Sipiagin Soars on New Sextet Album

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

(Photo: Jimmy Katz)

The aforementioned sojourns included two appearances with a student ensemble at a jazz festival in Corpus Christi, Texas; a fourth-place finish in the November 1990 Thelonious Monk Competition, in which Nicholas Payton, Ryan Kisor, Greg Gisbert, Kenny Rampton, Joe Magnarelli and Scott Wendholt participated; and a six-month residency at a Russian restaurant on Long Island that allowed Sipiagin and bassist Boris Kozlov, a bandmate, to acquaint themselves with New York’s jazz community. Butman, who had just concluded his studies at Berklee College of Music, visited them regularly. “Igor told me I should stay, that I was talented, and I could find my way,” said Sipiagin, who first met Butman in Yaroslavl in 1982.

Soon after making his decisive move, Sipiagin was introduced to Miles Evans, who invited him to sit in with the Gil Evans Band at its Monday night sinecure at Sweet Basil in Greenwich Village. “Miles seemed to like it, and he said, ‘Come back next time,’” Sipiagin recounted. “Next time he said, ‘Come back any Monday.’ It paid 50 bucks, but it was a chance to stand next to all these great musicians. I couldn’t speak English yet, and I was very shy, but I had a chance to play a solo at least once every set.”

Sipiagin has recorded 12 albums for the Criss Cross Jazz label.
Sipiagin has recorded 12 albums for the Criss Cross Jazz label. (Courtesy of the artist)

Two years later, Gil Goldstein assumed Mondays at Sweet Basil with the Zebra Coast Orchestra, which included Potter, saxophonist David Binney and bassist Scott Colley. In 1993, at Binney’s encouragement, Sipiagin moved from his apartment building in the Russian section of Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn to Binney’s building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

“Gil Goldstein and Dave opened my compositional mind,” Sipiagin recalled. “Goldstein has perfect pitch, and is totally inspired by Gil Evans and Jaco [Pastorius]. I love those lines and arrangements. At the same time, I’d see Binney writing in every moment of his free time. I wasn’t trying to be like him. I just realized that’s how it’s supposed to be. Once you practice, you have to put something on the paper, or you can’t improvise properly. Michael Brecker also inspired me to write in this style—I remember a piece where he recorded himself, then transcribed it. So every day, when I practice on the trumpet, I try to get out of the regular technique routine. My goal is to come up with an original phrase each day. Sometimes I’m lucky, and that phrase becomes the beginning of an original melody, an original composition.”

Between 1993 and 1998, Sipiagin had opportunities to practice on a rent-paying gig backing singers alongside Butman every weekend for $350 and tips at Rasputin’s, a windowless restaurant on Coney Island Avenue that attracted all strata of Russian emigre society. “I could put my brain at ease and experiment with exercises on high chops, which helped me play lead,” he said. “There were a lot of functioning Russian restaurants, and they all had a large, all-Russian band, so it was easy to find support. Now, most of the Russian musicians became taxi drivers.”

With his earnings, Sipiagin was also able to retain a lawyer to shepherd him through the green-card process. Randy Brecker brought him into the Mingus Orchestra in 1995, the same year that George Gruntz—who had hired Sipiagin on Chris Hunter’s recommendation the year before—brought him to Russia for the first time since he’d left.

“Even though I had my green card and everything was cool, I was still afraid something would happen,” Sipiagin said of that trip. “We had bodyguards with guns. Those guys were wild: ‘Hey, you want to shoot? … I took another long break before I came back.”

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