I know nothing about Russian jazz. I have spent nearly 30 years listening to American jazz, and some European improvised music that’s at times related to jazz and at other times a deliberate reaction to it. But almost all those artists are from Northern or Western Europe: the UK, Germany, the Nordic countries. With the exception of one or two Polish artists, Eastern European jazz and improvised music is a total “Here Be Dragons” zone, as far as I’m concerned.

Thus, the output of the Russian label Fancy Music is in some ways impossible for me to judge. For the last couple of years, I’ve been aware of their releases because they send me emails about them. But are they a prominent label—the Blue Note of Russia—or are they some tiny outfit whose owner happened to stumble across Burning Ambulance and saw me as a likely prospect? I haven’t got a clue.

1607 caught my eye, though. So I downloaded it. And I’m reviewing it, despite being totally unable to contextualize it within the larger world of Russian jazz or improvised music. So if you’re the kind of person who judges a piece of music based on the pedigree of the players, whether you want to know who they studied under or whose band they toured in or how many albums they’ve already got out or how many sessions they’ve played on…well, this review includes none of those criteria, because I simply don’t know. I haven’t Googled any of the players’ names. Their prior discographies are a total mystery to me. But for the sake of accuracy, here they are: Alexey Kruglov plays multiple saxophones and other horns; Alexey Nadzharov plays keyboards; Denis Shushkov is the bassist; and Piotr Talalay is the drummer.

According to Kruglov’s liner notes, the music had its genesis in a program that featured live musicians accompanying silent films—these four were brought in to score Alexander Dovzhenko‘s Zvenigora. According to IMDB, this 1928 film “stars Nikolai Nademsky, as the grandfather of Timoshka (Semyon Svashenko), whom he alerts to secret treasure buried in the mountains [which] the boy spends the rest of his life trying to find. The film wonderfully blends both lyricism and politics and uses its central construct to build a montage praising Ukrainian industrialisation, attacking the European bourgeoisie, celebrating the beauty of the Ukrainian steppe and re-telling ancient folklore. Zvenigora is a most remarkable avant-garde film, which has a unique style in its approach and disregards the more traditional storytelling devices.” It sounds like an ideal platform for interpretive scoring from creative musicians. The music on 1607 (named for the day it was recorded—July 16, 2014), though, has been developed without regard for the film. It is its own thing now.

Each of the compositions has a plural title—”Displacements,” “Spheres,” “Dances,” “Luminescences,” and “Facets”—and that pluralism suits the music, which shifts between multiple modes quite rapidly and suddenly. “Displacements” begins in a caterwauling, clattering free jazz zone, not unlike something one might hear at the Vision Festival sometime in the early 2000s. Kruglov is a fierce saxophonist in the vein of David S. Ware or Daniel Carter, and Nadzharov’s piano has great density and heaviness. But at the three-minute mark, the music becomes gentle and groove-based, the piano melody looping gently over an almost hip-hop beat from Talalay, bolstered by a thick groove from Shushkov. Still later, Kruglov begins to emit elephantine roars, no longer producing notes at all, and the rhythm section grows positively jackhammering, even as electronic post-production causes the music to ripple and vibrate from the speakers.

Studio effects are extremely important to this music. On “Dances,” the saxophone is fed through echo and reverb until it nearly doubles. It’s an almost hallucinatory effect, and the hard-driving drumming takes it over the top. On “Luminescences,” what starts out quiet and atmospheric becomes explosive and noisy, with electronics whooshing and crackling around the live instruments and Kruglov’s horn sounding like the reed is on fire. The piece ends with nearly a minute of rumbling low-end feedback and softly quacking horn. Talalay is absolutely crucial to the whole enterprise—a less assaultive drummer would have left the other three spinning their wheels. But his beats are almost akin to live drum ‘n’ bass; they sound like they’re being cut up in ProTools, but he’s doing it live.

I find this album fascinating, not only on its own merits—these guys are great players—but because my total ignorance of the scene from which it emerges doesn’t allow me to make any judgments about who their influences are, who they’ve played with before, etc., etc. It comes to me as pure music, and that’s more than enough to elicit my highest possible recommendation. 1607 is 75 minutes of beautiful, thrilling music.

Phil Freeman

Stream/buy 1607 on Bandcamp:

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