Alex Sipiagin: Burning For Jazz
“ Jazz means incredible freedom. But the more you learn about it, the more tools you have to make that freedom really count in different ways ”
The 1980s in the Soviet Union was a time when the role and rule of the Communist Party were being questioned and unmasked by the policy of "glasnost"less censorship and greater freedom of informationthat was emerging. Before glasnost fully took hold, and before U.S. President Ronald Reagan famously told Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall" and dismantle the Communist symbol that separated East and West Berlin, jazz music was still hard to come by.
Some jazz was played in the U.S.S.R. since before World War II. Even during the height of the Cold War, in 1962, Benny Goodman performed in Moscow (a concert attended by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev). But glasnost did not take hold until roughly the latter part of the '80s. In the earlier part of the decade, teenage trumpet player Alex "Sasha" Sipiagin was busy trying to find out more about the mysterious American art form that was capturing his fancy.
Thankfully, Sipiagin was able to satisfy his curiosity, and then some. He showed an emerging brilliance on the trumpet in his native land, and in 1991 landed on U.S. soil to pursue a career that is still growing. In addition to securing solid gigs with the Mingus Big Band and Mingus Dynasty, he's been part of the Gil Evans Orchestra and a regular member of Dave Holland's superb bands, among others. Now based in the New York City area, he's become one of the fine players on the scene.
"As a Russian guy, it's always been kind of a mystery," says the 41-year-old Sipiagin of the jazz art form. "I didn't really know what it was. It's amazing. It's very hard to explainthat's why I like it lot. It's not easy. Jazz has such a wide spectrum, all full of mystery."
He adds, "First of all, it means incredible freedom. But the more you learn about it, the more tools you have to make that freedom really count in different ways." Sipiagin's playing has grown, and he's shaped his mark further with a string of recordings that show a bright and bold, direct and aggressive trumpet style. He's opening eyes and ears with his compositions as well, touching on different styles and vibes.
His latest CD, released in February 2009his seventh on the Criss Cross labelis a straight-ahead outing with a stellar lineup of New York jazz stallions. Perhaps most formidable is pianist Mulgrew Miller, whose playing Sipiagin says helped shape his ideas for the music. Mirages is a kick-ass album, fueled rhythmically by bassist Boris Koslov, also a Russian native and a busy player on the New York scene, and the sweet and supple drumming of Jonathan Blake. Saxophonist Seamus Blake is Sipiagin's foil on the front line. The disk cooks, with four originals by the trumpeter, a standard, and reexaminations of compositions from the pens of Joe Henderson and Wayne Shorter.
"I had been thinking about making such a projectmore straight-ahead," he says. It's his first purely mainstream recording since his first Criss Cross CD in 2001, Steppin' Zone. "I always wanted to come back to that. People always ask me why I don't do something straight-ahead, more burning. I never really can make myself say, 'OK. I'm going to write straight-ahead.' There has to be a special time for it."
Sipiagin writes regularly and it occupies much of his time when he's on the road. The music wasn't created with a specific project in mind, but "this time it came out straight-ahead. It became time to make such a project."
The album title, he says, comes from things he envisions when he goes back to visit his homeland. He says he often doesn't like what he sees in modern-day Russia and the "mirages" that come to him consist of better memories of the land that he experienced while growing up. Sipiagin wrote the title cut in a Moscow hotel room on a dreary day during which he was recounting bright moments in his early life.
"Every time I go visit Russia, about once a year recently, I see some mirages from the past," he says. "I have a little picture in my head of Russia the way it used to be when I was studying in college. It was completely different. When I go to Russia (now), I can't recognize anything. From the Soviet Union it became Russia. Everything is changing. Every time I go there I see some mirages in my head of the pastgood moments of the past. So I decided to call the CD Mirages. He also notes that some of the ideas for the compositions came up to him during dreams he had in Russia last yearlittle sketches that he later embellished.
Sipiagin's discovery and appreciation of Miller's piano playing goes back to hearing him on recordings of trumpeter Woody Shaw that Sipiagin was checking out in the 1980s. These records helped shape his musical development, and Miller's playing was an inspiration in composing for the new CD.
