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Zhenya Strigalev

Never Group


by Ian Mann

June 28, 2016


“Never Group” offers further evidence that Strigalev is one of the music's most original thinkers.There's certainly no denying the energy and urgency of the music and the brilliance of the playing.

Zhenya Strigalev

“Never Group”

(Whirlwind Recordings WR4685)

The alto saxophonist and composer Zhenya Strigalev was born in St. Petersburg but came to the UK in 2007 to study at the Royal Academy of Music. On completing his studies he decided to keep London as his base but he has also spent some time living and working in New York and has built up an impressive range of contacts from the jazz scenes of both his adopted cities.

In 2012 Strigalev released his début album “Smiling Organizm” (Whirlwind Recordings) which featured an impressive international cast of musicians from Russia, the UK and the USA.  Among the American contingent were drummer Eric Harland and electric bass specialist Tim Lefebvre who both subsequently appeared on Strigalev’s 2015 follow up, the curiously titled “Robin Goodie”, also released on Whirlwind and credited to Zhenya Strigalev’s Smiling Organizm.

For this latest release Strigalev has dropped the Smiling Organizm band name but has retained the services of Harland and Lefebvre who join the saxophonist to form the core trio on this recording. The album also includes contributions from Matt Penman (acoustic bass), John Escreet (keyboards) and Alex Bonney (trumpet). The input of the Austrian electronic musician and composer Bruno Liberda is also a significant influence on the fabric of the album.

Recorded in Berlin Strigalev’s latest offering is a truly international project and builds upon both the promise and the eccentricities of the previous two records. Strigalev possesses a manic energy and appears to be a musician with ideas to burn - but for all his eccentric eclecticism he’s also a great energiser and organiser and the way in which he brings together musicians from different countries and different jazz scenes and gets them to gel cohesively is undeniably impressive. Many of these musical friendships were forged at the jam nights that Strigalev used to curate at Charlie Wright’s International Jazz Bar in London.

This latest album features a change in Strigalev’s recording methods. This time round there’s an even greater emphasis on improvisation with several of the pieces being credited to Strigalev/Harland/Lefebvre having been sourced and edited from a four hour studio jam session. There are also a number of more formal compositions from the pen of Strigalev plus four collaborations with Liberda. Running for over seventy minutes and featuring twenty different tracks “Never Group” is a sprawling opus and if the album sounds fragmentary that’s only because this was very much Strigalev’s intention. He has expressed a desire that the record should feature “the unexpected and the fleeting”, the project title intended to reflect something of that ethos. The way in which the album is constructed is like a collage, there’s real sense of ‘cut and paste’ about it – but mostly in a good way. 

Strigalev explains;
“The whole point of what I do is that I need to surprise myself. I don’t what to record something which sounds exactly like this or like that because that’s not interesting enough to me. Sometimes I can simply feel a tempo, a mood or an atmosphere and I know that this trio will provide the opportunity to develop that”.

Strigalev sets his stall out on the opening track “I Messed Up At The End Of My Solo” which features a parodic Radio 3 style announcement by vocalist Charles Armstrong, his smoothly cultured tones including a declaration that the music we are about to hear represents “a mix of different styles, swing bands of the 40s, bebop, the experimental groups of the 60s and 70s, modern jazz and electricity”. Effectively it’s a manifesto, or mission statement, and it’s one that Strigalev and his colleagues deliver in spades.

The core trio quickly get down to business with Strigalev’s composition “Bio Active” with its bustling, rumbling drum and electric bass grooves, melodic sax fragments and dynamic unison passages. It bristles with a threatening, urban energy, doubtless originally forged in the crucible of the New York City jazz scene. 

There’s no let up in the intensity on “Not Upset” the first of the improvised “codas” that punctuate the album. Harland and Lefebvre establish another powerful dystopian groove backed by an underpinning electronic drone as Strigalev sprinkles dashes of alto sax melody onto the murky surface. Edited from a longer improvisation the piece finishes with a shocking abruptness and segues into the electronically enhanced atmospherics of “Bassgeigengeister”, this composition credited jointly to Strigalev and Liberda. 

“Some Thomas”, Strigalev’s tribute to Sonny Rollins is the most conventionally ‘jazz’ track thus far with its catchy Rollins inspired melodic hook and seductively funky grooves. Clearly inspired by Rollins’ own jazz calypso “St. Thomas” this is Strigalev’s homage to one of his primary influences.

“Strange Party (coda2)” is a ferocious drum and bass improvisation featuring the interlocking grooves of Harland and Lefebvre as the pair jam around Strigalev’s composition “Strange Party”, the more formal version of which appears later on the album. The saxophonist actually sits out this improvised ‘coda’ but there’s still plenty of interest going on with the rhythm team just bursting with energy and ideas on this dynamic, rocky, grungy, high octane workout.

“Plastiksackerl im Wind”, the second electronic episode featuring Liberda acts as punctuation between two improvised codas as Harland and Lefebvre are soon upping the energy levels again with the percolating grooves of “Little Struggle (coda3)” with Strigalev now rejoining the fray with further flashes of sax melody above the churning rhythms.

