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)

During that break, Sipiagin, with much coaching from Binney, expanded his compositional horizons.

“David could see that I had a long way to go,” Sipiagin said. “He forced me to practice, and introduced me to the big musical styles that modern New York music is based on—deep traditions like Paul Bley, Weather Report [and Brazilian composers] Hermeto Pascoal and Egberto Gismonti—but done in a completely different way. Both Gil and Dave Holland gave me ideas on writing in a polyphonic style, having the second voice as important as the first. Although Mingus’ music didn’t have a big impact on my compositions, for me it was like a great study period, where I learned a lot of tradition, but also realized that I can take chances, try whatever I hear. It gave me the freedom to feel like an American musician. I started to feel more free, less shy. Coming here from Russia, my head was always: ‘Those guys really can play, and I can’t.’ But when I started to play with the Mingus band and later with Dave Holland, this disappeared. I felt, ‘OK, I can do the same thing if I practice enough.’”

After a single visit to Russia in 1998 with Kozlov, Adam Rogers and Gene Jackson, Sipiagin ended his self-imposed exile in 2005 with a few visits to his hometown. He recalled that Butman—who, having resettled in Russia for a decade, had parlayed friendships and connections with members of Russia’s ruling United Party into a jazz empire—said to him, “Please don’t come back here; it’s my territory.” Sipiagin continued: “It was a joke. But Igor started giving me opportunities to bring musicians into his club in Moscow.”

Sipiagin has made about 30 visits to Russia since 2005, including multiple occasions with the Mingus Dynasty and Opus Five; separate configurations with Blake and Donny McCaslin; a quartet with Kozlov, David Gilmore and Edwards; and ever more numerous encounters with Russia’s talented jazzfolk.

Two months after the Moments Captured recording session, Sipiagin returned to Systems Two to overdub trumpet and flugelhorn parts. Escreet came by, too, with his Prophet-6, to contribute additional ideas. After all the i’s were dotted and t’s crossed, Sipiagin decided to celebrate. Joined by a friend and DownBeat, he drove south five miles, past Rasputin’s, now shuttered, to an Uzbek restaurant in Sheepshead Bay, a few blocks from the apartment he moved into in 1991. The meal again featured dumplings, complemented by a salad of julienned daikon, sliced tongue and cucumber; herring with pearl onions and boiled potatoes; extremely fresh pickled organic vegetables; and a bottle of birch-infused Nemiroff vodka.

“What I do is the New York sound, which you can feel only after you’ve lived here a while,” Sipiagin said, as we waited for the dumplings. “There are amazing rhythm sections everywhere, everything is musical and perfect, and you go for it 100 percent.” This assessment is emblemized, he feels, by Moments Captured.

“It completely breaks through my old tunes,” he continued. “It’s partly to be new and old at the same time. I used musicians who in the past transformed my music into zones I didn’t expect. To me, they’re the best musicians in the world, not just stars. I called Eric Harland not because he’s ‘Eric Harland,’ but because of our hook-up during the Dave Holland days. I felt it, filtered it and heard in my head how it would sound with my music—and it came through exactly as I felt. I have a similar history with all these guys, and I’m writing with their sounds in mind. When I write a second voice or contrapuntal voice, I already hear Chris’ sound. It’s so strong that it gives me ideas—and confidence: No matter what I write, it’s going to be something great. For this record, I wrote a bunch of sketches, which I knew they would take in a completely different direction. By ‘sketches’ I mean, I go on the road, I hear some melody, I put it on my iPhone or laptop or notebook. Then when I get home, I put things together and see what makes sense.

“Another important thing: I discovered John Escreet’s love for organic analog synths. Maybe a year-and-a-half ago, he brought these synths to my gig at the 55 Bar, and I fell in love with it immediately, and I asked John if he’d be available and willing to be on my next record. It fascinated me how he improvised with sounds. It reminds me of playing in the Gil Evans band, when he’d use three piano players at a time, which was my first experience of understanding synth as an organic instrument.”

Sipiagin sneaked an occasional peek at the television at the back of the restaurant, tuned to a Russian-language station. “I watch Russian TV a lot,” he said. “Not because I want to make sense of what’s going on, but I recognize the streets where I walked 25 years ago, and all of a sudden there’s some smell of Russian blini. After I compose something, I often recognize magic movements, things that I developed a long time ago by listening to Russian classical music, or even Russian movie music, which is always nostalgic and minor. It’s weird. I’m in America, but I still have roots.” DB

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