Alex Sipiagin: Burning For Jazz

R.J. DeLuke By

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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
Alex SipiaginThe 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 information—that 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 explain—that'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 2009—his seventh on the Criss Cross label—is 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.

Chapter Index

  1. Mirages
  2. Early Days in Russia
  3. Coming to America


"I had been thinking about making such a project—more 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 past—good 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 year—little sketches that he later embellished.

Alex SipiaginSipiagin'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 time—on 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 amazing—completely 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 him—his 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 nowhere—just 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."



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