liner notes
"Sasha has developed his own lexicon," trumpeter Brian Lynch said, responding to Alex Sipiagin's performance of Pat Metheny's "Son of Thirteen," on the 2004 Criss Cross date, Returning during a Downbeat Blindfold Test not long ago.  "I could tell it was him in a fairly short amount of time.  That's not a mark of my acuity as a listener.  That's a mark of his acuity as somebody who has his stuff together, is instantly recognizable, and can play the living hell out of the trumpet."

Lynch's remarks reasonably describe the mastery that Sipiagin displays throughout Mirages, his seventh Criss Cross outing, for which, per his custom, he convened a cast of all-star team players.  It's a milestone achievement for the 41-year-old trumpeter, not so much for the panache with which he reaffirms his position as an individualistic stylist who has found his own way to deploy vocabulary, syntax, and phrasing drawn from the corpus of post-obp trumpet giants Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, and Woody Shaw, than that Sipiagin launches his investigations within contexts, both formal and emotional, that both mirror and extend the environments that his formative heroes navigated during their finest hours.

"In the past, I always wanted to do a record like this, but as soon as I started writing, I naturally went into a different direction," Sipiagin says.  "For some reason, this record came out more straight ahead than the previous ones."  His primary inspiration for operating on these terms of engagement, he continues, is pianist Mulgrew Miller, with whom he established a friendship over several tours in 2006 and 2007 with the recently established Dave Holland Sextet, which the master bassist-composer built around Miller's sound.

"For me, Mulgrew embodies the tradition of the piano, going back to early influences," Holland told me in October.  "It's all there in his playing.  But he's managed to create a very individual, personal, and contemporary way of using those influences.  He is also a consummate accompanist.  It's a thrill to hear what he's playing behind the soloist; not only soloing on piano, but what he does within the rhythm section."

Sipiagin himself has admired Miller since hearing the pianist's iconic early '80s recordings with Woody Shaw, which he transcribed while attending the Gnessen Institute of Music in Moscow.  "I was inspired by Mulgrew's sound when I was writing the tunes," he says.  "I could imagine his comping and beautiful solo developments."

He segues to Shaw.  "The records Mulgrew did with Woody opened up my directions musically.  I admired Woody's serious approach to playing, without any tricks.  For example, one can sometimes play high notes for a long time, or do something flashy and technical, and people get excited.  I didn't hear any tricks from Woody.  In a way, he was like Miles.  He had his style, and he was honest to it until the end of his life.  Every solo comes from his heart and his beautiful concept."

If Sipiagin feels closest to Shaw's improvisational aesthetic, his compositional ideas seem most inspired by the elegant polyphony and polyrhythm of Holland's charts (the bassist's phrase is "closed from music with an open form sound") and by the episodic emotionalism of the music of Charles Mingus, with which Sipiagin has grown intimate during thirteen years with various configurations of the Mingus Orchestra.  

"In Dave's music, you see simultaneously very constructed writing using odd meters, etc., and at the same time complete free-style jazz, with a very high-level of performance," he says.  "It's very deep and original.  Over the last few years, I've learned to be more open-minded and confident at the same time.  Sometimes when I write tunes, I'm a little embarrassed that it might sound corny or strange, that somebody will listen and make a judgment.  But then I think, 'Wait a second -- I kind of like it!'  I've learned to go for it, but that feeling is always there.  perhaps that insecurity is a complex from Russia, because jazz is so much an American thing."

In that regard, Sipiagin describes the evolution of his playing since he made his debut Criss Cross date, Steppin' Zone,' in 2000.  "I think I'm definitely playing better," he says.  "I pay a lot of attention to my playing.  I record myself, and I've been teaching at Groningen Conservatory, where I have to clarify my ideas when I talk to the students about my concept.  I also ask my friends to tell me frankly what they think.  For example, a few years ago Eddie Henderson, whom I used to play with in the Mingus Orchestra, told me that if I took breaks between my phrases and would rest for a few seconds, I'd be less stressed and more relaxed, and have a lot more energy and power to build my solo.  I took that advice, and I've become more musical this way."

Each of the remaining sidemen is a veteran of various Mingus units.  Himself a leader of five Criss Cross dates since 1993, most recently Way Out Willy (Criss 1288), tenor saxophonist Seamus Blake has played next to Sipiagin on numerous projects, most recently behind Sipiagin's wife, vocalist Monday Michiru.  "I always learn something from Seamus," Sipiagin says.  "His development is so natural; he doesn't try to prove anything, but goes for the music all the time.  Sometimes he plays short fragments, kind of like Wayne Shorter, but then sometimes he plays very technically.  Every time he plays a solo, he thinks of how the music will sound and what the final picture will be."

A friend since '80s conservatory days, who emigrated to New York with Sipiagin in 1991, bassist Boris Kozlov is one of the major forces on his instrument.  "Boris' sound is so clear, every note is so beautiful," Sipiagin says.  "He's always there to serve the music, and doesn't care about soloing on every song."

"For a lot of these songs, I really hear his groove," Sipiagin says, referring to drummer Johnathan Blake, a thirtyish New York master with his own manne rof articulating odd-metered rhythms with swing and thrust.  "He also plays with tremendous warmth."

That feeling comes through on both versions of One For Mike, take one of which opens and take two of which concludes the proceedings.  Its subject, of course, is the late Michael Brecker, with whose sextet and quindectet Sipiagin toured several times in Europe and Japan between 2003 and 2005.  (more...)

Ted Panken
One Mike Mike IListen!

Alex Sipiagin (trumpet, flugelhorn)
Seamus Blake (tenor sax)
Mulgrew Miller (piano)
Boris Kozlov (bass)
Johnathan Blake (drums)

Produced by Gerry Teekens
Recording Engineer:  Michael Marciano
Mixing:  Max Bolleman
Mastering:  The Masters
Recorded:  June 17, 2008

Recorded at Systems Two Recording Studios, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Photography:  Govert Driessen
Cover Design:  Gerry Teekens/Bloemendaal in Vorm

2009 Criss Cross Jazz