Steppin' Zone

liner notes
For a sense of how this peer group regards Alex Sipiagin, consider the following assessment from trumpet master Randy Brecker.

"Alex Sipiagin is an amazing musician -- truly a multifaceted composer, arranger, producer, a wonderful lead trumpet player, and most of all, a completely original trumpet and flugelhorn soloist. As an improviser, he blends his Russian-American background into something unique which, quite frankly, astounds me every time I hear him!"

Brecker should know the 33-year-old virtuoso's capabilities as well as anyone; he recruited Sipiagin into the Mingus Big Band in 1995 and has played alongside him hundreds of times. But if you need convincing, listen to Sipiagin's feats of improvisational derring-do on any one of the solos he conjures on "Steppin' Zone," his unfettered Criss Cross debut. He feeds off a quintet of all-star team players, who tear into a program of seven harmonically and rhythmically challenging structures with intrepid elan and a hard-won sense of freedom forged from iron discipline.

"With these musicians, I can hear how the music is going to be before we do it," Sipiagin notes. "Nothing is going to be a problem. Chris Potter is a perfect example of a musician who creates his own style; his playing is very close to what I think jazz is supposed to be. Dave Kikoski is a universal player, a super-talented, gifted pianist who makes the music sound great. Scott Colley for me combines knowledge of modern European styles -- Classical music and the ECM sound -- and real Jazz-Bebop. Jeff Watts has been my favorite drummer since I lived in Russia; he's the kind of drummer who doesn't need a lot of rehearsal, but can come in an do exactly what you need."

Sipiagin's achievement is impressive enough. It becomes a more mysterious an astonishing feat when you learn that he never witnessed an American jazz musician until 1990 -- the year after the official dissolution of the Soviet Union -- when the Branford Marsalis Quartet (with Watts on trapset), the Benny Golson-Art Farmer unit and a group led by Freddie Hubbard played at the first-ever Russian International Jazz Festival. Sipiagin was then a 22-year-old conservatory student, not far removed from two years of compulsory service in a Russian Army babnd.

A native of Yaroslavl, a provincial city 150 miles from Moscow, Sipiagin began playing in a children's orchestra when he was 12 years old, where a teacher named Mikhail Tsamaiev gave him a trumpet and inspired him with his playing. "He was one of those great musicians who had been in the symphony orchestra," Sipiagin relates. "Russian reality is such that when he retired he had no money and no place to live, and he was working there to survive. Which is a paradox in Russia. You can meet such a great level of people in places like high school!"

Sipiagin entered a local musical college at 15, where he played primarily classical music. "During my first year, someone played me a tape of Lee Morgan," he recalls. "It absolutely amazed me. I knew I had to find out more about it, and that I would have to go to Moscow; I played some exams, and enrolled at the Moscow Music Institute when I was 18. There were a lot of great classical musicians there; Cuban and Vietnamese musicians as well. I was still playing classical music, but all my teachers played jazz. They gave us tapes, and we had to transcribe solos by Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan, and learn them from memory. At the same time we were playing classical concertos. During this time I only wanted to learn how to play jazz, but now I'm glad I played classical music. I play lead with the Mingus band 50-60 percent of the time, and I see that my classical exercises help me do it."

Sipiagin cites Morgan, Hubbard, Chet Baker and Woody Shaw as primary trumpet influences. "I like Lee Morgan's soul," he comments. "My interest in Freddie Hubbard -- who is my second influence - He had a lot of technique in jumping from high to low, and through him I trained my fingers to leap. Lee Morgan was an example of how to build a melody, but use a Freddie Hubbard technique at the same time. Lee Morgan somehow led me to Chet Baker, who created incredible melodies. And Freddie Hubbard led me to Woody Shaw, who also employed a lot of technique, but with such unusual phrasing. At one point Woody Shaw became my hero; I was transcribing all his solos and transposing them to every key. I still have the music paper from the college time when I transcribe all this stuff, and I still play it.

"In the second or third year of college, I introduced myself to other styles of music, like Weather Report, the Pat Metheny Group, and Wayne Shorter. People in Russia relate to this music, which has so much color and beauty. Life in Russia can be ugly - sometimes you don't get enough food, it's not comfortable, the air is dirty; and this music helps them imagine an alternate reality."

At 19 Sipiagin received his Baccalaureate and entered the Army, winding up in a militar band stationed close to Moscow. "We had to play outside every day, no matter what the weather. You'd put some vodka or 150 percent proof alcohol inside the trumpet so it wouldn't freeze to your lips. But we had two or three hours a day to practice. I had tapes of Pat Metheny and Wayne Shorter's Native Dancer with Milton Nascimento, which I got off the Voice of America and is my favorite album. I listened to the tapes over and over again to bring me back to reality and give me hope."

Upon his release in 1988, Sipiagin returned to the conservatory to study for his Masters degree, earning tuition on Pop gigs and recording sessions. The age of "Glasnost" was in full sway, and Sipiagin partook fully of the new openness. "By 1990 I knew I had to go to the United States," he recalls. "By accident, our student band from college was invited to play at a jazz festival in Corpus Christi, Texas, and on the way back we stayed a little while in New York. Months before the trip I had applied to enter the Thelonious Monk Trumpet Competition in Washington, D.C., and when I got back, I received an invitation.

"It was my first time playing with an American rhythm section, which included Kenny Washington and Peter Washington. From the very first song, it was like somebody pushing me in the back. Everything was so easy. Until you get here, you just don't know what Swing is! I went on stage and saw people like Clark Terry, Nat Adderley and Donald Byrd sitting before me. I won the special prize, and got a trumpet from Clark Terry, which I am still playing."

(more on album)

Ted Panken
Downbeat, Jazziz, WKCR
Catalyst (Take 1) -- from "Steppin' Zone"
Room 28 (from "Steppin' Zone")
Steppin' Zone (from "Steppin' Zone")
Spacing (from "Steppin' Zone")
Missouri Uncompromised (from "Steppin' Zone")
Moonstone (from "Steppin' Zone")
Conception (from "Steppin' Zone")Listen!
Catalyst - Take 2 (from "Steppin' Zone")

Alex Sipiagin (trumpet, flugelhorn)
Chris Potter (tenor sax)
David Kikoski (piano)
Scott Colley (bass)
Jeff "Tain" Watts (drums

Produced by Gerry Teekens
Executive Producer: K. Hasselpflug
Recording Engineer: Max Bolleman
Recorded June 5, 2000

Photography: Gildas Bocle
Cover Design: Gerry Teekens & H. Bloemendaal