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Alexey Nikolaev: From Russia with Chops


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The first time I heard Alexey Nikolaev perform (last year at the Hopvine Pub with Kareem Kandi) I was knocked out by his big tenor sound and his willingness to take chances with the music. Employing a huge note range and complete control of his instrument, Nikolaev's solos were show-stoppers; they never failed to get a rise out of the audience. And, while some may consider the constant display of musical pyrotechnics too flashy, such solos are fun to listen to, if for no other reason than to wonder, 'How in the world did he do that?'

Since that first night at the Hopvine, I've caught Alexey playing jazz with Jay Thomas' big band, Greg Williamson's quartet and Gary Fukushima's trio ' and I've enjoyed hearing him in each setting. The word on his talent as a saxophonist has spread quickly among the music community, resulting in jobs doing studio work and teaching lessons. A permanent member of Doctor Funk , Alexey Nikolaev can also be heard most Monday nights performing with Reggie Goings at the Mister Lucky club across from Key Arena.

All About Jazz: Describe your family life growing up in the Soviet Union.

Alexey Nikolaev: I was born in a small town not far from Moscow, Russia. My father is a clarinet and saxophonist; my mother plays the piano. I spent most of my childhood in the opera theater my father worked at, listening to classical music. During my childhood years I was really into playing drums, but never thought of playing the sax. At home we had a ton of great records, and I enjoyed listening to jazz.

AAJ: When did you first begin to play the saxophone?

AN: I began to play the saxophone at 15 years of age. My father spent a lot of time playing with me, listening and analyzing the music.

AAJ: Was the saxophone your first instrument?

AN: Yes, the first true passion. The drums were like a hobby, but even now I can tell [drums] were a great help for me to play music.

AAJ: When did you take an interest in jazz?

AN: At about 14, I began listening to Charlie Parker records, carefully and more seriously. Also my other big influence was Coltrane's Africa/Brass.

AAJ: Describe your first jobs working as a musician.

AN: After graduating from Gnesin's Musical Academy of Russia in Moscow, I auditioned for one of the best big bands in Russia'the MKS Big Band'and got in. It was my first professional job, and it paid good money, too. After I was in the band, I had many other offers to play some gigs, go on trips, play at the festivals, etcetera.

AAJ: Do you enjoy playing other kinds of music in addition to jazz?

AN: My favorite music is classical. I think it is the mother of all other styles. I love playing jazz music, and I also like funk. Even a little Latin sometimes. If it is a studio gig, I can record anything from pop to rock. I really like playing whatever it may be, but the main thing is to play with great musicians who have great ideas.

AAJ: What can a jazz musician learn from playing classical music?

AN: I think that most jazz styles come from modern classical music. Very often you can hear great jazz musicians adapt parts from the classical music and use it in their solos. In my opinion, a jazz musician learns how to "hear", understand and analyze music by listening to classical music.

AAJ: What are some of your favorite classical composers?

AN: Amongst the Russian composers I like are Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Stravinsky and Skryabin. Of course, I like the rest, too. I also enjoy Debussy, Ravel, Bach, Mozart and Schubert.

AAJ: When did you come to live in America?

AN: On August 25, 2000 I arrived to Seattle with my then fianc'. This was my forth time coming to America. My wife and I decided to live in the States. I played music for a living in Russia, and this is what I do here.

AAJ: Describe that first year in the States.

AN: We moved to Bellevue right away just because my wife's parents were close. I had a couple of students to begin with, and looked for any gigs I could get (just like it is now). I went to jam sessions to meet local musicians. The language barrier was difficult then, but I still did it. My first gig was at Tula's with John Hansen, Phil Sparks and Philip Snyder. The first year it was hard to find gigs, jobs or friends. I guess I am lucky to speak the language of music, because now the situation is different. I was looking for a permanent position in a band, and Doctor Funk found me. I had some thoughts to find a "day job" to get through the financial hardships, but unfortunately I didn't study to do anything else but play music. I hope you can imagine the cultural shock one gets from moving from one country to another. Although the musical world is almost the same everywhere.

AAJ: Why did you decide to move to Seattle?

AN: My wife and I met in Seattle in 1999 and she came to stay with me in Moscow for almost eight months in 2000. I had it all figured out, but my wife couldn't get a decent job. She had no opportunities similar to mine, and we decided to move to Seattle. It was a hard decision to make because I realized how much of what I had I will have to give up. Many changes had to be made, and we did it - so far I have no regrets. I just really miss my parents and friends back in Russia.

AAJ: What is the jazz scene like in Moscow?

AN: When I left a couple of years ago, Moscow wasn't saturated with jazz, but now everything is slowly changing and more musicians from New York are coming back and it becomes more interesting. I talked to some friends back there and they say new musical information is pouring in. There are a few ' not as many as here ' good quality musicians "on the level" in Moscow, maybe about 20 guys I know who are awesome. Lots of bands play in Moscow ' not just jazz, but funk, Latin, pop, etc. I only know a few stable jazz bands in Russia, but the musicians play all over with other bands as well. I think there are about five or six clubs in Moscow that feature only live jazz music. Every year there are small and large festivals and shows that take place. But there is not really a huge difference in jazz lifestyles in Moscow or New York for example, it's just that in NY there are more jazz musicians.

AAJ: What is your impression of the quality of musicians in Seattle?

AN: I guess I didn't expect the levels of the musicians here in Seattle to be as good as they are. I was in for a good surprise!

AAJ: I heard you played jazz for a short time in New York City.

AN: I visited New York four times and have a few musician friends living there; I met all of them in Russia. Every time I tried to spend some quality time playing around with the musicians I know. New York is always a great experience for anyone, including me. You get to listen to different musicians that influence you, too.

AAJ: What jazz players have been your biggest influences?

AN: My two favorites are Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. I also enjoy Sonny Rollins, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, Coleman Hawkins. As far as contemporary players, I like Joe Lovano's style, and many more.

AAJ: Who do you like to listen to in your spare time?

AN: I don't just listen to sax players, I enjoy all other musicians. In my spare time I like listening to pretty much everything and try and take the best from everyone. I listen to almost all kinds of music, except pop and rock.

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