“When I lived in St. Petersburg
, Sasha to me was the main drummer—the most creative, most contemporary, most looking-forward, everything else. When he moved to Moscow
, I actually left, too, and one reason was because playing with him regularly wasn’t possible any more.” —Zhenya Strigalev
One Russian equivalent of “outside the box” (вне коробки [vne korobki]), as 41-year-old Moscow-based drummer Alexander “Sasha” Mashin titles his debut leader recording, is the phrase мыслить нетрадиционно (myslit' netraditsionno-“think unconventionally”). Both the literal and metaphorical usages apply to Mashin’s intentions on this kinetic date, on which he and his pianist and bassist of choice propel the flow for separate sets of original music by two of Russia’s most distinguished jazz exports—New York-based trumpeter Alex Sipiagin
-based alto saxophonist Evegeny “Zhenya” Strigalev. Call it global jazz with a Russian attitude.
Mashin’s path began in St. Petersburg, where he trained early on as a classical percussionist. He taught himself to play the drum set, studying and internalizing the languages of Buddy Rich
, Max Roach
, Tony Williams
and Elvin Jones
in the samizdat manner, from multiple-generation cassettes of their recordings. He was already much-employed on several St. Petersburg scenes by 1995, when Igor Butman
—himself a St. Petersburg native—returned to Russia from an eight-year stay in Boston and New York, and hired him for his quartet. In 1997, when Butman opened his first club in Moscow, Mashin followed, and remained, becoming an integral figure in upper echelon Russian jazz-modernism, and developing an international reputation in the collective MosGorTrio with pianist Yakov Okun and bassists Anton Ryvnuk or Makar Novikov, with whom, for more than a decade, he brought his big beat and exemplary musicality and taste to numerous bandstands with a diverse cohort of main-stem jazz heroes as Johnny Griffin
, Benny Golson
, James Spaulding
, Kenny Barron
, Eddie Henderson
, Lew Tabackin
, Donny McCaslin
and Mark Turner
. Later in the ’00s and into the ’10s, Mashin began to push the envelope further on intra-Russia tours on which the trio heard on Outside The Box
(Novikov and keyboardist Alexey Ivannikov), and other configurations that included pianists Ivan Farmakovsky, Alexey Bekker and Vladimir Nesterenko (who plays flute on this album), played consequential engagements with, among others, J.D. Walter, Josh Evans
, and Sipiagin.
Although Sipiagin first met Mashin in 1995, five years after the gold-toned trumpeter left the chaos of post-Gorbachev Russia for New York City
, their musical relationship began around 2005, when Sipiagin resumed frequent trips to his homeland. By then, he’d already recorded about a dozen albums documenting his contrapuntal, gracefully voiced, metrically modulated, sweetly melancholic compositions with New York avatars Chris Potter
, David Binney
, Seamus Blake
, David Kikoski
, Adam Rogers
, Scott Colley
, Jeff "Tain" Watts
, and Antonio Sanchez
. As Mashin navigated these odd-metered structures on repeated engagements, he found himself increasingly captivated by Sipiagin’s argot, as we hear from his fluent contribution to Sipiagin’s 2014 CD, New Path
, with Dutch vocalist-lyricist Hiske Oosterwijk (who contributes three new lyrics to Out of the Box") and New York-based Russian expats Misha Tsiganov on keyboards and Boris Kozlov
“Learning Alex’s music was a turning point,” Mashin says. “It changed my style towards more modern playing.” Mashin reinforced these stirrings on consequential tours with a quartet led by veteran Tunisian oudist-vocalist Dhafer Youssef
that includes Azerbaijani pianist Isfar Sarabski. Youssef praises Mashin’s ability to “feel my music and propose his own vision for it.” Sarabski, whose performance in trio with Mashin at the 2012 Montreux Jazz Festival attracted international attention, echoes the sentiment, citing the elder musician’s incessant “creative development.”
“Sasha plays with amazing quality,” Sipiagin says. “He thinks close to the way I think. He’s open-minded, and he likes to work hard and prepare—I send him my charts, and he memorizes them. He doesn’t have an ego. He always follows advice. It’s very comfortable to play with him.”
During Mashin’s St. Petersburg years, he played frequently with Strigalev, who moved to London in 2002 to matriculate at the Royal Academy of Music. He has subsequently made his mark on that city’s jazz community by dint of the virtuoso technique and formal command that he applies to his unfettered improvisations, and also as a scene-maker who booked cutting edge bands like Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez
with Iftaluba, Mark Guiliana
’s Beat Music, and the Chris Dave
Trio. On a series of recordings since 2010 that document his rhythmically percolating, expertly off-kilter compositions, Strigalev assembled bands featuring such free thinkers as Eric Harland
, Ambrose Akinmusire
, Taylor Eigsti
, Tim Lefebvre
, Larry Grenadier
and Linley Marthe.
About four years ago, after a long hiatus, Strigalev resumed visits to Russia, creating ample opportunities for he and Mashin to pick up where they left off. “Sasha always had a nice sound and feel, and a searching, creative fire,” Strigalev says. “He was flexible, and I liked to play with him because he was up for trying new things. He played bebop when it was necessary to play bebop; he played Dixieland when it was necessary to play Dixieland; he played swing when it was necessary to play swing. We tried to play something between all of those. Over the years, his creativity has ripened and has more meaning. That’s why I like to play with him now, too, and I’m looking forward to doing it more.”