"He's my favorite musician," he says of the pianist. "He was my hero back in Russia when I heard an album with Woody Shaw in 1982. I had this dream that one day I would like to ask him to play on my recording. He didn't say no. He was very cool, very supportive. He did a great job. He made the tracks sound beautiful.
Sipiagin has worked with Koslov for a long time. "He's one of the busiest bass players in New York City right now. We came to the United States at the same timeon the same airplane. We shared an apartment together for three years. We studied in Moscow together. We have a very long history. We played with the Michael Brecker band and the Mingus band since 1997 together. I really like his playing. He's excellent. He knows what I'm looking for, sound-wise."
He says Blake, "is a perfect match (with Koslov). They played together for years. It's not just Boris. I always look at the whole rhythm section: Boris and Jonathan this time, on the previous record, Antonio Sanchez and Scott Colley. For me, the combination of musicians matters. I knew the hookup with Boris and Jonathan Blake was going to be just perfect. Also, when I wrote this music, I usually keep in mind each musician and how they sound." As for Blake, whom Sipiagin has worked with in Mingus bands, "He is one of the most flexible musicians. He can play any style, but at the same time have his own voice."
The disk is a fine example of hard-driving jazz, propelled by a great rhythm section, with consistently creative soloing. "One for Mike" kicks things off and is emblematic of the entire effort, with eye-opening, propulsive drumming from Blake. The group burns. Sipiagin says the song has special meaning, done in tribute to sax icon Michael Brecker. "I played with him in his Quindectet and played on the only record he made with Quindectet, Wide Angles (Verve, 2003). After the recording, he asked me to travel with the band. Afterward, he put together a sextet, also with Boris Koslov, and we did some extended tours of Japan and Europe. Every move of his, every note of his, was completely amazingcompletely inspiring. I spent a lot of time with him, hanging, talking about music. He was such a nice guy. This song, I was thinking of himhis phrasing, his flexibility. It even has some moments of his kind of improvisation."
Sipiagin says he composes often. "Moments when I compose, I like to compose non-stop, even if it goes nowherejust do it for myself. Sometimes I try to listen to as much music as possible to get some inspiration. I wish I could do it every day; sometimes schedules are so crazy."
"Mirages" is a great blowing vehicle for Sipiagin's agile and aggressive trumpet. His ideas spring forward with logic and excitement, cascading in interesting directions. His round sound is put across with a great deal of strength. "Live Score" leads to an extended investigation by the immensely talented Miller after the statement of Sipiagin's intricate theme. The pianist's choices are always interesting and the stories he tells are compelling. The trumpeter keeps pace with his twisting tale. Beneath all the tunes is the fantastic sound of the rhythm section that carries the music. The only ballad is Wayne Shorter's "Iris," which is different from most ballads, with its angular lines.
The session was done in a single day, something typical of the Criss Cross label. It has a spontaneous shine. However, Sipiagin would sometimes like to take more time with a project. "The way we do the recordings, unfortunately, is only one day in the studio. Sometimes you get tired and need some rest for an hour, but you cannot afford to rest. You record, otherwise you're not going to make it. A few things I'd like to have done over again, but I couldn't do it because of time."
In addition to making his own recordings, Sipiagin remains busy on the New York scenean arena he decided to enter after getting the chance to come to the United States nearly 20 years ago to compete in the International Louis Armstrong trumpet competition that was sponsored by the Thelonious Monk Institute in Washington, D.C. Trumpet was the first instrument he approached in his home town of Yaroslavl, about four hours from Moscow, taking it up at the age of 13. He was quickly under the tutelage of one of Russia's outstanding symphonic trumpeters and teachers, Mikhael Tsamaiev.
"I lucked out," says Sipiagin. "I got a good teacher right away. It was an after-school programnothing special, after-school orchestra. In the Soviet Union, at that time, you could find incredible musicians working in high schools. The system worked that way. Musicians had to keep working all the time. So I ended up with this beautiful teacher who introduced me to the trumpet best way." At age 15, he entered a local musical college and jazz musicfrowned on by the Soviet governmentbegan to seep through to him via the recordings of friends.
