Sipiagin Soars on New Sextet Album


Trumpeter Alex Sipiagin recruited tenor saxophonist Chris Potter and other formidable players for the album Moments Captured.

(Photo: Jimmy Katz)

The following is an expanded version of an article that appeared in the June 2017 issue of DownBeat:

Last fall, Alex Sipiagin entered Systems Two in Brooklyn to record his 12th album for Criss Cross Jazz, with a formidable sextet of Gen-Xers and Millennials—tenor saxophonist Chris Potter, alto saxophonist Will Vinson, keyboardist John Escreet, bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Eric Harland. The end result, Moments Captured, is a work of high distinction, a worthy successor to such Sipiagin-led Criss Cross sextet recitals as Balance 38-58 (2014), Destinations Unknown (2011), Equilibrium (2003) and Mirrors (2002).

As on those predecessors, the 49-year-old trumpeter presents original music, challenging his partners with rich voicings, polyphonic melodies and layered meters that he places at the service of episodic stories. Front-liners Potter and Vinson animate the raw materials with florid improvisations at their customarily intense levels of invention. Harland and Brewer alchemize gnarly rhythms into percolating, dynamically nuanced grooves. Playing a Prophet-6 analog synthesizer in addition to piano, Escreet finds wild sounds and textures that goose the flow.

“Alex’s tunes are every bit as interesting and harmonically and rhythmically complex as anything else I’m playing with people of my generation, who have moved in a slightly more cerebral direction compositionally,” said Vinson, 39. “He combines that modern writing with this balls-to-the-wall, Coltrane-era energy that those of us still in our thirties seem to have put a lid on, and it’s fun to reconnect with that.”

Potter, who participated on seven of Sipiagin’s prior Criss Cross dates, describes his music as “fully thought-out harmonically, with a lot of interesting melodic twists and turns.” He added: “A lot of lines proceed simultaneously—Alex doesn’t write simple unison parts, but gives people different rhythmic phrases which result in a more contrapuntal sound than you’ll often hear. His language is advanced. In his tunes, you hear the same voice he improvises with, but written out for more instruments.”

The voice to which Potter refers is as formidable navigating the improvisational space as when functioning as an impeccable lead trumpet practitioner with ensembles like the Gil Evans Orchestra, the Mingus Orchestra, Michael Brecker’s Quindectet and the Dave Holland Octet and Big Band.

On Moments Captured, Sipiagin further burnishes that stature, traversing the top to bottom of his horn with legato, across-the-barline phrasing. He sustains a beautiful tone regardless of tempo or register, projecting an abiding lyricism that is highlighted by a tension-and-release aesthetic evocative of Lee Morgan, an early idol whose playing on “The Sidewinder” converted Sipiagin to jazz when he heard it as a teenager in the former Soviet Union.

“Alex navigates harmonic and rhythmic complexity as if he’s playing a standard,” Vinson said.

“He plays with tremendous precision, passion and emotion, which makes our rhythmic interplay really fun,” Harland added. “He’s sensitive to whatever direction the music is heading in.”

Recently, Sipiagin has focused upon, as he puts it, “moving on and playing my music.” Toward this end, he’s reduced his sideman obligations, and works perhaps 200 gigs a year as a leader and educator-clinician—soloing with different ensembles in Europe, Russia and Asia that play his charts; leading combos around the globe; and performing with Opus 5, a cooperative band of Mingus Orchestra alumni whose four Criss Cross albums feature original music by the group’s personnel (tenor saxophonist Seamus Blake, pianist David Kikoski, bassist Boris Kozlov and drummer Donald Edwards).

In the process, Sipiagin repurposes and recontextualizes his pieces, as demonstrated on New Path, New Path 2 and New Path 3, all on Butman Music, on which vocalist Hiske Oosterwijk—Sipiagin’s student for four years at the Prins Claus Conservatory in Groningen, Netherlands—sings her lyrics to such previously instrumental-only songs as “Afternoon Dreams,” “Wind Dance,” “Videlles Dreams” and “From Reality And Back.”

In August, Sipiagin assembled a quintet comprising Vinson and an excellent all-Muscovite rhythm section (Alexei Rodnikov, piano; Dasha Chernakova, bass; Sergei Mashin, drums) to do a two-week tour in Russia that included a residency at Igor Butman’s Moscow club and two concerts at Butman’s Triumph of Jazz Festival in Sochi. The day after the second concert, over a lunch of Georgian dumplings with Chernakova and Vinson, Sipiagin—who had done an eight-mile morning run along the beach after much vodka consumption during the wee hours—discussed his decision to emigrate to the United States in 1991.

A native of Yaroslavl—a provincial city of 600,000 on the Volga River, about 250 miles northeast of Moscow—Sipiagin began classical training at 12, and went on to earn a baccalaureate from the Moscow Music Institute. In his mid-teens, he became fascinated with jazz, absorbing the vocabularies of Morgan, Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw through transcribing their solos off cassettes. He listened to them, along with tapes of Pat Metheny and Wayne Shorter’s Native Dancer, when stationed outside Moscow with an army band that played outside every day. In the winter, Sipiagin poured vodka on his mouthpiece to prevent it from freezing to his lips—“to bring me back to reality and give me hope.” He adds: “Pat started shaping my melodic concept of music. Along with my trumpet heroes, he inspired me most.”

Sipiagin made four trips to the States within an 18-month span in 1990 and 1991 before fleeing the chaos that overtook Russian society after the dissolution of the USSR. “I came to the States at the exact same time when Russia collapsed,” he said. “My mother asked me, ‘Please, don’t come back for a while,’ because it was such a scary time. Every night I had the same dream that I’m in Russia and I’m going to the airport and can’t fly back.”

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