Red & Hot: The Fate of New Jazz in Russia
Part II by Mikhail Mitropolsky
British company Leo Records, declaring itself to be small and independent, has for over 30 years been an important bridge between the "Empire of Periphery," as one of my colleagues called Russia, and the rest of the world. Leo Feigin constantly underlines the small size of the company and its independence. This brings certain bonuses, for he can't be reproached for huge editions and colossal sales. He is guaranteed the freedom of choice and he is led by his own ideas about creative music. It is obvious that Russian musicians represent a special section of his catalogue- Feigin comes from Leningrad. However, this is not a good enough reason to lower the quality of his productions or to change the stylistic trend of the label. In the hundreds of albums in the Leo Records catalogue, one can find over two hundred releases which represent several important layers of improvised music in Russia. It is exactly these releases we'll be dealing with in these short reviews.
Born in the East of Russia, Tuvan Sainkho Namchylak became famous due to a special vocal technique. The roots of this technique are in the ancient religious ceremonies. Sainkho has long ago became a prima of European avant-gardee and ethnic music. She has become a pemanent artist of Leo Records. I have to remind readers that she emerged on the new music scene in the Spring of 1989. In the Autumn of the same year, she was called "a discovery of the festival season." Her new partners became Peter Kowald, Butch Morris, Connie Bauer, Fred Frith, Ned Rothenberg, Evan Parker, Sunny Murray, etc. She tried to combine her experience of lamaist and shamanist musical culture with avant-garde jazz. Among the last hundred CDs of Leo's catalogue, Sainkho appears five times and each time with different partners.
Sainkho's favorite genre is a duo as heard on this release with percussionist Jarrod Cagwin: In Trance (CD LR 502). This disc saw the light of day in 2007. Sainkho likes spontaneous improvisation under conditions which are close to her personality. In this respect, the Viennese festival In Trance hit the spot, for Sainkho is a virtual bridge between the nature of Tuvan people and Western civilization. Getting into a trance plus impressions received from the Buddhist caves open incredible possibilities for using all these exotic vocal techniques which Sainkho uses so well. Her partner Jarrod Cagwin knows about other than European techniques of playing percussion which he began to master while studying at Berkeley College and then used in the avant-gardee scene of New York. A traditional inclination of Sainkho to program her music, even in free form, is reflected here in preambles for each composition. She talks about visions and images which emerge when a man falls into trance in these caves. It is interesting that the most striking vision is created by a "Human mothr's song," for this song is very close to Sainkho's female essense.
The next disc by Sainkho in the Leo Records catalogue ignores femininity and tilts towards politics: Portrait of an Idealist by Moscow Composers Orchestra (CD LR 527). Here she is a special guest of the orchestra- the name of the orchestra contains certain amount of polarization, for in the line up of the orchestra, there is not one Moscow composer. This recording of a live concert at Swiss Radio in May 2007 presents an eclectic program which mixes arrangements for free improvisers, lyrical and abstract poetry by Sainkho, absurd texts by the poet Daniil Kharms and, lastly, dedications to Nick Dmitriev, the former manager of the Moscow Composers Orchestra who died several years earlier. It is exactly in the memory of Nick Dmitriev that the project got the name "The Portrait of an Idealist." The abstract plays sound interesting while the slogans about perestroika, freedom and Russian capitalism declared by Sainkho sound naive and even banal. She lives outside of Russia and does not quite understand what is happening in this country.
The next release by Sainkho on Leo Records presents a kind of a new genre- guessing on the tea leaves. Sainkho was always interested in the Chinese culture, and first of all music culture, as heard on Sainkho Namchylak & Disckson Dee Tea Opera (CD LR 537). The CD came about as a result of her travels and performances in China. It consists of 10 stories dedicated to the stages of tea ceremony which is a special part of Chinese culture. It is not simply drinking tea. It has been a culture of meditation for many centuries, a way of uniting a man and nature through the tea ceremony. Sainkho found herself in this ceremony in a duo with the master of contemporary sound manipulation Dickson Dee. Fortunately, this work avoids artificiality of combining tradition and electronics. There are two possible reasons. Dee, whose proper name is Li Chin Sung, was born in Hong Kong. A tea ceremony for a person who is a disc jockey and producer is not an empty occurance. The second is that Sainkho's vocal abilities realise one of the most original biosynthesis of sound.
