Russian jazz for American audiences
Because Auktyon’s lyrics are in Russian, it’s doubtful that most of its Western listeners will understand the words to any of the songs on its latest album. But that’s the least challenging element about this disc. Trying to identify the musical instruments is a contest in its own right. One can hear snippets of piano keys being plonked, peculiar sounding horns being blown, and what seems to be several different stringed gadgets being bowed and plucked. Other sounds are harder to discern. Is that a human snort or a saxophone, a flute or the wind? Sometimes it seems both might be true.
That’s not to mention the strange time signatures and weird juxtapositions of volumes and tempos that seem to careen from different directions on the disc. Most songs seem to be in a constant state of evolution/revolution. A few come across as more thematic, such as the eight-minute-plus “Tam-dam”, which sounds like the soundtrack to a science fiction movie about a lonely desert planet. But even the more holistic tunes tend to verge towards chaos and anarchy. The margins always threaten to break apart.
Auktyon isn’t trying to be mysterious. One can buy a DVD of recent concerts with many of these songs performed live and see how they are created. The CD lists the musicians and the instruments played, which includes famous guests like the master of the weird guitar Marc Ribot (Tom Waits, Elvis Costello), avant-garde organist John Medeski (Medeski, Martin & Wood, Either/Orchestra), free jazz reed player Ned Rothenberg (John Zorn, Elliot Sharp), and innovator Klezmer trumpeter Frank London (LaMonte Young, David Byrne). But the 7-piece band from St. Petersburg makes these radical guest musicians sound tame by comparison.
The line-up consists of two vocalists who never sing when they can shout, talk, or make sound effects and who tend to favor discord over harmony. They both also play percussion instruments. A third vocalist/keyboardist also joins in and seems to enjoy playing the strings inside his piano as much the black and white keys. There’s a tuba player that provides the bass line, another horn player on bass clarinet and bass sax, a bass player, and a guest double-bass player. The four of them keep things low and menacing. The drummer keeps the beat or not, as the mood seems to move him. Sometimes he plays so fast and hard that he seems to be two people.
The energy found on songs like “Profukal”, “Dolgi”, and “Debil” could power a major city. Still, the band has a quiet side. The best example of this is the 11-minute-plus title track. The music starts off gentle and slow, with a muted horn wailing over a mix of odd sounds that move at different tempos. A singer with a gritty voice takes over from the horn, and the background players start to play in slightly faster rhythms. Different melodies emerge from the saxophone, the organ, and other instruments. The drummer picks the pace up to a faster beat. A wah-wah guitar funks things up then just goes psychedelic. This leads the other players into making strange noises of their own. But the volume remains hushed. This is not a nightmare, but a pleasant dream. The horn comes back and leads the song to a quiet fadeout.
In an age where every other jazz band seems to be revisiting the standards or recreating tunes of past masters, Auktyon deliberately tries to create something fresh and new. Purists might scoff, and indeed the album does rock, but this disc captures the vitality that can be found in the heart and soul of all real jazz.
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