Equilibrium

liner notes
"At this point of my life, I feel I am finally beginning to understand what balance is," says trumpeter Alex Sipiagin, 36, explicating the title of his fourth Criss Cross album. "I'm more secure to express myself, without thinking about what I should and should not do."

Sipiagin recorded Equilibrium several months after a late summer 2003 tour with the Dave Holland Big Band. He and an A-list cohort of young veterans of the New York jazz wars, all close associates, who have played on eaech other's recordings, sessions, and rehearsals for more than a decade, impart creative spirit and instrumental wizardry to a program of five originals, a rearranged Thelonious Monk standard, a Toninho Horta ballad, and a pair of spontaneous collective improvs.

"I wrote the music mostly on trips with Dave," Sipiagin reveals. "I carry a keyboard and computer with me, and I record sketches into the computer. When I come home I glean all the idea,s and arrange them together. I can tell I've grown up during this period. I've started to write and think about music differently. For one thing, I'm taking things more seriously, focusing on who I am and what I want to do. Dave helped me understand how important it is not to be disappointed about making mistakes, but to just move forward. Mistakes are part of the proces. I wasn't happy with one particular moment of a solo I played on his record, so I asked him if I could replay. He said, 'No way. The most important thing is the idea of the solo, and even if there's a mistake or you miss a note, I can understand what you're trying to reach.'"

"Of course," Sipiagin adds in an acute moment of self-description, "you've got to play as good as possible" -- and he does. With an embouchure honed by years of classical training in Russia, his homeland, and a New York decade-plus playing charts with the Gil Evans Orchestra, the Mingus Orchestra, and numerous A-list ensembles, he can execute anything he hears, projecting his instrumental voice with a round, burnished tone in all registers and fiercely accurate articulation at all tempos. As trombonist Conrad Herwig observed several years ago: "Sasha's playing is totally fresh and modern. He's an incredibly disciplined virtuoso. He takes chances, but his brass playing ability keeps him always in control. He can play lead in a big band and play the most lyrical jazz solos you would want. He can take it in any direction, but he's very solidly grounded."

"We kind of agree on everything, in general," Sipiagin remarks of his bandmates, who command vocabulary from the full timeline of jazz modernism and share the bilingual bent of so many of today's strongest young musicians. "We're all listening to music from different countries and cultures -- for example, the modern music going on in Brazil. Everybody's open-minded, so things don't go only in one direction."

The tonal personalities of saxophonists Chris Potter and Dave Binney -- who joined Sipiagin on his 1996 debut, Images -- embody that multidirectional attitude. "He's a perfect example of a musician who creates his own style," says Sipiagin of Potter, a '90s bandmate in the Mingus Orchestra and more recently with Dave Holland. Playing tenor and soprano saxophone with equal elan, Potter uncorks one amazing solo after another, reinforcing yet again his position as a preeminent force in 21st Century jazz.

Less visible to the wider public than Potter, with whom he frequently collaborates, Binney has influenced the New York scene at a level that far transcends his profile, helping members of the city's various musical communities bridge vocabularies and find hybrid solutions.

"Dave Kikoski is a universal player, a super-talented, gifted pianist who makes the music sound great," Sipiagin says. "And Scott Colley is my favorite bassist. He has a strong personality in his style, and can define everything from Bach to avant-garde to bebop to modern music forms. Gene Jackson is one of my favorite drummers. He's like a rock. I can count on him and feel secure, even during very complicated music. I trust him totally."

Both Colley and Jackson have played extensively with Herbie Hancock, a training that informs their approach to Sipiagin's "Mood 2," the program-opener. "The title describes the song," says the composer. "It's less like a tune than a mood you enter and sustain throughout all the parts. The rhythm section is like a big wheel rolling through the whole song, supporting a brass and woodwind section. You don't really think about nuances. It plays itself and sets up the spirit of the rest of record."

In the shape of the melody and the phrasing of the line, Sipiagin acknowledges a connotation of trumpet icon Woody Shaw, his muse in student days. "But my first influence is definitely from playing with Dave Holland," he adds. "I was trying to create a simple melodyy and a complicated background, the melody staying on the top and something going on at the bottom." Addressing the Fender Rhodes, Kikoski comps the chords with a plush tone not unlike what vibraphonist Steve Nelson provides Holland's ensembles, and Jackson modulates the meters with propulsive finesse, setting up a cushion that supports fiery solos from Sipiagin and Potter, the latter on soprano.

The rise-and-fall motif of the equally combustible title track conveys an aura of equilibrium and balance. "I tried to create a form with two 4/4/ bars and 3/4 bars repeating in an AA section, and make a completely new B-section," Sipiagin says.

Criss Cross connoisseurs may be surprised to hear "Free 1" and "Free 2," the two collective improvs that the band spontaneously essayed after recording all the material Sipiagin brought to the session.

Asked whether their inclusion denotes an inner confidence, self-assuredness and maturation among these musicians that allows them to take liberties they might have eschewed in earlier years, Sipiagin responds: "Yes. Everybody feels like they can take more chances and express themselves right on the spot. Some people would probably ask themselves, 'Should I do this or not?' But these musicians can afford to do this; I knew it was going to be great."

Sipiagin again credits the inspiring example of Holland -- who, after three heady years with Miles Davis, spent much of the '70s playing with free jazz avatar Sam Rivers and multidisciplinary restructuralist Anthony Braxton, while also gigging with the likes of Stan Getz and Betty Carter -- for this development. "Dave's records with Sam Rivers, as well as Charlie Haden and early Pat Metheny with Ornette Coleman are some of my favorite music," Sipiagin says. "They have an amazing freedom, which I like the most. At the same time, I understand that you cannot play the song without knowledge. You've got to be an amazing musician and create your style through the years."

(more in the CD)

Ted Panken
New York, July 2004
Mood-2 (from "Live at Birds Eye")
Equilibrium (from "Equilibrium")
Evidence (from "Equilibrium")
Sonhando Com O Meu Primeiro Amor (from "Equilibrium")
Free - 1 (from "Equilibrium")
High (from "Equilibrium")
Good Morning (from "Equilibrium")
Blues For Kids (from "Equilibrium")
Free 2 (from "Equilibrium")

personnel
Alex Sipiagin (trumpet, flugelhorn)
Chris Potter (tenor & soprano sax)
David Binney (alto & soprano sax)
David Kikoski (piano)
Scott Colley (bass)
Gene Jackson (drums)

Produced by Gerry Teekens
Executive Producer: K. Hasselpflug
Recording Engineer: Max Bollerman
Recorded: December 16, 2003

Photography: Gildas Bocle
Cover Design: Gerry Teekens & H. Bloemendaal