The next duo setting for Sainkho emerged in 2010: Sainkho Namchylak/Nick Sudnick Not Quite Songs (CDLR 564). In this new alliance with Sudnick, the range of Sainkho's new jazz techniques reached new heights. But the main thing is that this range is presented by completely new sensations due to an exceptionally tasteful artistic frame created by Sudnick. The electro-acoustic instruments which Sudnick has worked with since the times of Riga's group ZGA are usually associated with electro-acoustic noise. I don't quite understand this association- the things that Sudnick created with all his self-built instruments are far away from the idea of noise. One has the impression that both musicians used all the possibilities of the instruments and started creating an essence. The essence is expressed through 15 pieces among which one can find lullabies, dances, dramas, meditations and those which are called "plays."
While listening to the October release of 2010 which was recorded with two masters of the European jazz scene, the Austrian saxophonist Wolfgang Puschnig and the pianist Paul Urbanek, one can think that the radical singer turned her face towards the people (Terra, CD LR 590). As a matter of fact, such sharp turns had already happened with Sainkho, and one can hope will happen again. The music of this live recording at the Vilnius Jazz Festival in 2007 was born at the right place- during the Soviet era, Vilnius was an island of free jazz where the Ganelin Trio reined supreme. The recording is definitely in the character of world music. All the parts of this long suite are united by the Latin name 'Terra' and seven pieces form an aural archipelago where Sainkho's voice flies using all the possibilities of her voice - overtones, throat singing, percussion-like small sounds, falcetto range, etc. She starts the theme and her partners pick it up and frame a sound picture in the most professional way. From time to time, they take the initiative in creating another piece of "terra." It seems that this CD will find its way to a much wider audience than the usual small circle of her followers.
The release in 2008 of Russian Folksongs in the Key of Rhythm (CD LR 517) after more than half a thousand avant-garde CD's almost created a shock. To include Russian traditional music in the orbit of world music is not a simple matter. The most difficult part is the irregular rhythm structure of this music. But what is even more difficult is to find a balance of good taste. The previous successful attempts are extremely rare. The astonishing result of this edition was achieved by the talented musician Evgeny Masloboev, who lives in Siberia. He is a professional musician, educator and composer. His main speciality is percussion instruments and their use in a variety of ways. He calls himself the follower of Trilok Gurtu and Vladimir Tarasov. All these Russian songs, although composed by Masloboev on the basis of folk songs, were created by Evgeny in the key of rhythm, with the help of different instruments both acoustic and electric. Many percussion instruments are made by Evgeny himself. But there is one human voice on this CD which sings all these Russian songs. This is the voice of his daughter Anastasia Masloboeva, who at the time of the recording was 15 years old.
Two years later, the Siberian musician presented another project- Russian Folksongs in the Key of Sadness CD LR 559. The change from rhythm to sadness is accompanied by the increasing arsenal of instruments in the new series of plays composed by Evgeny but they lived their own lives too. The composer managed to avoid traditional images in these songs but now they were not so much modeling rhythmic constructions of folk origins as they created many-voiced states in the tonality of sadness. The voice of Anastasia does not resound as much as on the first disc, but more often, one can find common ground with the whole of world music. Maybe since they live in central Siberia, they hope to find its own place in the world music.
One of the main characters of Russian's new improvised music is the composer and trumpeter from St. Petersburg Vyacheslav Guyvoronsky. It is only natural that his works take considerable space in the catalogue of Leo Records. Paradoxically, being in the shadow of bigger stars, Guyvoronsky is an unprecedented authority on the new music scene. During the '80's, he was a part of a duo with the bassist Vladimir Volkov which survived for 15 years. Guyvoronsky has quite a few published works on vinyl and CD's but he is doing much more- dozens of concerts, music for theatre and cinema, educating young musicians. He studies music theory and wrote a book called At the Gate of the Temple.
In 2008, he released Caprichos (CD LR 519), which was based on short pieces created some thirty or forty years ago under the impression of the paintings by Francisco Goya. There were plays, miniatures originally written for piano. As Guyvoronsky writes in his liner notes, "sorting out old notated pieces" he discovered these scatchs and decided to turn them into new compositions for the combination of classical string instruments and freer sounding trumpet. 43 miniatures are short post-modern fantasias characteristic of the man whose musical world cannot be divided. Guyvoronsky managed to find partners among academic stringers who happened to be capable of realising his compositional ideas formulated from his rich improvisational past.
