by Ian Mann
March 30, 2015
Expands upon the promise exhibited by the first Smiling Organizm record. An album that is once again bursting with ideas.
Zhenya Strigalev’s Smiling Organizm
(Whirlwind Recordings WR4655)
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 first album, “Smiling Organizm”, on the Whirlwind Recordings label, a hugely impressive début that I described at the time as being “flavoured by bebop, but fully embracing of more contemporary developments, this is music that feels modern, urban and urgent”.
Smiling Organizm” was also notable for its stunning cast of international musicians from Russia, the US and the UK. Most of these are also present on this follow up release with the name Smiling Organizm now also being given to the band itself.
For this second album Strigalev has favoured a line up full of illustrious American sidemen. The twin bass attack of Larry Grenadier (acoustic) and Tim Lefebvre (electric) remains, these two forming a rhythmic alliance with the great drummer Eric Harland. Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and pianist Taylor Eigsti replace Vitaly Golovnev and Liam Noble respectively. Strigalev is famed as being something of an eccentric but he’s also a great energiser and organiser and it represents a pretty impressive feat not only to get so many famous names together but also to get them to gel cohesively as a band, which is exactly what the young Russian has done here. The roots of many of these associations lie in the famous late night jams that Strigalev organises at Charlie Wright’s in London, Grenadier played there with the group Fly, Lefebvre with the band Rudder, and so the web expands.
The frankly rather strange album title comes from a weird conflation of “Robin Hood” and “Boogie Woogie”, the kind of screwball idea that only Strigalev could come up with. He explains ” I haven’t read the adventures of Robin Hood but I’ve seen the film!. There’s a lot of nature, humour, heroism, strong personalities, love, rebelliousness and, of course some, stupidity” . And suddenly the daft name seems to make sense because all these qualities can be heard in Strigalev’s music. The tunes were sketched out in a remote location (“lots of forest, nature and no people”) before being brought to the band. Strigalev dedicates it to England and his time spent here.
“Robin Goodie” expands upon the promise exhibited by the first Smiling Organizm record. A particularly significant development is that Grenadier and Lefebvre are now working in tandem rather than alternating the bass duties as on the début. Strigalev explains “the main idea behind that was to combine straight ahead jazz with groove/fusion beats, to take the best of both (for me) and put them together”. It’s an approach that works very effectively on an album that is once again bursting with ideas.
For instance opener “KUKU” combines a classic bebop/Blue Note styled melodic theme with a contemporary hip hop inspired groove that includes Lefebvre’s subtle electronic effects. The music then opens out via Strigalev’s acerbic but passionate alto sax probing and Akinmusire’s absorbing dialogue with Harland. There’s a lot going on here, particularly rhythmically, and the resultant music is intense but exhilarating.
“Horizontal Appreciation” develops out of a cerebrally funky dialogue between Lefebvre and Harland on to which Grenadier’s arco bass is subsequently skilfully grafted, a brilliant example of electric and acoustic bass specialists working effectively together in the company of a master drummer. Eigsti and the horns are subsequently added with Strigalev and Akinmusire initially working in unison as the music continues to develop. Eigsti’s expansive piano solo takes the music into more conventional jazz territory although the rhythms remain thoroughly contemporary. Once again there’s a great deal going on and the music turns on a dime in terms of both style and dynamics, an extended feature for Harland is followed by a more reflective free jazz episode and so on. Strigalev has ideas to burn and despite the dedication to England one suspects that much of this music is very much informed by the jazz scene of New York City.
“Sharp Night” harks back to Strigalev’s bebop roots in a way that almost sounds like a pastiche, but there’s no denying the energy, and fluency of his Charlie Parker inspired alto solo above the scalding urgency of the rhythms generated by Grenadier and Harland. Lefebvre’s electronics add a contemporary touch and Eigsti’s wry piano solo adds a balancing sweetness.
“Pinch” combines funk rhythms with melodic elegance and incorporates absorbing solos from Strigalev and Eigsti while Akinmusire adds almost impossibly high register trumpet.
The tension between the old and the new is half the appeal of this album. “Unlimited Source of Pleasure” offers the now familiar blending of relatively conventional bebop inspired soloing with adventurous contemporary rhythms. There are assured, fluent features from both Strigalev and Akinmusire as Harland and co stir up a maelstrom of rhythms just below the surface.
Eigsti opens “Stake” with a ruminative passage of solo piano but the mood soon changes with an impassioned series of fiery exchanges between Akinmusire and Strigalev as Harland again drums up a storm. But on an album that rarely stays in one place or sustains a single mood for long the pianist subsequently returns for a further moment of quiet reflection.
The title track features Strigalev’s heavily accented and frankly pretty ludicrous declaration “Hi My Name is Robin Goodie”. This occurs after an energetic opening section that blends elements of bop, funk, hip hop and even Ornette Coleman. It follows a particularly inventive alto solo and offers a surreal punctuation before similarly imaginative outpourings of ideas from Akinmusire and Eigsti above the relentless polyrhythmic flow generated by Harland.
“Lorton” presents a slightly more reflective side of the band but is no less imaginative. Akinmusire’s contribution is particularly impressive and there’s also a highly inventive piano solo from Eigsti allied to some typically colourful work in the rhythm department.
“Personal Opinion” is centred around a riff based, Ornette Coleman style melodic fragment but also includes passages of freely structured improvisation with Eigsti’s piano the thread that holds it all together as Strigalev’s alto needles away.
The title “Urgent Ballad” is the kind of oxymoron that is actually a perfect encapsulation of Strigalev’s music. And the piece is a ballad of sorts with the leader’s sax sounding plaintive and exposed in a pared down trio situation that also includes a highly expressive acoustic bass solo from Grenadier. Harland finally slows down and provides subtly brushed commentary before the piece ends with an absorbing extended passage of solo saxophone.
The album ends in more typical energetic fashion with the free-wheeling twisted bebop of “Renduta"which features thrillingly urgent solos from Strigalev, Akinmusire and Eigsti above a backdrop of seethingly inventive rhythms. There’s also something of a feature for the outstanding Harland, highly appropriate given that he is so often the backbone music and co-produced the album with Strigalev. It’s almost his album as much as the leader’s.
Strigalev has come up with another impressive album that thrills the listener with its energy, skill and sheer out pouring of ideas. The same virtues that imbued the first Smiling Organizm are again present but “Robin Goodie” represents a clear progression with the successful integration of the relatively rare pairing of acoustic and electric basses constituting a particularly impressive and innovative feat. Both Grenadier and Lefebvre bring plenty to the table and impress both individually and together, both benefiting from Harland’s relentless energy, inventiveness and flow of ideas. Akinmusire is always a joy to listen to and is one of the most inventive and adept young trumpeters around and Eigsti manages to carve out some space for himself within the harmonic and rhythmic tumult. This album has been my first prolonged exposure to the pianist’s playing and overall I was very impressed. As for Strigalev himself he impresses both as a performer and also as a composer and arranger with an innovative and highly personalised musical vision that draws upon many styles, sources and experiences.
Some listeners may find the title/concept a bit silly and the album could perhaps use a little more light and shade, with the exception of “Urgent Ballad” most of the record is pretty intense, but these are minor quibbles in the context of a very successful album overall.
The international make up of the Smiling Organizm band ensures that its live appearances are comparatively rare but one would imagine that club or concert performances by this line up are wildly exciting affairs. A version of the group has recently finished a European tour and Strigalev is also due to perform with the band in New York. A full scale British tour however seems an unlikely but tantalising prospect.
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