"We didn't have jazz at all in my town, except one guy who was collecting all the tapes and recordings he could possibly get his hands on and hiding them. It was secret information," he recounts. "This guy also played trombone, which is how I met him and how he introduced me to it. He said, 'You want to check out some real music?' In the beginning, it was Dixieland. It was really interesting and exciting and fun to listen to, then try to imitate. Slowly, we learned how to play the simple lines."
"My first introduction to real jazz was from the same guy. That's when I heard Lee Morgan. That was my first real introduction to jazz. It blew me away, how beautiful it was. I never heard anything like thisthe sound and the time, completely fantastic. That's when I really got crazy about it."
Sipiagin sought more education and decided he had to go to Moscow for it. He was in the classical department of the Moscow Music Institute, but was able to find more jazz recordings and pick up more about the music he was beginning to love and the American musicians who played it. "There were only a few recordings here and there for the jazz direction," says Sipiagin. "It was really rare in Russia at that time." He received a degree and then served a mandatory two years in the Russian army. After his release, he enrolled at the Gnessin Conservatory in Moscow and then continued classical training and music studies.
In Moscow, "there was a lot more information. I got to hear recordings of Freddie (Hubbard) and Miles. I listened to everything possiblelike every musiciantranscribing it and doing it." Morgan, Miles and Woody Shaw grew over the years to be his biggest influences. "They are my three favorite guys. Of course, I love everybody else. But they are the Big Three, definitely. They're so focused. They don't have a lot of tricks to make people excited. They play beautifullyfocused. They're always about music."
Musicians in Russia had an odd relationship with jazz, due to its identification as an American music. It wasn't illegal, but it wasn't something to boldly bring out front. "It's not like I had to hide it. It wasn't really appreciated," Sipiagin says. At the Moscow Music Institute, "it wasn't called the jazz department, it was called the pop department. Every, brass or wind or pianist tried to play jazz. But you couldn't say, 'I'm playing jazz.' You said you were playing pop. It wasn't really legal, at this point, playing jazz." During his time in the military, for example, from the age of 18 to 20, "I got a few warnings from military guys. 'Be careful with that music. Be careful with this stuff. You know what I mean, right?' I didn't really know what he meant. But I knew it was not really welcome. But I didn't really get in trouble."
Whereas young American musicians found jazz gigs to play outside of school, for Sipiagin, there were very limited playing situations outside of school. There were many outstanding classical musicians in Russia, but jazz players were not common or well known. "There were a few professional bands, but I wouldn't say the level was that high. I already knew what real professional jazz players were supposed to sound like because I had recordings from the United States.
"There were maybe a few clubs in Moscow, but usually it's not possible to play. Older musicians play there once in a while. We would play sessions in our dormitory every day, in somebody's room. Jam sessions in the dorm was our thing."
Glasnost, meanwhile, continued to work open Russian society. "Then all of a sudden in Russia, like 1990, there was a big jazz festival in Moscow. So many musicians came: Freddie Hubbard, Branford Marsalis, Sun Ra, Buster Williams. All of a sudden, everybody got completely crazy. That's what I remember from my student years."
It was also in 1990 that Sipiagin won first place in a young jazz players' competition in Rostov City. He visited the United States for the first time, performing with a Russian student jazz band, Green Wave, which appeared at the Corpus Christi Jazz Festival in Texas. His playing opened some ears.
"I was really lucky. I got this invitation from the Thelonious Monk competition in Washington, D.C. I got fourth prize. After hearing all those amazing musicians that were part of the competition, I decided to go oncome to New York, study and learn some stuff." Ryan Kisor won that year among a talent-laden field of players. In placing fourth, Sipiagin was presented a Bach trumpet by Clark Terry.
Before the experience with the Monk competition, the thought of going to the United States to pursue a career was a dream, but not one Sipiagin thought would ever come true. "I was even afraid to think about it. But after I heard all those trumpet players (in the competition), things were different. I was in with Ryan Kisor, Kenny Rampton, Gregory Gisbert, Walter White. It really blew me away. I decided, no matter what, I had to somehow end up in New York."
