Through 11 records as a leader on the Criss Cross label between 2001 and 2017, the Russian trumpeter Alex Sipiagin steadily tweaked his no-compromise template of ingenious compositions and high-octane interplay, allowing his ace cohorts plenty of room for explosive expression. Sipiagin’s move to the Blue Room imprint has not deterred NoFo Skies from becoming the latest pinnacle in this thrilling evolution.
Reared in big bands with an emphasis on Mingus, Sipiagin loves polyphony, and when all three horns (Chris Potter, Sipiagin, and alto Will Vinson) are gamboling, Harland seems like he’s specifically catering to each—with a hat tip to bassist Matt Brewer, who is woody, bold, yet purposefully complementary to the rhythmic enterprise. Drummer Eric Harland is a monster accompanist throughout, but seizes some spotlight on the final solo of the opener, “Rush,” and via his ambient percussion on the atmospheric “Sky 1” and “Sky 2.”
As good as Vinson and the underrated Sipiagin play, Potter is first among equals in the horns, treating the acerbic flair of Joe Henderson and gleeful daredevilry of Sonny Rollins as parallel bars for his own gymnastic excursions. John Escreet’s sustained synth notes often chauffeur the horns into their solos and color both of the “Sky” renditions, while his two-handed fusion-funk on “Start of…” is reminiscent of Joe Zawinul’s playfully nasty riffs.
Then there is vocalist Alina Engibaryan. Her contributions to a couple of songs on Sipiagin’s 2017 album Moments Captured (featuring the exact same personnel as NoFo Skies) were enjoyable in a vacuum but disruptive in the context of the entire disc. It’s a dicey balance—Ryan Keberle had similar initial difficulty integrating Camila Meza into his albums—and Sipiagin ups the ante by including Engibaryan on four cuts this time. The best of these is “Between AMs,” a delightful jazz-rock suite that stretches the comfort zone of band and singer alike. Expect further tweaks if Sipiagin is able to take a third crack at folding her into this fabulous band.