Moscow Composers Orchestra featuring Sainko

Portrait of an Idealist
Leo Records CD LR 527

Festive rather than sombre, Portrait of an Idealist is a raucous send-off and heart-felt salute to Nick Dmitriev, who died suddenly in 2004. He was a Moscow-based gadfly, lecturer, writer and concert organizer who helped nurture Russian post-perestroika free music.

Dmitriev, who ran a local club and organized Russian tours for visiting improvisers, also helped put together and manage the Moscow Composers Orchestra. Thus its fitting that this octet, lead by Russian-British pianist Vladimir Miller performs the program aided by the inimitable vocals of Sainkho Namchylak, the Tuvan singer who has become one of the celebrities of the Eastern European glasnost scene. Recorded at Posciavio’s Uncool Jazz Festival, the program mixes Namchylak’s sung and recited poetry with selections from the work of Russian poet Daniil Kharms, yet another intellectual victim (in 1941) of state Stalinism.

Mesmerizing and imaginative throughout, the program may have additional resonance if you understand Russian. All the lyrics are in that language, and translation is provided for only four selections. Of course this may not be a major drawback. Namchylak’s mixture of Tuvan throat singing and Western atonal oral intonation are often best appreciated as sounds, rather than vocalization. Furthermore because there are eight additional instrumental voices which can balance Namchylak’s, she doesn’t get to verbally ride rough-shed over instrumentalists as she can do in a duo or trio situation.

Thus when the singer’s vocal cadences slide into shamanistic rhythms or throat-striated wails, purely instrumental interludes restore the balance. On “Rifmachisty–Machisty” for instance, the singer’s aggressive recitation that threatens to degenerate into yelps and retches, retains a certain subtlety when low-frequency piano chording, ostinato cello runs and bassoon blasts join it. Earlier, drummer Vladimir Tarasov, who used to power the Ganelin Trio, is saved from similar solipsism, when his display of continuous off-beat rolls and pops from the toms and snares plus cup-less and small cymbal reverberation, is completed by blasting trumpet triplets from Yuri Parfyonov and Alexander Alexandrov’s snaky bassoon line.

Handling Kharms’ “Comrade Mashkin Killed Comrade Koshkin” with the rolling vocals and declaratory parlando you’d expect to hear in a bedtime story, the vocalist’s narration is interrupted and expanded with capricious reflecting horn squeals. Reaching a final crescendo of pressured keyboard pumps and strums, intimations of Theremin-like tones – whether from Namchylak or an instrument isn’t clear – are perceived as well.

This not-quiet-heard perception is also there on “Aufzahlung zum Abzahlen”, with lyrics that are probably in German. Growling the syllables with ogre-like harshness, the singer’s exposition interlocks with a wide vibrato from Sergey Letov’s soprano saxophone, counter lines from Parfyonov’s horn and pitch-sliding piano cadences. Eventually everyone builds up to a polyphonic climax.

Almost all of the 11 tunes congeal into one long medley, yet the other standout in the Kharms program is “A Man Left His House”. With music composed by Miller – who elsewhere plays in a duo with Scottish percussionist Ken Hyder – the hybrid creation miraculously manages to join Kharms’ words with an out-and-out jazz feel without dislocation.

Certainly Tarasov’s beats and flams are in the jazz tradition, as are the walking bass thumps from Vladimir Volkov. Chromatically regularizing the beat so as not to lose momentum, the two keep the 13-minute performance on an even keel. Meantime the horns bite-off individual textures, as the vocalist’s recitation is accompanied by tutti passages that resemble some of Anthony Braxton’s writing for mid-sized ensembles. Ending with sul ponticello string slices and ruffling piano chords, closure has been attained earlier, since a vocalized midsection – which makes it seem as if Namchylak is singing “Sentimental Journey” in a language other than English – has been enhanced with a bassoon obbligato.

A deluxe session all around – despite the language barrier – Portrait of an Idealist could turn anyone into a fan of the singer or the octet. More solemnly, and at the same time, it serves as an appropriate homage to Dmitriev.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Portrait of an Idealist 2. One Lilac Evening 3. Rifmachisty–Machisty 4. Cool Alternativa 5. Blissfully Lonely 6. Comrade Mashkin Killed Comrade Koshkin 7. Samovar 8. A Man Left His House 9. Einburgerung 10. All Will com to an End 11. Aufzahlung zum Abzahlen

Personnel: Yuri Parfyonov (trumpet); Sergey Letov (tenor and soprano saxophones, bass clarinet, flutes); Alexander Alexandrov (bassoon); Vladimir Miller (piano); Aleks Kolkovsky (violin); Vladislav Makarov (cello); Vladimir Volkov (bass); Vladimir Tarasov (drums) and Sainkho Namchylak (voice)