Russian saxophonist lends talents to U jazz group

Amy Olson

When jazz musician Sasha Boychouk was touring Canada nine years ago with a quintet from the Soviet Union, he made a momentous decision on the spur of the moment.
“It clicked one day,” said the 37-year-old Ukrainian saxophone player. “I thought, ‘This is it. I’m not going back.'”
On Monday, Boychouk left his current home in Winnipeg, Canada, to play saxophone with 17 University students at tonight’s annual Home Cookin’ jazz concert.
Since arriving in Canada nearly a decade ago, Boychouk began freelancing, teaching lessons at the University of Manitoba and formed Saxology Canada, an ensemble of young Canadian musicians.
But when Boychouk fled the U.S.S.R., he spoke only Russian.
“When I met him in 1991, Sasha spoke very little English,” said Ron McCurdy, a University music professor and chairman of the African and Afro-American studies department.
McCurdy said the first two English words Boychouk learned were “salt peanuts,” a phrase from a jazz song by the same name.
McCurdy said he was immediately impressed by Boychouk’s ability to play jazz music, which McCurdy said was distinctly American, without knowing the language.
The classically trained Boychouk began his music career after spending two years in the Soviet army. He attended the Leningrad Conservatory and later played clarinet with the Leningrad Symphony and Moscow Symphony before he discovered jazz music.
While testing out a new record player, Boychouk said he grabbed an old album. When he set the needle down, he was first amazed by the quality of the vinyl record. Later he began to appreciate the unique sound of the music itself.
“It was like the world turned around,” Boychouk said.
He began listening to the Voice of America’s jazz program, broadcast across the borders from Western Europe. After awhile, Boychouk began playing by ear, learning improvisation and other musical techniques embraced by jazz but not by other forms of music.
But Boychouk had been trained on clarinet, a skill he said did not lend itself to learning how to play saxophone well.
During a rehearsal with four members of the University jazz band, Boychouk said the techniques used to play flute or oboe are more easily transferred to playing saxophone than the skills used to play clarinet. University freshman Aaron Adkins, sophomore John Choi and high school sophomore Nick Videen were eager to rehearse with Boychouk again before tonight’s performance.
“Those students are the A-team,” McCurdy said, pointing out Videen’s ability to beat out other musicians despite his young age. Videen is a sophomore at Cambridge High School in Cambridge, Minn.
Unlike other instruments, Boychouk said each individual playing the saxophone sounds different. Boychouk said he recognizes most of the major jazz saxophone players’ music on the first note.
While he said he enjoys playing alone, Boychouk said playing saxophone is more fun with an ensemble.
“It’s like a conversation,” Boychouk said. “You could talk to yourself, but it’s not much fun.”
Boychouk and the University jazz band and jazz choir will perform tonight at 7:30 p.m. at Ted Mann Concert Hall.