Next we hear the full length “Strange Party” which develops out of a loosely structured bass and drum intro and gradually embraces a more obviously composed feel. The grooves are both supple and propulsive and provide a sturdy framework for Strigalev’s lengthy and increasingly impassioned alto explorations. Occasionally the music suggests the influence of Ornette Coleman but a more obvious parallel is arguably Steve Coleman and the M-Base movement.

There are some astonishing sounds on the splendidly quirky “Reading Shakespeare” but I wouldn’t like to speculate about the provenance of all of them. Strigalev’s surreal musical humour is variously reminiscent of Frank Zappa, Django Bates and even Elliot Galvin.

However “Second Hand” demonstrates that Strigalev’s writing can be serious, and beautiful even. The saxophonist plays with great feeling as Harland demonstrates the more thoughtful side of his playing as he makes the switch from sticks to brushes. And if I’m not mistaken that’s Penman on acoustic bass.

The wispy electronics of “Heimwehharfe” represent the final contribution as a joint composer from Liberda whose input to the album is never less than interesting and often highly effective.

The infectious “Snail” lopes along at a pace that belies its title, the threads of melody, elastic grooves and electronic embellishments sometimes reminding me of the music of Polar Bear. Alex Bonney, who was also involved in the engineering process, adds a splash of additional instrumental colour on trumpet.

The fourth improvised coda features the trio jamming on the “Reading Shakespeare” theme with Harland’s whiplash drum groove and LeFebvre’s omnipresent bass rumble augmented by Strigalev’s gently probing alto and a soupçon of electronic enhancement.

The hooky “Hot Exactly” is a compelling blend of old and new with Strigalev’s vaguely Parker-ish alto combining with the more contemporary sounds of Lefebvre’s electric bass growl.

The trio’s second jam around “Strange Party” has more of a bebop feel than its companion pieces with Strigalev busily loquacious on also as Harland and Lefebvre whip up a skittering but propulsive groove behind him.

There’s also a second jam utilising the “Not Upset” title featuring a slowly loping bass groove and lazy sax melody allied to the clicks and shimmer of Harland’s percussion.

It’s been suggested that the title “Are you Manageable ? “ would also have made a great name for a Frank Zappa tune. The piece features wonderfully weird gothic sounding organ from Escreet and a surreal vocal interjection that echoes the spirit of Uncle Frank. Elsewhere Strigalev gets to blow some joyously incantatory alto as Lefebvre and Harland combine with Escreet to generate an increasingly intense and ominous groove. It’s one of the album’s stand out tracks.

The atmospheric “The Slow Rub” features Strigalev’s ruminations above what sounds like the drone of a bowed acoustic bass, Penman presumably, as Harland adds succinct commentary and colouration at the kit, again demonstrating the more sensitive side of his playing.

The album concludes with ‘coda7’, the final jam under the “Not Upset” title which takes the album storming out in a blaze of electronically embellished drum and bass urgency as Strigalev blows long sax melody lines.

All in all “Never Group” represents another impressive artistic statement from Strigalev. His writing is impressive with the through composed tunes displaying plenty of colour, variety and intelligence.
However it’s the jams that initially catch the ear for their sheer energy and technical brilliance. Harland and Lefebvre make a superb team and both have impressive musical pedigrees. Harland has worked extensively with saxophonist Charles Lloyd and Lefebvre with guitarist Wayne Krantz and pianist Michael Wollny. The bassist was also part of the New York based band that worked with David Bowie in his final album “Black Star”. Both are immense on this record with Harland particularly impressive, his powerful but incredibly precise drumming is right at the heart of the music.

Strigalev says of the pair;
“No other rhythm section sounds like Eric and Tim. I like their chemistry together and I wanted to collaborate with them to record a chordless trio album which gave me more freedom, so I could further expand my musical language”. 

“Never Group” offers further evidence that Strigalev is one of the music’s most original thinkers. The album’s stylistic variety and ‘cut and paste’ approach may not appeal to all listeners but I found it all strangely compelling and ultimately highly convincing, even the electronic episodes involving Liberda. There’s certainly no denying the energy and urgency of the music and the brilliance of the playing with Strigalev managing to tie the whole thing together in a highly effective manner.

Strigalev will be taking a trio version of the Never Group on a tour of the UK and Ireland during July 2016 featuring Whirlwind label owner Michael Janisch on bass and the Spanish born Marc Ayza at the drums. It’s an intriguing prospect. The tour schedule appears below;   

on tour
with the Never Group Trio
featuring Michael Janisch on bass and Marc Ayza on drums

1 July - Ray’s Jazz, London
5 July - Spotted Dog, Birmingham
6 July - Dempsey’s, Cardiff
7 July - Soundcellar, Poole (& daytime workshop)
8 July - Burdall’s Yard, Bath
9 July - Billinghurst Arts, Billinghurst
12 July - 606 Club, London (featuring Heidi Vogel on vocals)
13 & 14 July - The Jazz Bar, Edinburgh
15 July - The Jazz Co-Op, Newcastle
17 July - Jazz at the Albert, Bristol
22 July - Bennigan’s, Derry, Ireland
23 July - Sligo Jazz Festival, Ireland (day time)
23 & 24 July - JJ Smyth’s, Dublin, Ireland
26 July - The Phoenix, York
29 July - Hot Numbers, Cambridge, England

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