Although released under drummer (and Igor’s brother) Oleg Butman’s name, Passion really documents the ongoing partnership between the ebullient Butman and the equally aggressive Natalia Smirnova on piano. For the past few years the pair has operated as a free-floating unit, engaging in short-term collaborations with a string of other musicians in Russia and the U.S. For the Passion sessions, Wayne Escoffery and Mark Gross alternate on saxophones while Essiet Essiet holds down the bass chair.
The quartet comes flying out of the gate and keeps the energy up through 10 original tracks: hard-hitting yet lyrical, with appealing melodies driven relentlessly forward by Butman’s over-caffeinated drumming, all snapping snare and quick-hit cymbals. Smirnova declares herself boldly on every tune, placing lush surges of emotion alongside fleet-fingered streams of lilting notes. When in its forceful mode, as on the jittery “On the Edge” or the churning, riff-heavy “Walk,” the band presents a formidable front. Escoffery and Gross both prove excellent foils, weaving through the rhythmic thickets or adding a dose of urban soul while Essiet injects a warmth that helps make the music inviting.
The softer tunes aren’t quite as consistent, but “Waltz for Two” flows and billows nicely. And two trio numbers show off another side of the group entirely: The brief “Impression” is tender and sweeping, and “Road to the Paradise” is reflective and stirring, with Smirnova’s wordless vocals and an animated bass solo giving the piece a weightless beauty