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Zhenya Strigalev

Smiling Organizm


by Ian Mann

June 14, 2012


Flavoured by bebop but fully embracing of more modern developments this is music that feels modern, urban and urgent.

Zhenya Strigalev

“Smiling Organizm”

(Whirlwind Recordings WR4624)

Alto saxophonist and composer Zhenya Strigalev is currently launching this album at his spiritual home, Charlie Wright’s in Hoxton. Born in St. Petersburg Strigalev came to London in 2007 to study at the Royal Academy of Music. He has also spent time working in New York and this new album boasts a truly international cast from Russia, the US and the UK. The Russian contingent comprises of Strigalev on alto and his compatriot Vitaly Golovnev on trumpet. From America there is drummer Eric Harland with bass duties shared between Larry Grenadier (acoustic) and Tim Lefebvre (electric) and from the UK our own Liam Noble at the piano. It’s an all star line up, the strength of which is a tribute to the fieriness and imagination of Strigalev’s playing.

Released on Michael Janisch’s Whirlwind record label and produced by tWO Music’s Patsy Craig the album’s notes consist of a a surreal and enigmatic short story that tells you little about the music other than to expect something different. And although the music is loosely within the bop and post bop tradition that’s exactly what Strigalev delivers, his music is free of cliché, often restlessly urgent and just bursting with ideas.

Opener “Fletcher” is typical, flavoured by bebop but fully embracing of more modern developments it feels modern, urban and urgent. Feverish solos are linked by bubbling ensemble passages. Strigalev solos first shadowed by the restless patter of Harland’s drums and the interlocking lines of the two bassists When Golovnev takes over he proves to be as fertile as his compatriot combining a bright tone with inventive smearing techniques. Finally there’s a feature for the brilliant Harland in which he demonstrates just why he’s come to be regarded as one of the world’s top drummers, the first call for Charles Lloyd, Dave Holland, Joshua Redman etc.

“Anchovies” is less obviously full on but still packs a certain edginess, its strong melodic hook and odd meter grooves giving scope for quirky features from the resourceful Noble and from Strigalev himself, the saxophonist’s sound dry, raw and unfettered. Harland again impresses with his hard hitting grooves and Lefebvre makes a powerful, electronically enhanced contribution. 

The old Kenny Ball hit “Midnight In Moscow” offers a wry nod to Strigalev’s Russian roots but is thoroughly de-constructed, the familiar melody eventually staggering forth from Lefebvre and Harland’s loosely structured electric bass and drum intro. Strigalev and his colleagues imbue the old chestnut with a contemporary urban edge with the horns squalling above a fashionably loose rhythm section dominated by Harland’s powerful drumming.

“Fairy Stairs” represents a pause for breath, an abstract ballad featuring Strigalev on alto, Noble on piano and Harland showing his sensitive side on delicately brushed drums. The piece also features an extended solo from the excellent acoustic bassist Larry Grenadier, best known for his work with the Fly trio and with pianist Brad Mehldau. Noble and Strigalev also make notable solo contributions, the saxophonist displaying an unexpected lyricism.

“Sarmas” boasts an attractive hook and groove, both imbued with a degree of Strigalev’s trademark quirkiness. It’s intelligent, angular post bop with Strigalev taking the first solo above Noble’s inspired and inventive piano accompaniment. The British pianist acquits himself well in the presence of heavy American rhythm section company.
Golovenv’s solo is trumpet solo is similarly bright and imaginative.

Strigalev gives a nod to his bebop roots on the fast moving, boppish “Yaspin” with the young altoist doffing his hat to Charlie Parker. Noble is as individualistic as ever confirming that he was definitely the right choice for this project.

“Permandent” is a lengthy excursion that builds from Lefebvre’s bass groove and Strigalev’s simple hook to embrace a marathon alto solo. Strigalev is noted for his staying power at Charlie Wright’s late night jam sessions and indeed it’s the Charlie’s connection that has brought many of these players to this album. Grenadier has played there with Fly and Lefebvre with the group Rudder. Noble, Lefebvre and Golovnev also make impressive contributions to what sounds a little like an extended jam. Harland’s propulsive drumming is a driving force throughout.

The following “Rally” employs a similar structure gradually building from an opening groove and sax hook. This time the music has deeper bebop roots and is basically acoustic with Grenadier taking the bass solo. Strigalev’s dry, acerbic alto sax leads off the soloing, the young Russian sounding a little like Jackie McLean. He’s followed by the impressive Grenadier and Harland enjoys a series of drum breaks trading phrases with Noble and Strigalev. 

The closing “Talmenoakin” is more frankly into funk with Lefebvre’s springy electric bass setting the pace shadowed by Harland’s busy drumming. But Strigalev soon brings something of his musical personality to bear threatening to punctuate the groove with woozy slower passages. Nevertheless there’s plenty of energy about his solo above a brisk bass and drum groove with Noble’s strong left hand rhythms offering extra interest. Noble’s own solo is typically quirky and percussive, he is a unique piano stylist, and his contribution is complemented by Lefebvre’s elastic grooves and Harland’s restlessly busy drumming. Some of the unison riffing is remarkably tight, Particularly leading up to Golavnev’s contribution, but there some admirably loose moments too, Throughout the album Strigalev maintains a good balance between structure and freedom.

“Shining Organizm” (it’s subtitled Vol. 1 thereby implying that there’s more to come) is an impressive statement. Rooted in bebop but not hidebound by it the album has a highly contemporary edge and an urgent, unmistakably urban sound. Strigalev and his colleagues avoid the standard bop clichés, and as a recent interview with him in Jazzwise Magazine concluded you have to understand the rules in order to break them. The band certainly do that here and the quality of the playing plus the individuality of Strigalev’s writing ensures that everything sounds bright and fresh with a surprise around every corner. “I like to be free, but to use the right language” says Strigalev which sums the album up pretty nicely. It’s very much the leader’s album but everybody plays well with Harland’s dynamic drumming particularly notable and with Noble the harmonic glue that holds it all together. If the album has a fault it’s that there is only one ballad, most of the music is pretty intense and the album could arguably have done with just a little bit more light and shade.

The launch nights at Charlie Wright’s (13th-16th June 2012, see listings) should be well worth seeing with Strigalev, Noble and Lefebvre joined by trumpeter Steve Fishwick, double bassist Michael Janisch and drummer Obed Calvaire. On each night the first set will feature Strigalev with tabla player Sukhvinder Singh and bass guitarist/producer Pete Cochrane.       




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