Sipiagin must have had visions of America as he and his friends listened surreptitiously to Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard and other artists. In 1991, he made the trek to the United States and then had to face New York and the jazz community head-on. It was "completely different" from his image of things which he developed from thousands of miles away. "I was very young20 years old. I shared an apartment with four people. We'd go to jam sessions every day. We'd have a chance to play every day. There was not a way to do that in Russia. We got to play jazz in so many different places. After a few jam sessions, I had an invitation to sit in with the Gil Evans Orchestra, which played at Sweet Basil at that time. I ended up playing there every Monday my first year, for free, in order to get involved in different things."
To earn money, there was the occasional club date, but also wedding bands, and even busking. "In the first years, we played in the subway. It was actually fun. When you play seriously, people really start listening and pay some money. So we'd have enough money for rent and for basic expenses. That's all we needed at that time."
The Gil Evans group was his first professional project, and his reputation as a willing and developing strong player grew. In 1993, he was recommended to George Gruntz, whose big band of New York musicians was touring Europe a couple times a year. "Randy Brecker heard me play later. He introduced me to Sue Mingus, to sub for him with the Mingus Big Band." This grew into an association that lasts to this day.
"I think it's the same with everybodyword of mouth," he says. "You sub here and there. Robin Eubanks recommended me later to Dave Holland. Since 2000, I've been working a lot with Dave. Gil Goldstein, who I worked with in the Gil Evans Orchestra, recommended me to Mike Brecker."
With Holland, Sipiagin has gained growing exposure. The superior bassist's small bands and big bands have been among the best out there over the last decade. With Holland, Sipiagin is rubbing elbows with a giant. "It's an excellent band. It's the most focused band I ever played with in my life. Dave knows exactly what he wants for music. He has a very distinctive style of writing and his sound is amazing, but at the same time, he gives you a lot of freedom to express yourself. You can go in many directions and he will follow you, almost like a strong wind blowing at your back. You just try and find your way. Every time is so different too. So it really makes you think about stuff: 'Man, I've got to really get it together next time.' You start practicing.
"In many big bands and bands, you're required to play in a certain style onlythe solo and the accompaniments. But this band is really flexible and you can bring new ideas all the time, because Dave puts your ideas in a certain frame. He really gives you time to develop your story. Sometimes in the first few months, even the first year, it's probably not that happening. But he really gives you a chance. He really likes to see the process of how musicians develop through the years, finally becoming what he wants." Last year, Holland's octet recorded live music at Birdland, which will be coming out on CD.
These days, in addition to working with Holland, Sipiagin still works with the Mingus organization, including "a big Mingus Dynasty tour. We're going to do festivals in Europe, and stop in Canada the last week of June. That's my priority for this summer. I'm going to play my own thing here and there in Europe and in the States." Last year he recorded with the George Gruntz big band and he has also played with saxophonist Donny McCaslin.
Also, his wife, Monday Michiru (daughter of pianist/composer/arranger Toshiko Akiyoshi and saxophonist Charlie Mariano) is a singer who plays a version of jazz/pop/alternative music. Sipiagin plays and does some arranging for her group, which performs a lot in Japan. "It's not jazzmore like underground, although jazz-based. We're going to go to Japan for three weeks," says the trumpeter.
In his spare time, he teaches at Gronenberg Prins Claus Conservatory in Holland, and once a year does a tour in Russia with his quintet. "I feel like I should bring music to Russia, because I'm from there."
Alex Sipiagin, Mirages (Criss Cross, 2009)
Alex Sipiagin, Out of the Circle (Sunnyside Records, 2008)
Dave Holland, Pass It On (Dare2 Records, 2008)
Alex Sipiagin, Prints (Criss Cross, 2007)
Alex Sipiagin, Returning (Criss Cross, 2005)
Alex Sipiagin, Equilibrium (Criss Cross, 2004)
Alex Sipiagin, Mirrors (Criss Cross, 2003)
Michael Brecker, Out of the Circle (Verve, 2003)
Dave Holland Big Band, Pass It On (ECM, 2002)
Alex Sipiagin, Steppin' Zone (Criss Cross, 2001)
Alex Sipiagin, Hindsight (Criss Cross, 2001)
Barbara Dennerlein, Outhipped (Universal Jazz/Verve)
Mingus Big Band, Que Viva Mingus (Dreyfuss, 1997)
Conrad Herwig, Latin Side of John Coltrane (Criss Cross, 1996)
Mingus Big Band, Life in Time (Dreyfuss, 1996)