Alexey Kruglov

Seal of Time
Leo Records CD LR 566

Proof that tightening restrictions imposed by the Vladimir Putin-affiliated oligarchy hasn’t stopped engaging Russian improvisers from emerging is demonstrated by this dazzling CD. While the five tracks here by saxophonist Alexey Kruglov and his associates are still a little rough around the edges, they can certainly fit comfortably among improvisations from other questing European musicians.

Made up of two studio tracks from 2007, and three live numbers from 2009, the CD showcases Moscow-based Kruglov on five horns – sometimes played simultaneously – backed by the Jazz Group Arkhangelsk’s drummer Oleg Udanov on all tracks. Bassist Igor Ivanushkin joins them in 2007; pianist Dmitry Bratukhin does so in 2009, and vocalist Erzhena Hide is also present on one 2009 track.

Although the originality and thematic conception of the players improve markedly over the two years that separate the sessions here, the thought process and playing is, by advanced western European and North American standards at least, not as far-out as the Russians probably imagine it is.

Evidence for this is implicit in 2007’s tour-de-force “The Battle” in which Kruglov plays, usually alternately, sometimes simultaneously, soprano and baritone saxophones, flute and basset horn and uses the breath from his horns to vibrate the inside piano strings. Meanwhile, often in unison, Bratukhin batters the piano keys as if he’s playing a prepared clavichord, while Ivanushkin walks and Udanov contributes military-styled rat-tat-tats. Soon the reedist’s glottal punctuation is sliding between baritone saxophone honks and siren-like barks from the basset horn, keeping his lines staccato and presto as the drummer’s beat remains earth-bound. Unexpectedly Kruglov, on soprano introduces a melody that is probably a contrafact of “The Volga Boatman”. His salute to – or is it mocking of – the tradition exhausted, the piece is completed with stops and pumps from the pianist, vibrating along the soundboard for additional dissonance, plus more back of throat gibbering from the flutist.

By 2009, Kruglov’s flutter tonguing and clenched teeth slurs are now mixed with Europeanized lyricism without losing any of his sharper multiphonics. Bratukhin continues to chord methodically when not on solo flight, while Udanov still maintains an unfortunate tendency – not confined to Russian percussionist by the way – to accent every note and tone the others produce.

Udanov sounds better when he thumps and rolls sympathetically. That he demonstrates on “The Ascent”, which also feature the alto saxophonist’s textures becoming wider and more dissonant and mixed with discursive slurs and reed-biting quivers. Russian theatricism also affects the pianist’s solo which during its course creates harmonies that could be associated with Arthur Rubinstein as well as those that relate to McCoy Tyner – then mix them together. Kinetic and portamento, Bratukhin’s accelerating chording furrows a groove within which Kruglov’s emotional vibrato nestles, with the finale equal parts treble reed squeaks and tonal smoothness.

Whether the situation in post-Communist Russia will foster more improvisers such as these, not discourage them, or create circumstances that force musicians to become more radical is opaque at the moment. What is clear is that Kruglov – who has played separately with every member of the Ganelin Trio, the Soviet Union’s contribution to world improv – will certainly be part of his country’s musical future in some way or another.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Poet+ 2. The Battle^ 3. Seal of Time*+ 4. Love^ 5. The Ascent+

Personnel: Alexey Kruglov (alto, soprano and baritone saxophones, basset horn, flute and piano); Dmitry Bratukhin (piano)+; Igor Ivanushkin (bass)^; Oleg Udanov (drums, percussion) and Erzhena Hide (voice)*