various artists,
Golden Years of Soviet New Jazz
(Leo, 2001)

Leo Records will, of course, always be associated with that period of jazz identified by the title of this fine retrosceptive, the Soviet New Thing documented by Leo Feigin between (at the latest) the late 1970s and the fall of the Union. We have seen some stunning reissues since the inception of the Golden Years of New Jazz label a couple of years ago, but none quite so sumptuous as this, a four-CD box priced at a bargain.

Each CD is dedicated to a particular musician or, in the case of the first disc, the duo of Vyacheslav Guyvoronsky (on trumpet) and Vladimir Volkov (bass). Jazz fans may recall a previous Guyvoronsky release, Chonyi Together, with which I was greatly impressed; those who know that record won't be disappointed, although the quietude of the sets, recorded in 1985 and 1986, make a nice contrast to the more boistrous Chonyi.

Guyvoronsky is, quite simply, a unique trumpeter. Although many -- Chet Baker and Miles Davis to name the most obvious -- have embraced the instrument's diffident, tender side, few have followed the instrument's own logic with such self-effacing grace. Although there's a dancing brilliance in this music, it's slurred and accidental, wonderfully casual; there's none of Davis's arrogance or Baker's melancholy here. Notes crack and slide out from under the melodic line, but it never sounds like lack of technique (which it isn't; Guyvoronsky is a formidable technician). Rather, there's a charming openness to the trumpet's own voice which is fresh, warm and friendly, adjectives one rarely uses in discussions about "free" jazz.

Well, as usual, the jazz here isn't so free anyway. One gets the impression that numerous preparations have been made for these pieces, and there's a definite sense of melodic ideas being worked through here although there's only one standard ("A Night in Tunisia," a slippery and nocturnal thing speaking of hazy margharita-fueled wanderings in a very different time of the year from Dizzy's carnival season). Like many whose music is apprently simple but surprisingly rich, the tunes here are often song-like, even folksy, but buried deep in what's heard.

Volkov was (and, the liner notes imply, still is) a regular collaborator with the trumpeter, and it certainly shows. He understands Guyvoronsky's world perfectly, and although there's nothing instrumentally outstanding here his supportive work is to be highly praised nevertheless. Together, they make a music which is fine-spun, gorgeously lyrical, yet approachable and not in the least bit brittle or "cool." That these tracks have never before been released adds to the importance of the boxed set as a whole, and to have music this good become available 15 years after it was made is a great service to the listening public.

None of the other CDs in this set can boast such exclusivity, although all of them contain at least something never before heard, and most of the reissued stuff comes from Leo LPs that aren't available any more -- although as a side note, there are a surprising number of LPs still in the label's store-cupboards and at bargain prices it's worth obtaining a list.

The second CD is devoted to the great pianist Sergey Kuryokhin. A recent reissue of The Ways of Freedom astonished, and the music collected here -- from a couple of long-unavailable Leo LPs, plus nearly half an hour of unreleased material -- is of equally high quality.

If Guyvoronsky is diffident, subtle and quiet in his brilliance then Kuryokhin, well, isn't. A flashy, dashing player, he could easily have been nothing more than an entertainer, a spectacle of quick-fingeredness and polystylism. But the fact is that Kuryokhin's virtuoso technique is brought to bear by a rigorous musical mind, and the results are nearly always astounding.

Mentioning the name of Art Tatum isn't always useful at such moments, but it is here; the brilliance and showmanship underpinned by tremendous facility has only one real precedent in jazz, and he's it. Comparisons with Cecil Taylor will get you nowhere, because Kuryokhin, despite his quickness and loudness and love of drama, is a different animal entirely. Devoid of Taylor's lovable pomp, he tells jokes in his music as well as analysing jazz and classical configurations. Indeed, like Tatum, Kuryokhin seems to have been a classical pianist seduced into jazz.

Of the tracks presented here, four as solo piano, one an ultra-fast, jokey "Maple Leaf Rag" accompanied by a rather flummoxed-sounding tuba, and one an extended quartet piece with bass, drums and the voice of Valentina Ponomareva, to whose music the third CD in this set is devoted.

Ponomareva's set is probably the most diverse in terms of compositional credits -- standards and originals rub shoulders with Lennon/McCartney, Anatoly Vapirov and Sofia Gubaidulina. Inevitably, the standards are a good place to start, and Ponomareva takes "C-Jam Blues" at full tilt, her scat style wild and freewheeling with a surprisingly American sound; the band have something of the Jazz Messengers about them. "Ain't Misbehavin'" is treated very similarly, except that for an intro Ponomareva and ace saxophonist Vladimir Chekasin spin intricately interwoven lines which are a little marred by an echo unit (although they obviously enjoy it, as musicians do).

