Home New York Report Trumpeter/Composer Alex Sipiagin to release “Horizons”

Trumpeter/Composer Alex Sipiagin to release “Horizons”

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My professional relationship with the great trumpeter Alex Sipiagin began in 2001, when I wrote the booklet notes for Steppin’ Zone, his second leader album, the first of 38 that, as of this writing, document his voluminous 21st century musical production. I’m delighted to place my seventh such text at the service of Horizons. To my ears, it’s Sipiagin’s most completely realized project from start to finish, a heady accomplishment for a musician who’s consistently operated at a high level in the realms of improvisation and composition.
When he recorded Steppin’ Zone, Sipiagin, then 33, had emigrated to the United States 11 years before, was a regular member of the Gil Evans Orchestra, the George Gruntz Orchestra and the Mingus Big Band, and was beginning long-run associations with Dave Holland and Michael Brecker. “Each tune reflects a different place and times; you follow each environment step-by-step,” he stated. “They’re all connected. That’s how I see my life. That’s how I work.”
Over the two ensuing decades, Sipiagin expressed his abiding embrace of the speculative with album titles like Mirrors, Mirages, Destinations Unknown, From Reality and Back, Moments Captured, New Path, Ascent to the Blues and Horizons. Within them, he portrays his journey via a corpus of challenging, episodic compositions, chock-a-block with harmonically gnarly voicings, layered meters, simultaneous contrapuntal lines, and earthy melodies containing subtle twists and turns, rendered with “balls-to-the-wall, Coltrane-era energy,” as alto saxophone virtuoso Will Vinson, a frequent partner in recent years, said in my 2016 Downbeat profile of Sipiagin.
These pieces mirror and elaborate upon Sipiagin’s unique improvisational voice, which blends the dark, powerful sound of a first-call lead trumpet with a flexibility that enables him to play anything his imagination conjures. As Vinson put it, he “navigates harmonic and rhythmic complexity as if he’s playing a standard.” “I practice improvising by using patterns or scales or someone else’s ideas, and create melodies based on these exercises,” Sipiagin says. “I capture the most successful moments as the beginning of a compositional idea, and then develop it.”
Sipiagin turned 56 during the two-day recording session that generated Horizons. He discerns a subtle shift in his tonal personality since relocating to Italy from the U.S. in 2020. “My improvisations and compositions have more space, more air, more stopping to process what I feel,” he says. “When I arrived from Russia, I felt I wasn’t good enough compared to the Americans – the real cats. I always felt I needed to prove something. I no longer have this battle mood. I just want to play my music and do the best I can.”
Competitive derring-do and mellow ensemble imperatives intermingle throughout the hour-long recital. On Sipiagin’s first Blue Room Music release, NoFo Skies (2019), he shared the front line with Vinson and tenor saxophone giant Chris Potter (and vocalist Alina Engibaryan on several tunes), propelled by a nonpareil rhythm section of John Escreet on piano and Prophet 6 synthesizer, Matt Brewer on bass, and Eric Harland on drums, all virtuoso team players who brought their individualism to Sipiagin’s Moments Captured (2017) – with the same horns – and Balance 38-58 (2014). Since Vinson was unavailable for Horizons, Sipiagin decided to pare down to an all-instrumental quintet.
Horizons marks the 11th Sipiagin-Potter pairing on a Sipiagin-led date since Images, his 1997 debut and only 20th century album. They’d met a few years earlier at informal workshop sessions with youngish, New York-based forward thinkers, now luminaries, like Dave Binney, Donny McCaslin, Adam Rogers and Scott Colley. Both played in the Mingus Band, which Sipiagin joined in 1995 on Randy Brecker’s recommendation. “Chris likes risk,” Sipiagin says. “He’s always unpredictable. He goes so many different directions. When I write music with him in mind, I’m trying to be the same. I hear what he might do, though it isn’t necessarily the same thing I was thinking of. He was very encouraging when I started writing compositions and arrangements. He told me, “Try to do something. From playing with the Mingus Band and listening to Binney, you’ll know what to do. You’ll hear what’s right and what’s wrong.”
Similarly, Sipiagin admires Escreet’s florid, daring creativity and intense work ethic. He first recruited the London-born keyboardist for Balance 38-58, after hearing him in a Binney-led band with Brewer and Dan Weiss. For this occasion, Sipiagin deploys Escreet’s formidable arsenal of bespoke sounds on overdubbed synth lines that emulate a third horn, while leaving him room to express a broad emotional template when soloing.
