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Vlad West: Say Hello To Russia

Budd Kopman By

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Pianist/saxophonist/composer Vlad West could possibly be the best known unknown musician in jazz, at least in the U.S. Born in Baku, Azerbaijan as Vladimir Sermakashev, his first instrument was piano, and as a child prodigy, outgrew his teachers by the age of nine. He then switched to saxophone and jazz, becoming the top player in Baku and later Moscow by the age of eighteen.

Defecting to the United States, he became the inspiration for the 1984 movie Moscow On The Hudson, starring Robin Williams.

So here, with West, we have one of those pure and natural musicians who are the music; saxophonists laud his piano playing, while pianist admire his work on the saxophone.

Say Hello To Russia, from 1993, is a very fine mainstream album featuring six West original compositions and three well-known standards. West's playing is such that the questions immediately arise as to why he so unknown.

Supported by a top-notch band consisting of pianist Harold Danko, bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Adam Nassbaum, "Far Away" sets the tone with the clarion calls of synthesizer on a pedal point introducing the tune proper. Immediately, West displays subtlety by taking his time, speaking in phrases and building statements. Ideas flow effortlessly from his horn as he relentlessly moves forward, creating a huge first impression. Who is this Vlad West?

The album spreads out from there, moving to "Black Snow," which opens with a long solo supported only by drums, and leads to the very pretty tune, the structure of which feels as natural as any jazzy blues (or bluesy jazz) standard heard anywhere; this music just feels good as West speaks to us through his horn.

From there, West works through two quite different standards, "All The Things You Are," performed with elegance, grace and a solid swing and then onward to the headlong dash which is "Giant Steps," sounding as at home with the changes as Coltrane himself.

The title tune, "Say Hello To Russia" is a smoky ballad that oozes the atmosphere of late night, at an almost empty club filled with cigarette smoke, where the musicians are playing for their own enjoyment, sounding free, unforced and very vulnerable.

In the end, music is about emotional communication, and Vlad West most certainly does that in Say Hello To Russia, in a most personal way. Not only does it have a direct immediate impact, but also has many layers to uncover over time; terrific music from a very fine musician.
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