, I was practising music “too late” (actually what was irritating them was that I was practising a jazz tune). We called the police, and my mother and the neighbours went to the police station… We were right, it was definitely not “too late”. But I still had to listen to a policeman making derogatory comments about jazz music.

There were very few practice rooms available to me. No computers, no internet. So I was brought to the College of Music, which was outside Moscow, by my jazz piano teacher at the time, the wonderful pianist and composer Gennadi Strelnik. That was such a stroke of good luck! When I studied there, I had to travel to lessons, band rehearsals, etc. all over the city by metro and bus – there and back. Almost 4 hours a day on the road, several times a week. In the concert hall of the college, the third leg of the grand piano was missing! But the atmosphere was so beautifully creative, chaotic and free – sometimes such a thing is the best prerequisite for artistic development. In the exams, I occasionally played my own compositions. Some of the best teachers and jazz musicians taught there. We didn’t have proper realbooks yet – to be precise, the first Russian editions with the standards were slowly coming onto the market. It was not possible (as it is today) to buy transcribed solos, so we transcribed many things ourselves. It was also difficult to acquire the sheet music for contemporary music. It was a similar situation with the CDs: A long search for the important records; buying cassettes…. 

The generations before had it much, much harder! They sometimes had to pay with their lives or a blatant change of profession for playing jazz, so that one day we would be allowed to play concerts and jam sessions in the Moscow jazz clubs; so that one day we would have and be able to use realbooks and CDs; that there would be departments at the universities, slowly opening, bit by bit; so that US and European jazz musicians would also come to us; so that jazz would have a better future! And it certainly has that now. I am deeply grateful to all these people. I have unforgettable positive memories of Alik Edelman and his Jazz Art Club “na Begovoi”: He gave a lot of great support to me and other young jazz musicians and their jazz projects, and he also organised sessions with great audiences.

At the College, I met an important jazz composer Yuri Chugunov and a fantastic classical pianist Eduard Syomin. Syomin´s artistic career was greatly affected by the cultural directives of the Soviet period. Both became really important teachers to me. I then came to Germany to study jazz piano at the Musikhochschule Mannheim with Professor Jörg Reiter.

LJN: What was it like at first for you to live and work in Germany?

RL: It was a very big challenge for a long time! I am infinitely grateful to my mother Nataliya for giving me so many values on the path of life and for giving me the freedom to do what I strive for. She is a great person and a truly loving, supportive mother!! For a long time, I didn’t have my own instrument to practice with. She gave me a Yamaha grand piano for my 30th birthday… And also to my stepfather Heribert Kohl – really my second father – for his endless, great and constant support. It was his vision for me to come to Germany and study jazz – after all the failures and difficulties in Russia – and he achieved this through tremendous and tireless work. He is a wise person with a very big heart. I owe him everything!!! Richie Beirach and American composer Sidney Corbett are two of my most important mentors and people who still inspire me endlessly, and Christian was an important mentor too.

LJN: What other projects are you currently working on?

RL: It took four years for Kinder Schweigen to come out… I have a project backlog at the moment. I am also working on releasing Richie’s double album Live at Jazz am Rhein 2017 & 2019 (*). It was Christian’s last recording and is enormously important for us. Both CDs are fantastic collaborations of Richie and Chris with two lineups: the first featuring Alex Sipiagin, Veit Hübner, Reiner Witzel and myself; the second featuring Dave Liebman, Markus Schieferdecker and myself. I have a strong feeling that it is my musical duty to put these CDs out!

In 2024, Richie and I are planning to release our new duo CD (*). We are really excited because really everything we have recorded is improvisation. We made a conscious decision to go into the studio with an “empty head”. No sketches, no directions, no nothing. The music sounds 4-handed on a grand piano, but then Richie plays grand piano alone and I play either on the grand piano or on my synths. We recorded it at our favourite sound engineer Jürgen Losigkeit’s wonderful studio. Then I’m still working on two of my own pieces for a new classical music line-up.

Drummer Tobias Frohnhöfer and I run Jazz am Rhein, an international festival founded by Christian, which will be held in Ludwigshafen for the 16th time this year. I also run a jazz series at the Café Dome in Ludwigshafen am Rhein: The Christian Scheuber Legacy Jazz Jam Sessions, where there is always a special guest playing and then a jam session. It makes me very happy that you will be our next guest in September, Charlie!!!

LJN: Thanks Regina! Looking forward to it.

Charlie Rees is a London-based saxophonist, composer/arranger and is the Assistant Editor of LJN

LINKS: Buy Regina Litvinova and Stephan Urwyler’s Kinder Schweigen
Regina Litvinova’s website
Stephan Urwyler’s website

(*) Kinder Schweigen (in addition to both mentioned upcoming releases with Richie Beirach) is produced by Philipp van Endert for JazzSick Records. Cover photo by Paul Senn: Heimknaben bei der Arbeit auf dem Feld, Oberbipp, um 1940. FFV, Kunstmuseum Bern, Dep. GKS Copyrights GKS.

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