He encountered Brewer in the late ’00s on gigs with Gonzalo Rubalcaba, before bringing the eminent bassist onto Balance 38-58. “I don’t have to explain anything to Matt – or anyone else in this band,” Sipiagin says. “I just write the music. We know what to expect from each other – and there are unexpected surprises, where the music turns from one color to another, or the energy changes.”
When conceiving Horizons, Sipiagin was “dreaming exactly about Eric Harland’s sound and mine.” Their simpatico developed in several early 2000s bands led by Dave Holland, another mentor who deeply influenced Sipiagin’s compositional ideas. “Eric has a special sensitivity,” Sipiagin says. “He feels you in advance. He contacted me several times before the recording with questions about the music.”
The unit’s no-limits attitude is evident on the two pieces that Pat Metheny – who doesn’t write bespoke tunes for just anyone – composed specifically for this project. Sipiagin’s connection to Metheny dates to the pre-glasnost 1980s, when, after receiving his baccalaureate, he was assigned to a military band stationed near Moscow. Cassette tapes of Metheny’s Travels and Wayne Shorter’s Native Dancer helped him endure. “I listened to them over and over to bring me back to reality and give me hope,” Sipiagin says. “That’s what drove me to New York.”
Eight years after Sipiagin served his mandatory conscription, Gil Goldstein – a friend from the Gil Evans Orchestra – invited him to kibitz at a rehearsal for a Metheny-penned film soundtrack. Afterward, Sipiagin – born and raised in Yaroslavl, amidst the Russian steppes – launched their relationship by giving his hero a copy of Images. It includes his nuanced nonet arrangement of “Midwestern Night Dream” from Metheny’s 1975 debut, Bright Size Life, highlighted by a trumpet solo that evokes the wide-open spaces of America’s Great Plains (settled 150 years ago by numerous Mennonite migrants from the steppes) that inspired much of Metheny’s earlier music.
“For me, Pat’s direction, his compositions and performance define what the last decade of music was all about,” Sipiagin said in the notes for Steppin’ Zone, referencing his quintet’s rollicking version of “Missouri Uncompromised” (Bright Size Life). “He follows whatever path he wants, and does it perfectly.” In a note to Sipiagin accompanying the score of the extravagantly “crazy, fast, complicated” album-opener, “While You Weren’t Looking,” the composer stated his intention “to give you guys something that you might not be able to sight-read the first time you saw it…lol,” adding that he’d provided Potter “a few notes off the horn – but I am pretty sure he can make them happen.” Their collective musicality comes through on “When Is It Now?,” a ballad that, Metheny wrote, “channels my inner rainy-streets-of-L.A. trumpet player,” an archetype represented by a poignant, three-minute Potter-Sipiagin dialogue on the theme, setting up pithy variations, first by tenor sax and then by flugelhorn.
The first of Sipiagin’s six originals is “Overseen,” a “simultaneous dedication to Wayne Shorter and Charles Mingus.” Harland’s gentle groove and Escreet’s crystalline comping create an apropos “mood and vibe” to complement Sipiagin’s ongoing conversation with Potter (on soprano). Sipiagin observes that said “mood” references Mingus’s “Devil Woman,” and asks us to notice Potter’s Shorteresque upward glissando.
“Clean Cut,” “Jumping In” and “Lost” all reference aspects of Sipiagin’s move to Italy. The composer follows his customary practice of incorporating metric modulation – executed by Harland with panache and precision – to serve as a metaphor for psychic shifts in the song’s narrative. The former song, as an example, evokes the emotional ups experienced during the move with a line that “goes from 4/4 to 5/4 to 4/4 in one section, with an aggressive middle section that moves into a lyrical 3/4-6/8 passage that is also disturbing and nervous.”
Inspired by Hermeto Pascoal’s use of repetitive melodies and harmonies, “Jumping In” – “it’s about getting involved with a new lifestyle, a new context for my life” – combines two bars of 4/4 and one bar of 3/4 throughout the song and solo forms. Sipiagin, Escreet (acoustic piano) and Potter respond with intrepid elan, leaping through the melody while maintaining thematic clarity.
