Alex Sipiagin: Going for It 100 Percent
A Russian-born trumpeter steps out with three recent albums
The most intriguing of Alex Sipiagin’s three 2013 leader releases is a quintet recital titled From Reality and Back, released on Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s 5Passion label. Offered ample rehearsal and studio time, complete artistic freedom, almost a year to prepare the repertoire and carte blanche in the way of personnel, the trumpeter took up Rubalcaba on his offer to play piano and keyboards and called Dave Holland—his “favorite musician” and employer in several ensembles since 2000—to play bass. Joining Sipiagin on the frontline is tenor saxophonist Seamus Blake, presently his frontline partner in the collective quintet Opus 5, and on drums is Antonio Sanchez, a longtime collaborator.
The eight tunes, episodic and harmonically open-ended, portray an array of moods and colors. Rich voicings, dialogic polyphony and complex meters springboard a series of creative improvisations by all members, who play at the height of their considerable powers. Seven are by the leader, who has composed over 90 percent of the repertoire on his 14 leader recordings since the millennium. The other, composed expressly for the date, is by Pat Metheny, who a decade earlier responded to Sipiagin’s interpretation of “Missouri Uncompromised” on Steppin’ Zone, his Criss Cross debut, by contributing “Snova” and “Son of Thirteen” to 2005’s Returning.
Metheny raised the subject last summer when his Unity Band—including Sanchez and Chris Potter, a participant on five of Sipiagin’s albums for the Criss Cross label—performed in Westhampton, Long Island, not far from the North Shore home that Sipiagin shares with his wife, singer Monday Michiru, and their son, Nikita. “We were hanging out, and Pat mentioned that he’d love to write something for me again,” says Sipiagin, 46. “I told him I was doing a record in February and he asked what I needed. I said, ‘A ballad, slightly odd-meter.’ Pat said, ‘Thanks for the directions; I’ll talk to you a month before the recording.’ Right on schedule, he sent me an mp3. It was perfect.”
Asked by Metheny to title the song, Sipiagin—who grew up in Soviet-era Yaroslavl, a provincial town about 250 miles northeast of Moscow—opted for the Russian title “Son Uvedeny Posle,” which translates as “Dream Seen Later.” “Pat told me he had sketches of the piece already in 1987,” he says. “That’s exactly the time when I was in the military and wanted to come to his concert, and they didn’t let me. That he started it then and finished it for this recording is a kind of dream.”
In 1987, the notion that Sipiagin would someday record a bespoke Metheny piece was a far-fetched dream indeed. Then 20, he was stationed outside of Moscow with an army band that played outside every day, even in the dead of winter. (Sipiagin poured vodka on his trumpet’s mouthpiece to prevent it from freezing to his lips.) Classically trained from age 12, holding a bachelor’s from the Moscow Music Institute and already intimate with the vocabularies of Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw, Sipiagin was listening to Metheny and Wayne Shorter’s Native Dancer “to bring me back to reality and give me hope.”
After moving to New York in 1991, Sipiagin settled in the Bensonhurst area of Brooklyn, earning the rent with club gigs in Brighton Beach and as a busker while attending various jam sessions. In 1993 he was in the same West 72nd Street building as alto saxophonist-composer David Binney, who brought him into his circle, enabling Sipiagin to workshop ideas with such up-and-comers of the day as Potter, Scott Colley, Adam Rogers and Donny McCaslin. By then he’d also crossed paths with Gil Goldstein, who recruited him for the Gil Evans Orchestra’s Monday-night residence at Sweet Basil. Randy Brecker heard him, was impressed by Sipiagin’s ability to function both as a tireless lead trumpeter and a creative soloist, and brought him into the Mingus Big Band in 1995. Another bandmate, trombonist Robin Eubanks, recommended Sipiagin to Dave Holland when the bassist was assembling his big band in 2000; in 2003, Michael Brecker hired him to play his challenging compositions with a 15-piece Goldstein-arranged project and subsequently with his sextet.
“David could see that I had a long way to go,” Sipiagin says, noting that Binney and Potter were his frontline partners on 1996’s Images as well as Equilibrium (2003) and Destinations Unknown (2011). “He forced me to practice, and he introduced me to the big musical styles that modern New York music is based on—deep traditions like Hermeto Pascoal and Egberto Gismonti, Weather Report and Paul Bley—but done in a completely different way. Both Gil and Dave Holland gave me ideas on writing in a polyphonic style, having the second voice as important as the first. Although Mingus’ music didn’t have a big impact on my compositions, for me it was like a great study period, where I learned a lot of tradition, but also realized that I can take chances, try whatever I hear.”
As a player, says Blake, “He has a beautiful sound on the trumpet, and always has a great technique. … I don’t know if it comes from Russian music and classical music, but he has his own angularity of lines, which is exciting. He’s a fiery player without being overly brassy. He still has a warm, dark sound. I love his tone.”
Sipiagin has gradually been downscaling sideman obligations and traveling more as a leader—as a soloist with different ensembles in Europe and Asia that play his charts, as a combo leader, and with Opus 5, an all-Mingus alumni band with Blake, pianist David Kikoski, bassist Boris Kozlov and drummer Donald Edwards that plays original music by the personnel. “It’s time to move on and play my own music,” he says. If the From Reality and Back players can coordinate their schedules, consequential gigs are available, and Sipiagin has work lined up for a lower-profile quintet that is easier to convene. His quartet—Kikoski, Kozlov and drummer Nate Smith—documented their rapport on this year’s Live at Smalls (smallsLIVE), stretching out on five road-tested Sipiagin pieces while sustaining interest and momentum. On Overlooking Moments (Criss Cross), a 2013 studio date, drummer Eric Harland propels a kinetic no-chordal-instrument quartet with Sipiagin’s old friends Potter and Colley on bass.
“For a long time after I arrived here from Russia, I felt I didn’t deserve to be in the same place as native American musicians,” Sipiagin says. “But at some point something clicked and I suddenly felt confidence. I had a long conversation with Dave Holland, who told me he’d picked me up for a reason, and that brought me to a certain place: ‘Stop being a baby. Just relax. Enjoy who you are.’ What I do is the New York sound, which you can feel only after you’ve lived here a while. There are amazing rhythm sections everywhere, everything is musical and perfect, and you go for it 100 percent.”
Originally published in October 2013