As for Lennon and McCartney, they don't really stand a chance. Ponomareva takes the melody to pieces here, unaccompanied except for far too much reverb. Well, it was 1983, and anyway the use of electronic effects seems to be far more closely integrated into Ponomareva's style than is usual with such things. Her whole approach is one of maximising the tonal palette of the voice, and there's a logic to adding these extra colours. It can give the overall sound a rather new-agey wash, but the music is strong enough to leave no suspicion of superficiality. The same goes for "Sheptalki," by the fine "straight" composer Sofia Gubaidulina; Ponomareva's arrangement (if such it is) is blighted by dated synth patches but it's hard to care when the music sounds so good. One wishes for less reverb, but one can't change the thing and really wouldn't want to. And as for "Intrusion," well if you can overcome your understandable scepticism of the 707, powerhouse of many a dodgy acid track, in a jazzy freeform context. you'll find Vladimir Tarasov's use of it ear-opening to say the least. One wonders, indeed, how many other lost 1980s recordings feature good drummers experimenting successfully with the then-hip technology, playing it live rather than sequencing up the kind of leaden "beats" one finds on, say, Herbie Hancock albums of the period. More than just historical interest here, then; there are some genuine, pleasant surprises.

Ponomareva's disk features a composition by the saxophonist Anatoly Vapirov. It's one of the nice links which shows the thought that was put into this set, because a full CD of Vapirov's music completes the set. The saxophonist is relatively unknown outside his circles and it's a pleasure to get to know him here; and, of course, it's quite different from what's gone before.

Vapirov is a big-toned tenorist, sounding not unlike Archie Shepp and with all of that more familiar player's blast and bluster. Like Shepp, he's a clever jazz player; unlike Shepp, he's no jazz purist and certainly no bluesman. Indeed, nearly an hour of the music here is performed with orchestral forces, not piano, bass and drums. Still, one never loses the sense of the jazz bands which Vapirov played in before he discovered "new" music.

The centrepiece here is "Macbeth," a saxophone concerto that stands easily next to -- and in most cases head and shoulders above -- the Third Stream experiments of a decade or so earlier which it inevitably recalls. Vapirov's own part sounds mainly improvised, but the orchestral parts and closely-scored, which makes a change from the ksetchiness one often encounters when jazz musicians make detours into such things. Indeed, the impression one gets is that Varirov is a perfectly serious classical composer and a very fine jazz saxophonist; being both at once is really something of a rarity. "Jazz composers" like Ornette and Braxton, for example, tend to be idiosyncratic, and because they're not interested in engaging with the classical orthodoxy they succeed entirely on their own terms. Vapirov, however, engages directly with "mainstream" contemporary classicism and makes it work brilliantly with his solo voice. Almost certainly, that's attributable in part to the relative intellectual openness of the world of Schnittke, Gubaidulina, Smirnov et al compared with the more rarified academic detatchment of Western classical music in the 1980s.

The other big work here -- although it has nothing like the scale of "Macbeth" -- is "Lines of Destiny." There's some confusion about personnel here, but it sounds as if it's realised by a string quartet and multi-tracked saxophones provided by the composer. This is pure conjecture, because the liner notes claim it's a jazz combo and string quartet (it isn't) and the credits list a symthony orchestra; neither mentions overdubs, but if the saxophone parts are indeed performed in real time by multiple performers, then either their styles are very closely matched or the music was all written out, which seems unlikely given the paradoxically sinuous angularity which gives Vapirov's lines their delicious unpredictability.

These two are bookended by shorter pieces of a more conventional free jazz hue. A duet with bassist Volkov (who appears with Guyvoronsky on disc 1) opens the disc; it's one of the great moments of the superb "Sentenced to Silence" LP, long-deleted but reissued almost entirely by this set. Volkov plays beautifully and, as elsewhere in Volkov's work, there's a hard lyricism which really impresses. The final piece, "Delusion," is a standard quartet plus an ecstatic Valentina Ponomareva; it has something of the Ganelin trio about it with its romping bebop feel, and ends the set on a high note.

The value of this set can hardly be overstated; it gathers together some of the gems of this music that, despite the efforts of the Leo label, are always in danger of fading back into obscurity. This was vibrant music consumed by the passion to invent, and it's as impressive in its way as was the New Thing in the U.S. 20 years prior, and this set represents it well. One can only hope that the reissue program continues. As for price, this set is an astounding bargain -- but, as for availability, 500 have been pressed and once they're gone, they're gone. If you're excited by free jazz in all its forms, be sure to be one of the 500 if you can.

- Rambles
written by Richard Cochrane
published 20 September 2003

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