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An Interview with Jazz Trumpeter and Singer Ilya Serov

Updated on June 28, 2018

Ilya Serov is an L.A. based jazz trumpet player and singer. He was born in Russia and studied at the respected St. Petersburg Conservatory before following his passion for jazz to the U.S. I talked to him about his inspirations, his approach to jazz music and his aspirations for the future.

Ilya Serov
Ilya Serov

Karl Magi: How did you first become interested in jazz?

Ilya Serov: My love for and fascination with jazz started when I was young in a milder form. It evolved and progressed as I got older. I started playing classical music when I was seven years old. Nobody in my family was really into jazz or any of those forms, but while I was in the children’s music academy learning classical music, some teachers, some other students or friends happened to acquire a few jazz albums. Some of the music I liked, some of it I didn’t. Some of it I understood and some of it I didn’t. The more straight-ahead jazz like bebop was a little beyond my understanding.

As a trumpet player, Arturo Sandoval was one of my first major inspirations and I was fascinated by his talent and skill. It was in a way, something I could understand, because his trumpet playing was amazing. With that, I started exploring and expanding a little bit more.

When I moved to St. Petersburg to study in the conservatory, I realized that I wanted to explore jazz music a little bit further to be able to play it and understand it. I liked the harmonies and chord progressions that jazz used. I met a couple of musicians who played jazz in some amateur bands in little underground clubs. I started performing and jamming with them. I acquired some more jazz albums from them in different styles. It slowly came to me piece by piece to the point that I started to understand what jazz music was, understand the different sub-genres and differentiate one from the other. I got into each and every one of them.

Eventually I developed specific tastes in music and started leaning towards Chet Baker and some of the music and songs from the ‘40s with people like Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Nat King Cole.

KM: Who are some of the musicians that strongly influenced you?

IS: Later on, Miles Davis was a huge inspiration for me. Miles Davis had a long and amazing career. He went through a lot of different shades and colours of jazz that he experienced, implemented and revolutionized. Some of the albums I got to listen to when I was younger, I didn’t quite understand due to my age. Once I started growing into jazz, I discovered Miles Davis in a completely different way.

I’m inspired by a lot of jazz musicians of Miles Davis’ era. Clark Terry is a huge influence too, I really like Herbie Hancock and all of his music. I started getting into more vocal music once I started listening to Chet Baker and once I started singing myself. Up until I was 26, I never sang in my life. I’d always been an instrumentalist and instrumental music was always interesting enough to me. These days generally vocal music is more popular than instrumental music, but for me it was never a problem. I like the melodies and the harmonies in the music.

Growing up in Russia, I did not speak any English and a lot of my friends didn’t speak any English either, so when we listened to American songs, we didn’t understand what the songs were about anyways. We were listening for the voice, for the melody and for the phrasing.

Louis Armstrong was another inspiration for me. He was actually one of the most popular jazz musicians in Russia since the Soviet era. He was one of the people who represented American music, especially in the area where I grew up. I came from a smaller town, so we didn’t get exposed to much jazz music. Louis Armstrong was maybe the only one who was known.

KM: How do you approach jazz and what do you like to explore within the music?

IS: I feel like I’m still learning and still trying to find my way into it. Through the history of jazz, the genre split into so many different directions, so there were a lot of different styles. There was a lot of Brazilian and Afro-Cuban influence in jazz, a lot of different things and I find all of them fascinating. I still think a lot of jazz music is still evolving and taking on different shapes.

Most of the music that I’m doing on my new album Back in Time is paying tribute to the Great Generation and the legacy of that era. While I’m crafting that and trying to make that style my own, I’m still on the search for something new and different.

Since I started playing jazz and learning jazz when I was a bit older, a lot of jazz styles and genres are still new to me and I’m trying to experience them for myself. I’m going to start working on a couple of new projects after I finish Back in Time. Some of the new stuff is going to be fairly experimental. With my producer and my team, I’m playing with some different rhythms and styles. Like all jazz music, it gives you the freedom to do whatever you want. There are no set rules, borders or barriers.

KM: What are your views on the current state of jazz in America and where its going?

IS: The jazz music scene is obviously very strong because the music originated in the United States. All of the world’s musicians look up to American jazz players because they started it all and discovered some of the new genres. I feel like there’s still a lot of listeners who appreciate jazz and I’m hoping that it will continue to be that way. I’m hoping there’s going to be new generations of young artists and listeners who will be into jazz, in both its traditional forms and through creating something new.

One of the reasons and purposes for Back in Time, besides paying tribute to all of those song writers and artists, is to raise awareness and interest in the younger generations for that music. I feel like I still somewhat represent the younger generation of artists and occasionally I do some performances for kids and teenagers. The radio right now has been eliminating a lot of jazz and experimental music, so I feel like it’s important because I’ve seen that there a lot of kids out there who have interest and appreciation for jazz, but they don’t have a lot of exposure to it.

I want to invite some younger musicians to collaborate with me. I want to bring in some established artists and create a bridge between generations, different eras and different cultures within jazz.

KM: What are the challenges you face as a musician?

IS: I feel that in whatever you do, you have to dedicate yourself completely to it and have trust in what you do. It is obviously challenging for a lot of jazz musicians to stay afloat, to do recordings and travel because the industry’s not at its peak from a financial standpoint. There’s no other way for me to live. I never really look at it in any other way. I don’t see any other alternative. I enjoy what I do, I love the music and I’m passionate about it. I know that’s my goal and my destiny in life.

When I first moved to the ‘States, the first few years were a little difficult in trying to find my way, fit in and get to know other musicians. I feel like I’m pretty blessed with what’s been happening in my life and with the friendships that I have and the collaborations that I’ve been doing. It’s paying off now!

Another challenge for me is to find my own musical vision and voice. Sometimes when you work on things and record, it may be challenging to see how you want to say things and what you want to say. I’m developing and I notice the difference year after year.

KM: Where do you want to take your musical career in the future?

IS: There are a few things that I’d like to try in the future. Obviously you have to work and make a living, but eventually I’m hoping I’ll be able to get a little more free time so I can do more experimental things. I want to occasionally get myself into the studio for a couple months to relax and do what I want.

KM: How do you recharge your creative batteries?

IS: I have a lot of different passions and interests. I’m always trying to learn and better myself. I want to learn different languages, I try to stay in shape because I really like exercising. Sometimes when my schedule gets too busy and I’m traveling a lot, I don’t get to exercise as much and I lose my energy from the physical standpoint. I try to stay in shape and get outside occasionally.

I’m engaged right now and my fiancée tries to come with me when I’m on tour, so we take a few days off and relax after the show when we can. I also want to keep it interesting within the music. In a way, it’s why I started singing. It gave me a different outlet to work on and gave me a different angle to look at the songs. If I performed one tune instrumentally for a few years, it becomes like a new song when I sing it. I’m also trying to practice piano more and I’m working really hard on the guitar. Guitar is a new passion for me and I’m adding more of it into my repertoire.

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