A live concert in St. Petersburg performed during Christmas presents a different face of Vyacheslav Guyvoronsky. X-mas Concert (CD LR 520) was released in the wake of the previous album and happened to be in sharp contrast to the chamber style of Caprichos. In contrast to the sweet Western Christmas carols, the material of the Russian musicians is brewing, blowing up, self-ionizing and all of a sudden falls into a state of introverted melancholy. If we talk about "Russian jazz," this disc is its true representative. The trio emerged from the old duo of Guyvoronsky and Volkov but was initiated by the piano player Andrei Kondakov. All three musicians are equal but are very different. Kondakov came to improvised music from mainstream jazz, Volkov develops his experience playing with a rock band and Guyvoronsky thinks free-jazz exercises is a rest from his compositional work. The thing that unites the trio happened to be post-modernism accompanied by melodic constructions in the spirit of Prokofiev's constructivism. This album has had success on both sides of the Atlantic — in 2008, it made the list of honorable mention according to AllAboutJazz.
The next reincarnation of Guyvoronsky is a very unusual work which is a continuation of the Solyd Records edition of 1999- Interventions into Bach and Mozart CD LR 534. This work is based on contemporary musical thinking and complicated philosophy which unites East and West in the music of J.S. Bach. The basis for Guyvoronsky's work was "Partita," BWV 831 by Bach. A brilliant accordionist and an old Guyvoronsky partner, Evelyna Petrova, took part in the recording of this piece. For the new work, Guyvoronsky added some incursion into Bach's cadence from 15th counterpoint (The Art of Fugue) and a piano sonata by Mozart. The original sonata is performed by Polina Fradkina but Guyvoronsky composed perpendicular parts for violin and cello. According to Guyvoronsky, the idea of transforming the sonata and even the permission for such intervention came to him during his conversation with Mozart while he was asleep. The maestro gave his permission.
In 2009, the continuation of the democratic avant-garde trio Guyvoronsky, Kondakov, Volkov put together a new release, In Search of a Standard (CD LR 544). This kind of jazz-club work can't fail to get the listener's attention- not only can one hears vaguely familiar evergreens turned inside out, one sees the titles of the pieces as if they have been reflected by a false mirror ("Don't Take the 'B' Train," "Wintertime," "Unsophisticated Lady," etc.). The idea of such exciting avant-garde construction was advanced by Guyvoronsky in 1994 when he released Yankee Doodle Travel on Solyd Records. This is what Guyvoronsky said about this program: "We wanted in our improvisations to extend the basis of a jazz standard and create a light and sometimes ironic musical aura." This CD rightfully attracted the attention of the critics and was nominated among the best jazz albums of 2009.
Jazz musicians sometimes have an inferiority complex in front of European composers. As a result, they try to create huge compositions. Contrary to this approach Guyvoronsky is ready to create such original compositions that their realisation demands special experience. This special experience of a musician and a philosopher results in a sophisticated music which refuses to be classified. Ten fairly short compositions presented on Pieces for String Trio & Trumpet (CD LR 587) have been waiting for a long time to be published. Avant-garde music performed by Guyvoronsky is marked by a special creativity. Contrary to destructivity, which is being nurtured by many avant-guardists, there is a lot of emotions in Guyvoronsky's music. The essence of the music of this project is the clash between the beautiful strings and the dirty sounds of the trumpet. I am convinced that as years go by, this CD will be valued higher and higher.
There is no doubt that one of the best CD in the entire Leo Records catalogue has been recorded by the unique accordionist and singer from St. Petersburg Evelyn Petrova- Living Water (CD LR 533). With her rise to fame, Petrova is obliged to Guyvoronsky, with whom she played for a long time. Guyvoronsky showed her the way to jazz improvisation and to the aesthetic of new music. Today, Petrova is a rising star of European new music. Having released the CD Year's Cycle, she often performs solo concerts at clubs and festivals in Holland, Belgium, France, Germany, England and other countries.
The first sight of Free Tallinn Trio's A Tale (CD LR 557) can be very misleading. On the front cover, one can see the painting of the Russian artist Konstantin Vasilyev "Over Volga," which together with the title of the CD brings an association with old Russian fairy tales. It happened that traditional connections between musicians of independent Estonia and Russia are stronger than political aliance between the two countries. The title of the CD might give an idea that it is some kind of collection of pieces of dying free jazz. In reality, it is not so. It just happened that in the magnificent work of the Estonian trio, some idioms of free jazz have been successfully converted into music which can be called "comprovisation"- i.e. the synthesis of composition and improvisation, or creation of composition in real time. Members of the trio call their music "contemporary improvising opera." Such 'opera' music was recorded in 2008 at the Moers Jazz Festival and released by Leo Records. The trio consisted of Jaak Sooaar (guitar), Anne-liis Poll (voice) and Anto Pett (piano). All three have great experience in academic and improvised music, which allows them to explore new territories avoiding cliches of free jazz and become absolutely free. Listening to this music one begins to understand that 'improvising opera" of this kind demands deep musical culture and general culture as well.
