Slovenian-born pianist/composer Marko Churnchetz presents an ambitious suite for fifteen musicians: essentially his jazz quartet accompanied by a small orchestra of winds and strings. He pays tribute to the great Russian composers of the 20th Century: Shostakovich, Scriabin, Prokofiev, Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff (the title "Ruthenia" is a Latin name for the Russian border provinces and their inhabitants, a metaphor for connecting with the great Russian musical tradition).
Even if a listener did not know about the focus, the sound of the opening "Ouverture" would be a dead giveaway. After a lengthy rubato orchestral introduction, a very Russian-sounding theme (accompanied by rhapsodic Rachmaninoff-style piano) leads into a piano cadenza. "Cantabile" shifts attention to the quartet, the theme given to Mike Moreno's guitar and the leader's piano. Churnchetz takes a much more jazz-flavored solo, with the band joined by the strings, before Moreno has a lyrical turn.
"Fantasia" and "Nocturne" are both essentially extended piano solos (joined by Chris Jennings' double bass on the latter), initially sounding more classical than jazzhard to hear the line between composition and improvisation here. "Preludium" finally brings all of the forces together right from the start, a thrilling fusion of jazz and the Russian classical influence. Moreno again provides a fine solo, as does the leader. "Scherzo" provides a showcase for Jennings' lyrical unaccompanied bass, as well as an explosive drum solo from the phenomenal Rudy Royston. At first the closer "Toccata" doesn't sound much like a toccatait certainly has a very modern groovebut then the fast passagework justifies the title.
Ruthenia is an exceptional expanded ensemble composition, as well as a rare combination of classical music and jazz. There was a time when it might have been labelled as Fourth Stream, and Churnchetz's concept would justify that label. But it should resonate just as well with listeners unfamiliar with its 20th century Russian compositional influences. Familiarity with those composers is a bonus, not a necessity.
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