 “Lost” also balances 4/4 and 3/4 passages throughout the form. It’s the latest of Sipiagin’s exhilarating refractions of Dave Holland’s concepts. After stating the whirling, contrapuntal theme, Sipiagin and Potter uncork fierce, lucid declamations (Sipiagin’s in 4/4 on a 3-bar form; Potter’s in 3/4 on an 8-bar form), followed by Escreet’s relaxed, reflective synth chorus. “When you’re moving you sometimes get lost, but that brings you to new places, which is good,” Sipiagin says.
The ensemble embodies that principle on three miniatures culled from a longer, spontaneously conceived episode from the end of the session, cohesively generating a kaleidoscopic range of moods, colors, tempos and ideas.
 Ultimately, Sipiagin and his wife settled in Sandrigo, a village in the province of Vicenza. The opening and concluding moments of the album-closer, “AIVA-tion,” capture a cheerful hubbub from a local bar-café called Aiva. Like “Overseen,” it’s a groove-and-vamp piece with no solos, showcasing the think-as-one simpatico that Sipiagin and Potter share, fueled by Harland’s quiet storm beats.
“It’s open from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m.,” Sipiagin says. “It’s affordable, and everyone is friendly. If you have time, you can sit there every day for a few hours and write some music, or hang with your friends or whatever you want to do – just enjoy being at peace.”
Liner Notes by Ted Panken
Biography – Alex Sipiagin
Jazz festivals worldwide have seen Alex Sipiagin performing with the likes of Dave Holland, Michael Brecker, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, the Mingus groups, and many more. In 1990, Alex participated in the International Louis Armstrong Competition sponsored by the Thelonius Monk Institute in Washington DC, winning top honors. After 30 over years of living in New York City, he has since relocated to Italy.
In his early career, Alex became a favored player for various bands including the Gil Evans Orchestra, Gil Goldstein’s Zebra Coast Orchestra, the George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band, drummer Bob Moses’ band Mozamba, the Mingus Big Band as well as the Mingus Dynasty and Mingus Orchestra, and the Dave Holland Big Band, Sextet and Octet groups.
In 2003 he recorded with Michael Brecker’s Quindectet, touring also with the Michael Brecker Sextet. Alex has also worked with Eric Clapton, DrJohn, Aaron Neville, Elvis Costello, Michael Franks, Dave Sanborn, Deborah Cox, legendary producer Phil Ramone, Gonzalo Rubalcaba among other artistes. Many of the recordings he has been involved in have been nominated for and/or won at the Grammy Awards. He is part of the Grammy award-winning albums by the Dave Holland Big Band, “What Goes Around” and “Overtime,” Michael Brecker Quindectet’s “Wide Angles,” and the Dafnis Prieto Big Band’s “Into the Sunset”.
As a soloist, Sipiagin has more than twenty recordings to his credit including having jazz greats such as Mulgrew Miller and Chris Potter featured in them. He has toured extensively throughout Europe, the United States, Asia, New Zealand with his own groups. He held a professorship at New York University (NYU) for seven years, and a residency at the Amsterdam Conservatory. He currently holds residencies at Academy of Music in Basel Switzerland and Siena Jazz in Italy.
Alex Sipiagin has recorded at least 20 solo albums for the prestigious jazz label “Criss-Cross Jazz, featuring several notable musicians such as Chris Potter, Eric Harland, David Binney, Adam Rogers, John Escreet and Matt Brewer. In recent years, Alex has also recorded two solo albums titled “Upstream” and “Ascent to the Blues” with the Positone Label. Alex Sipiagin recently released his album with Criss Cross label titled “Mel’s Vision” in early 2023. He just released his newest recording, Horizons for Blue Room Music which will feature his favorite musicians Chris Potter, Eric Harland, John Escreet, Matt Brewer, all of whom also recorded on his previous notable albums by Criss Cross label “Moments Captured”, “Balance 38-58”, “Destination Unknown”, Blue Room Music label “NoFo Skies” and others.
This recent year saw Alex collaborating as soloist with several large ensembles in Europe including the Hungarian Radio Symphony Orchestra for Fekete-Kovács Kornél, Alex’s original compositions with RTV Radio Slovenia Big Band titled “New York Sketches”, and Big Band Radio Romania titled “Wind Dance”. In August 2022, Alex Sipiagin also received a commission to arrange his music for and perform with a contemporary string quartet at summer festivals in Austria and Germany.
Alex continues to travel with his various small groups as a trio, quartet, quintet etc. as well as a sideman with renowned jazz artists.
Artist Website

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