Trumpeter Alex Sipiagin has been a member of bassist Dave Holland‘s pool of sidemen for over a decade: He can be heard on 2005’s Overtime, recorded in 2002; 2008’s Pass It On; and 2010’s Pathways. (He’s also played with Michael Brecker for years.) Consequently, it’s not too surprising that Holland would agree to perform on Sipiagin’s latest album as a leader, From Reality and Back (buy it from Amazon). The two are joined by tenor saxophonist Seamus Blake, who’s been a regular partner of Sipiagin’s since the 1990s; keyboardist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, whose 5Passion label has released the album; and drummer Antonio Sanchez. The group blows through eight tracks in 71 minutes, mostly originals by the trumpeter, with the exception of “Son Uvedny Posle (Dream Seen Later),” which was written for the group by Pat Metheny (who doesn’t play on it).
Things begin in a relatively mellow manner on the nine-minute album opener “Around the Bend,” with Rubalcaba on organ and the two horns winding through a long and complicated melody, interjecting and commenting on each other’s singing as they go. The bandleader is the first to solo, and his tone is as thick and full as ever. He frequently sounds like he’s playing a flügelhorn, even when he’s not. Blake follows him, with a smooth (not that kind of smooth), but occasionally hoarse and exultant solo that sets the stage for a liquid, impressionistic interlude from Rubalcaba, with Holland and Sanchez throbbing and tumbling around behind him.
The album doesn’t stay mellow, though; “End of…” is built around repeated iterations of a complex, boiling-over unison horn line, and takes nearly two minutes for solos to begin. Sipiagin launches himself into the horn’s upper register, trading lines with Blake and emitting one searing high note and rippling, Freddie Hubbard-esque line after another. Behind the two men, the rhythm trio skitter and caper around what could be a groove if it would ever slow down long enough to settle into one. As it is, the listener is kept continually on his or her toes. The Metheny composition is a simmering ballad, atmospheric and beautiful. In its dreamlike manner, it’s a companion piece to the album’s title track, which meanders like something the Miles Davis Quintet might have recorded in 1967 or 1968.
Seamus Blake reappears on Sipiagin’s other new(ish) release, Live at Smalls (buy it from Amazon). There, the group consists of the trumpeter, the saxophonist, pianist Dave Kikoski, bassist Boris Kozlov and drummer Nate Smith. In every way, this is a rougher and more expansive album than From Reality and Back. It’s only got five tracks, but sprawls out for a solid 70-plus minutes; the shortest piece is the 11-minute “Calming,” the longest the near-20-minute “Pass.” The recording is professional, but relatively unpolished, reflecting the realities of witnessing a performance in a club that holds only 60 paying audience members. In terms of sound quality, it’s not that different from a recording of John Coltrane or Sonny Rollins at the Village Vanguard in the early 1960s. Musically, of course, it’s more expansive, throwing surprises at the listener; for example, Kikoski offers both classical- and Latin-derived phrases within the same solo on the opening number, “Live Score.”
Sipiagin’s tone is less full on this live recording than on From Reality and Back. On “Videlles,” his solo sounds oddly muffled—not like he’s playing with a mute, but like he’s got the horn in a bag or something. Blake, on the other hand, has a keening yet gruff and bluesy tone. His solo on the atmospheric “Calming,” with Kikoski’s piano clanging behind him, is maybe the high point of the entire disc. As a raw document of a committed and communicative band, Live at Smalls is terrific. It shouldn’t be the first thing anyone hears by Alex Sipiagin as a leader, but that’s unlikely anyway. This one’s for longtime fans, and they’ll be very pleased.
Here’s a live video of Sipiagin at Smalls with Blake, Kikoski, Kozlov and drummer Ari Hoenig: