Alex Sipiagin: Out of the Circle

The Russian-born jazz trumpeter makes a deeply felt and beautiful record that sits on the soft edge of the tradition.

Alex Sipiagin

Out of the Circle

Contributors: Alex Sipiagin, Monday Michiru, Scott Colley, Donny McCaslin, Robin Eubanks, Adam Rogers, Henry Hey, Antonio Sanchez, Gil Goldstein, Daniel Sadownick
Label: Sunnyside
US Release Date: 2008-03-04
UK Release Date: Available as import

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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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