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Alex Sipiagin: Burning For Jazz

By Published: April 6, 2009
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Coming to America

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 on—come 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 young—20 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."

Alex SipiaginTo 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

George Gruntz
George Gruntz
1932 - 2013
, whose big band of New York musicians was touring Europe a couple times a year. "Randy Brecker
Randy Brecker
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 everybody—word 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 only—the 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.

Alex SipiaginThese 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

Donny McCaslin
Donny McCaslin

Also, his wife, Monday Michiru (daughter of pianist/composer/arranger Toshiko Akiyoshi

Toshiko Akiyoshi
Toshiko Akiyoshi
and saxophonist Charlie Mariano
Charlie Mariano
Charlie Mariano
1923 - 2009
) 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 jazz—more 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."

Selected Discography

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)

Photo Credits

Top and Bottom Photos: Courtesy of Alex Sipiagin
Middle Photo: Fttoria Musica Studios

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