The latest editions from Leo Records demonstrate that Leo Feigin is hunting for new names. One such name is the Moscow saxophonist Alexey Kruglov, who has just turned thirty. He leads "Kruglyi Band" which does not have a permanent line-up. Alexey has a huge number of creative projects which can hardly be called avant-garde. They are rather a kind of post-Coltrane development which reflects the changes that happened in music since the death of a genius. In 2010, Leo Records released Kruglov's CD Seal of Time (CD LR 566). The title of the CD adequately reflects the evolution of the musician.The recording consists of two sessions with different musicians belonging to different generations. The permanent partner of Alexey is veteran drummer Oleg Udanov (Jazz Group Arkhangelsk), who brings a lot of musical colours into the general sound. Here we have an example of how a veteran of new music lends his priceless experience to a younger partner. The sound of Kruglov formed quite a while ago and is well known to his followers but his compositional ideas and decisions continue to evolve.
Following the principle "the most important thing is not to stop," six months later Feigin released another CD by Alexey Kruglov, Russian Metaphor (CD LR 591). If Seal of Time was a kind of a trial run, Russian Metaphor presents a finished concept. Alexey plays a huge array of instruments: saxophones, basset horn, flutes, bassoon, toy trumpet, etc. The longest piece "Strive of the generations" takes the listener to the dramatic situation of a clash with reality. The reviewer of the CD in the British magazine Jazzwise finishes his review with these words: "This is profoundly philosophical music. This young man might just be a genius."
It is quite possible that all the roads that lead young musicians into improvised music cross in St. Petersburg. One of the latest releases from Leo Records is from the duo of Vlad Bystrov and Alexey Lapin- Rimsky-Korsakov. Crosswise (CD LR 582). Their roads did cross in St. Petersburg. Saxophonist and master of electronic manipulations Bystrov was born in Kazan. He studied in St. Petersburg but in the mid-'90's, he moved to Germany where he performs and teaches music. Pianist Lapin appears in Leo Records editions for the third time. He says that his idols are Mingus, Dolphy, Monk and Coltraine. However, his lack of desire to identify himself with the jazz establishment brought him to the alternative camp. The first two parts of their 14-part suite indicate that they lean to free-jazz of European extraction. However, gradually it becomes clear that both of them tend to play their pieces according to their sense of form: Lapin prefers long developments while his partner is a master of short minutures. It is difficult to say how the spirit of the Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakov influenced their performance but his portrait was hanging on the wall during their performance.
With their next release, Second Approach (CD LR 585), Leo Records brings to the Western listener the trio led by the pianist and composer Andrei Razin. His group Second Approach have been together for 12 years. They released 8 CD's and performed in many European countries and in Israel and the USA as well. This trio continues artistic concepts developed by the Ganelin Trio and Moscow Arts Trio. Concert programs of Second Approach, although serious in form, carry the listener along with their playfulness, with a combination of composition and improvisation, with polystylistics which embraces jazz, folklore, European roots and astonishing energy. All these qualities are provided by vocalist Tatiana Komova, bassist Igor Ivanushkin and pianist Andrei Razin. Dave Brubeck, with whom Second Approach performed on the same bill at the Rochester Festival in the U.S., called their music "the most catchiest music he ever heard."
Here is a quote from AllAboutJazz: "Born among many polemics in the 90s, and becoming in a way a "supergroup" thanks to the highest quality of its members and their interpretations, Second Approach express at the same time the most dramatic desire, to give voice to all individual aesthetic senses of its protagonists. A kind of a delicate cocktail mixing impressions, sound researches and the usual mode of thinking 'non-standard' music by Mr. Andrei Razin, an eminently attentive pianist, a real and proper master of the piano improvisation, Tatiana Komova, a surprising vocalist of the strongest stylistic modernity, and Igor Ivanushkin, currently the prime rhythmic reference of modern Russian music."
On the whole, I would like to say that the number of outstanding editions among the latest releases by Leo Records produced by the Russian musicians is very high. One can suggest that the stormy political events in Russia force the musicians who live in conditions of "limited freedom" and an "uncertain future" to play in such a way as if they were playing for the last time in their life, realizing all their creative potential. I did not give stars to these releases but I believe that the CD's by Evelyn Petrova, Free Tallin trio, Second Approach, Vyacheslav Guyvoronsky and Alexey Kruglov must be heard by every one who is not indifferent to the fate of contemporary jazz and new improvised music.
Special thanks to Peter Gershon
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