Alex Sipiagin was born outside Moscow, where he pursued classical studies and a passion for jazz—a music that was then considered a political challenge to the Soviet Union. As the Soviet system began to crumble, Sipiagin had the chance to travel to the US with a student band and to compete in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Trumpet Competition, where he placed fourth and received an instrument from Clark Terry. A year later he moved to New York and started landing gigs—with Gil Evans and Gil Goldstein, then later with the Mingus Big Band, Dave Holland, and Michael Brecker.
Today, Sipiagin is a first call New York jazz trumpeter with eight credits as a leader and countless sideman appearances. His work has been primarily mainstream post-bop—particularly his piercing discs on Criss Cross—but he also has a natural lyricism to his playing that has been a wonderful color in his recent work with Brecker and Holland. With the release of Out of the Circle, Sipiagin takes his music further in the direction of intelligent lyricism, producing a record with a pop sheen that, nevertheless, proudly stands as accomplished modern jazz.
The clearest influence on Out of the Circle is the Dave Holland band that Sipiagin has been a part of. Holland has a knack for writing memorable tunes built around clever bass lines that, without typically “walking”, have a logical sense of movement. “Echoes of Thought” is just such a tune. A ballad with both a graceful sense of movement and a beautiful arrangement for the horn section, “Echoes” reflects a tidy lesson learned from Holland: jazz can be pleasingly listenable even as it works within the acoustic tradition. Sipiagin’s arrangement layers trumpet, a couple of flutes, tenor sax (all the reeds by Danny McCaslin), and Robin Eubanks’s counterpoint trombone into a gorgeous set of shifting layers. McCaslin’s tenor solo has the mystery of Wayne Shorter—it always seems to be creeping past the harmonies when they’re not looking. Sipiagin follows with a solo of liquid metal, gleaming and smooth, lean and taut all at once.
Two other tunes are in a similarly Holland-ish vein. The title track “Out of the Circle” sets up a stuttering groove with Scott Colley’s acoustic bass, Antonio Sanchez’s drums, and electric piano from Henry Hey, then the horns and electric guitar (Adam Rogers) tangle in a hip rondo before solos play over a ballad time that slowly gears itself into a groove. “Wind Dance” is accurately described—the horns entwine and tango about each other before the rhythm section enters gently, leading to a guitar line that dances solo before inviting the horns back in. What all these songs share is a sense that jazz composition can be both complex and hooky at the same time—jazz that is easy to listen to without being “easy listening”.
On a couple of other tunes, Sipiagin extends the impulse to add pop textures to his music. And the stunner here is that Sipiagin’s inspiration to do this is his singing wife—and it turns out that it works!. Sipiagin is married to Monday Michiru, the daughter of the great jazz pianist and composer Toshiko Akiyoshi and saxophonist Charlie Mariano. Michiru is a flautist and professional singer who is also a star actress and recording artist in Japan. Sipiagin uses Michiku as a singer on “Afternoon Dreams”, a Brazilian-flavored tune that features Gil Goldstein on accordion. Michiku sounds terrific—limber and pitch-sure as she moves through a slyly soaring melody that sits on the cushion of the horns, not unlike Flora Purim on the early Return to Forever recordings. The features are daring—a buzzing duet between Eubanks and Sipiagin in improvised counterpoint, then a solo for the trumpet that is a thing of silk. Michiru also appears on her own tune, “Sketches of Myself”, which is a nicely arranged ballad built on a series of attractive chords. This track contains some distracting synth-blips on the verse (Ms. Michiru’s “programming”), but it’s no embarrassment. You come to the end of Sipiagin’s album thinking that this is the kind of popped-up jazz that should have been “smooth” all along.
What Sipiagin has achieved with Out of the Circle is not unlike the best work that appeared on the CTI label in the 1970s: he has connected contemporary acoustic jazz, genuinely strong jazz, to a pleasing sensibility and mild pop textures. When “Syn” gives wide swath for improvising on acoustic guitar and accordion, while still leaving room for a carefully written counterpoint for horns without rhythm, you know you have a truly original writer and arranger on hand.
Alex “Sasha” Sipiagin is such a musician. He can be in the pocket, but he can also step outside the lines. Out of the Circle is an appropriate name for a truly pleasing and adventurous recital, something that establishes Sipiagin as an original and more than just a workmanlike pro on the New York scene. The trumpeter here offers a vision of accessible but intelligent jazz that grows out of a special part of the tradition. Defining himself boldly, Sipiagin has made something surprisingly easy to love.
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