Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Taking the higher path "Upstream" by Alex Sipiagin


The Russian trumpeter Alex Sipiagin releases a new album titled Upstream, on May 7th and this fine offering is propulsive, modernly melodic, and superbly played.

Sipiagin contributes five impressive compositions for this record and his bandmates add three others along with one gorgeous Wayne Shorter ballad for good measure. Posi-Tone producer Marc Free continues to reveal an uncanny talent to identify distinctive players and match them up with like-minded musicians to great success. On Upstream, Sipiagin is joined by pianist Art Hirahara, bassist Boris Kozlov and drummer Rudy Royston and together these guys can elevate your heart rate with excitement, dazzle your mind with their taste or pull at your heartstrings with poignancy.  

Trumpet legend Randy Brecker said "...there is a full spectrum of many moods and emotions on this great album..." " of his best many excellent albums."

This album is simply a joy, and if you're like me, it will be on auto replay on your both headphones and your iPhone.

Alex Sipiagin is one of those first-call trumpet players that if you do not recognize his name, you have certainly heard his work before. Since his arrival from his native Russia in 1991, Sipiagin’s distinctive, precise and melodic sensibilities have been heard in the orchestra’s trumpet sections for Gil Evans, Swiss Composer George Gruntz’s Concert Jazz Band, bassist Dave Holland’s Octet and Big Bands, Michael Brecker’s award-winning Quindectet and Conrad Herwig’s Latin Side Orchestras. Alex has been a member of the great Mingus Big Band since 1996, and I last saw him in that great band almost two years ago at the Jazz Standard.

Despite being often seen as a first-call orchestra trumpet section voice, Alex has worked extensively as a leader, with seventeen other releases since 1998. He is a founding member of the group Opus 5, which includes Seamus Blake (s), David Kikoski (p), Boris Kozlov (b) and Donald Edwards(dr).

The title Upstream refers to Alex’s desire to maintain “intensity and desire” in his artistic life. Consequently, he likes to go against the current and swim upstream of the fray. This album is Sipiagin’s artistic representation of that never-ending search. 

The opener “Call” is the artist’s expression of an overflow of emotions that sometimes just happens as if by a force of nature outside of your control. An explosion of expression as Sipiagin’s trumpet is like a clarion call that bubbles with emotive and powerful bursts. The group responds with equal energy and well-controlled sympathetic kineticism. 

The pianist Art Hirahara’s beautiful “Echo Canyon” allows the listener’s elevated pulse to take a breath for a moment. The music has a more pensive feel, with Sipiagin using the warmer sound of Flugelhorn to great effect, playing out front of his bandmate’s sensitive accompaniment. Hirahara’s piano solo is splendid and Sipiagin reaches some gorgeous high register notes that just soar. 

Alex’s “Sight” has a switchback, complex pattern that is brilliantly executed by this formidable rhythm section. Hirahara plays on what sounds like a Rhodes piano and offers an airy solo. Sipiagin’s trumpet is focused, precise, and always melodic. Sipiagin’s compositions musically inspire and are advanced both harmonically and melodically and yet executed with aplomb and taste. 

Another of the leader’s compositions is the scorching “SipaTham” which is an acronym of the first letters of Alex and his wife Mellissa Tham’s last names. There is a volcanic eruption of expression in these songs. Like “Sight”, “SipaTham” were both created when artistic creativity was being quarantined from all normal outside world activity by the pandemic. Sipiagin successfully used the time to compose and it shows how his energy was being redirected into this amazing music. His bandmates undoubtedly felt that being able to tap into this music’s energy would be cathartic for them when this was finally recorded, and it shows. Alex’s playing is on fire, and the group is on a mission. Hirahara and Kozlov are in beautiful sync and Rudy Royston’s drum work is particularly propulsive and takes you to a new level of involvement. This one is special.

Boris Kozlov is a top-notch bassist who I have had the privilege of seeing play in several different settings. Here Alex takes Boris’ composition “Magic Square” on a fusion take that features Hirahara’s searching Rhodes, Kozlov’s electric bass, and Sipiagin’s tart muted trumpet. Royston’s drum work is spectacular and erupts with a flurry of syncopation that overflows like an overheated cauldron.

Sipiagin’s “Rain” is a sensitive ballad that was inspired by waiting for a loved one to be released from a hospital while it was relentlessly raining. It is these moments, being unprepared and being subjected to live’s uncertainties, that can provide inspiration. Sipiagin’s trumpet is played beautifully on this and you can feel his release of angst, the sincerity in his expression of thanks, and the mastery of his command that allows him to gorgeously express those feelings.

“Shura” is another Kozlov composition that is played in 6/8 as requested by Alex and was written in humor and named for the trumpeter by his nickname. I can’t get enough of Alex’s facility and clear tone. Many people play the trumpet well, but few with such authority and joy. Royston’s drums fill up the song copiously, especially at the coda, and Kozlov and Hirahara accompany brilliantly.

Wayne Shorter’s “Miyako” is a gorgeous ballad and Sipiagin’s flugelhorn simply needs to be heard to be appreciated. Kozlov’s bass solo is fluid and eloquent. Royston’s cymbal and tom work are impressive. 

The title song “Upstream” returns to the energy level previously offered in the  Sipiagin compositions covered earlier n this album. According to the artist’s notes, some of the melodies in “Upstream” were inspired by a Russian folk song. The folk song was in turn inspired by a painting by Ilya Repin titled “Barge Haulers on the Volga,” which depicts exhausted workers depleted by the strenuous work and the heat of the sun. 

"Upstream" is a quick-moving song featuring Sipiagin’s declarative trumpet, Hirahara’s melodic Rhodes, Kozlov’s probing bass, and Royston’s roiling drum work. The heat rises-the energy level is driven into overdrive activity-lead by Sipiagin’s piercing high register work. Royston’s drum solo is like a whirlwind of percussion inventiveness and worth the price of admission.