Keshavan Maslak a.k.a. Kenny Millions believes that modern jazz must have a sense of humor. His outsider status in the avant community (probably self-imposed) comes from his utter lack of musical sobriety. Born of Ukrainian ancestry, Keshavan Maslak played in R&B bands in Detroit before moving on to New York’s loft scene and an eventually becoming a US expatriate in Amsterdam. He has since moved to Florida, set up operations in his Sushi Blues Cafe, and begun issuing recordings on his Hum Ha Records label.
Maybe it’s his ties to the showbiz R&B world or something in his Ukrainian past that steers Millions to his mayhem. He definitely found his people when he circulated in the Dutch jazz scene. His music, like that of Han Bennink, Misha Mengelberg, and Willem Breuker relies heavily on entertaining smiles and surprise, a concept not foreign to jazz. Louis Armstrong was known go into an alternative character and tell jokes during a show, as did Dizzy Gillespie who was possessed with a lifetime of physical comedy on stage. But like all things in this puritanical American society jazz began to suffer from the “serious art form” syndrome, and it’s serious young men rejected Satchmo in favor of higher art. Eventually the avant-garde came along with its share of serious young men/women and some felt that carrying the creative flag was no laughing matter. This was never the case in Europe and the former Soviet Union. Serious fun could be had making artistically creative music.
These two discs are an excellent sampling of the Kenny Millions experience. Those Were The Days, recorded in 1996, is a duet between Millions and Russian avant- pianist Sergey Kuryokhin. When they cover “Those Were The Days” it’s as if they were in a Russian circus starring a dyslexic Benny Hill. Kuryokhin tempers folk music with a sometimes-classical approach to the keyboard. The pair are partial to comical chaos, singing popular music, or making up (is that Russian or a new language?) words. Both men play this outside music with a tether, always coming back to the melody or some beautiful passage. At one point on “Romantica” as Kuryokhin is playing a sweet chamber passage, Millions inflicts a yell and symbol crash which has all the feel of the Naked City track “Gob Of Spit.” Sadly, Kuryokhin is no longer living, but a few Leo Records and these Hum Ha discs preserve his memory.
Kuryokhin is also heard on Mixed Nuts but in sampled form. Recorded during two tours of the former Soviet Union states in 1989 and 1996, the four tracks are less personable than the previous duets, but they are almost pure theater. The enthusiastic crowds love outsider art and Millions’ zamisdat-jazz seems to describe the insanity that has become so much of Russian life. His circular breathing, high end squeaks, and the crazy sampled collages Otomo Yoshihide tosses up are cheered by the crowd. Millions’ fiery saxophone passages are worthy of today’s energetic jazz flame-throwers. Fans of Chicago Underground Duo and Isotope 217 can relate to Millions cut and paste approach to music. A one point in “Hit It” the musicians stop playing to gauge the reaction of the audience. They hoot (actually I don’t think Russians hoot) and holler for more. Yoshihde applies his plunderphonics-approach to a very accessible carnival of a show. Millions orchestrates a serious amount of entertainment to accompany his outsider act.