While Sipiagin and Strigalev nurtured their individualism within the vivid transcultural mix of their adopted cities, Moscow-based Mashin has faced a more solitary struggle to establish his voice in what he describes as a culture of conformity, represented by the CD cover illustration that depicts him looking through a cage. About a year ago, while in Spain, Mashin had a box tattooed on his arm as a visual analog to his determination never again to be circumscribed in matters of artistic production.
“When people try to do things differently, other people are full of sarcasm and try to push you,” Mashin says. “They say, ‘Hey, do like everybody is doing; don’t try to be different.’ Some people weren’t happy about my decision to play music other than bebop, and called me less often. But I am trying not to value so much the opinions of other musicians. Each year I have many more opportunities to play music I like to play. I no longer need to go to a gig where I don’t like the music.”
Both halves of Outside The Box resoundingly demonstrate the truth of that assertion. The album-opening “Sipiagin’s Mood” is a Mashin “mash-up” of Sipiagin’s “38-58” (named for the alcohol level of two different versions of Taiwan’s equivalent to vodka), which titles a 2015 Criss Cross CD, and “Mood-2,” which Sipiagin debuted on the 2003 Criss Cross album Equilibrium. On this track, as on Sipiagin’s “7=5” and “Paint,” Italian alto saxophone master Rosario Giuliani—another of Mashin’s recently discovered musical soulmates, who offers a shout-out to Mashin’s “own way of playing contemporary styles with great sound and technique while being completely rooted in the tradition”—solos with characteristically inflamed spirit and panache. So does Oosterwijk, who has found a wellspring of inspiration for poetic lyric-writing in Sipiagin’s complex lines, which she renders with impeccable phrasing and intonation. The solo order is Sipiagin, keyboardist Alexey Ivannikov, Giuliani, bassist Makar Novikov, and Mashin.
Of Novikov, who composed “Jazzmashin” for the date, Mashin says: “Makar has solid time, which is rare for Russian culture; his quarter notes connect perfectly to mine.” The composer opens with a forceful vamp over which flutist Vladimir Nesterenko states the refrain; Oosterwijk declaims her eloquent paean to artistic freedom and self-determination. Sipiagin’s pensively funky solo reaches for the stars and finds them.
Sipiagin composed “7=5” and “Paint” specifically for the album. The former tune is based on a rhythmic cycle in which a 7/4 pattern overlays a 5/4 pattern, a gnarly conundrum that Mashin resolves with elegance. Giuliani dances through a forceful statement; Sipiagin plays as though Freddie Hubbard’s spirit was riding him; guitarist Evgeny Pobozhiy (from Igor Butman’s orchestra) sustains the energy with rhythmically varied, across-the-bar lines that unfailingly land in the right place. Sipiagin’s well-wrought brass arrangements punctuate the trajectory of the solos:
Oosterwijk returns with another bespoke lyric for “Paint” (“In the eyes the truth is near / Think outside the box when you are in fear / Silence is so powerful / No words needed if you have peace in mind.”). Mashin’s uncorks a surging straight-8th groove; Giuliani solos over the opening melody; there follows a polyphonic, gorgeously voiced collective improvisation by Sipiagin, Oosterwijk, soprano saxophonist Andrey Krasilnikov, and trombonist Odei Al-Magut (the latter two are young up-and-comers from Moscow); and then well-wrought solos by Sipiagin, Krasilnikov and Al-Magut.
The first of Strigalev’s four pieces that follow is “Some Thomas,” which debuted on his 2016 CD Never Group
. The composer offers his tone parallel to Sonny Rollins, a personal hero. Mashin drives a stentorian Strigalev solo and a probing statement by up-and-coming American trumpeter Josh Evans, who has been spending time in Moscow during recent months. Also from Never Group is the drum-and-bass oriented “Strange Party,” a six-note refrain on which electric bassist Anton Davidants, who currently resides in Shanghai, follows Strigalev’s turbulent, wailing, thematically unified solo with a well-wrought declamation of his own.
“Sharp Night”—which Strigalev debuted in 2015 on Robin Goodie—is a tour de force. The saxophonist’s deep study of the dialects of Charlie Parker, Rollins and Ornette Coleman comes through on an information-packed two-minute navigation through the blues-based form. Mashin applies the finishing touch with an erudite, thematically cohesive concluding statement.
Also from Robin Goodie is “Kuku,” dedicated, Mashin says, “to the cuckoo bird, which, in Russian folkloric tradition, can tell you how long you’ll live on the planet.” Strigalev’s commanding solo proceeds over Mashin’s “funk with a limp” beat; Ivannikov goes deep into the swamp.
The proceedings conclude with “Omulu Dance,” an Afro-Brazilian inspired composition by world-class, 20-something bassist Daria Chernakova, who plays (right channel) alongside Novikov. After an impressionistically fragmented opening section chock-a-block with instrumental color, Chernakova launches a mighty vamp, locking in with Mashin and Cuban conguero Fidel Alejandro to provoke Strigalev’s ascendent, inflamed solo. Ivannikov plays huge, dramatic chords in his unaccompanied turn, setting up an effervescent Chernakova-Novikov bass duet that invokes the spirit of the title. At the end, we hear Mashin’s delighted, sardonic laugh.
“This laughing means that I am outside the cage, outside the box, outside the prison,” Mashin says. “I’ve been a sideman all these years, and I never wrote music, which is why I didn’t make records. Then I realized that Art Blakey
didn’t write, and yet he was a great bandleader and he had many amazing bands. So just try to get together people you like to play with, and see what happens. You have to start with something.”