Daily jazz blog, Marlbank

Weekend gig-going: Zhenya

J-Z Replacement preview: Giggus interruptus last year ahead of a big tour cancelled a lot for Zhenya Strigalev. Cast your minds back. It was the centenary of Charlie Parker’s birth no less. Jazz in 2020 was a year like no other. The biggest …

Published: 15 Oct 2021. Updated: 2 years.

J-Z Replacement preview: Giggus interruptus last year ahead of a big tour cancelled a lot for Zhenya Strigalev. Cast your minds back. It was the centenary of Charlie Parker’s birth no less. Jazz in 2020 was a year like no other. The biggest surprise talking to the great Russian alto saxophonist Zhenya Strigalev who has certainly inherited Parker’s style, savoir fair, sense of derring-do, and sheer spirit, speaking in an interview last year from St Petersburg where he was rehearsing and gigging before the subsequently totalled tour fell down the rabbit hole is that his love for Charlie Parker is channelled through the influence that rained down on Sonny Rollins.

Strigalev playing the Vortex on Saturday night with Jamie Murray is a fascinating player and his story goes deeper than most. And yet that said we still only know a little about it. Here’s what we do know. Back in 2012 he was near the end of his tenure in the popular London jamming club Charlie Wright’s in Hoxton on the Shoreditch borders. You’d also hear him by then jamming regularly round midnight at Ronnie Scott’s. Zhenya ran the music at Charlie’s as everyone called it, 'John Nash, a great character,’ he says, the spot itself. It hardly got any publicity. But it did not need to.

Nearly always packed and you’d hear the most remarkable jazz players under the radar there. Back in 2008 I saw the great Robert Glasper there on the last night of a short British tour with his trio the place buzzing with a young fashionable crowd who otherwise would be trawling the local bars and clubs for the best vibe, looking for the next big thing. Many made their way that Saturday night as the clocks went forward to Charlie’s, newly reopened after a refurbishment. There’d typically be the TV on as future visits confirmed with the sound turned down. Glasper even got behind the bar from pressing the flesh during a break when fans swarmed around shepherded that night by future GoGo Penguin manager Kerstan Mackness in those days doing Blue Note label press on the fly. Zhenya was beavering about fixing things. I think I saw him up a ladder.

In 2012 Zhenya, by that stage, still a fairly young player who had come out on to the professional London scene after a long spell at the Royal Academy of Music (circa 2002-7) where he was taught by the likes of Martin Speake and Jean Toussaint and where he had first landed to study from Russia on a full scholarship at the venerable Marylebone Road institution in those days the jazz there looked after by Gerard Presencer but had to retake some exams he says frankly so stayed longer and then in his early career was putting out records such as Smiling Organizm. The altoist was still known more among musicians apart from a few of us in the jazz press who could be arsed to actually go to the late night spots where badger-like all the best jazzers were known to congregate.

His studio bands when he started making records were not any old bands. For instance, he had Brad Mehldau bass titan Larry Grenadier popping up and Larry's fellow American bass guitarist Tim Lefebvre. That connection with Lefebvre – who was later on Bowie’s Blackstar and gigged with the Tedeschi Trucks Band – is still alive and kicking and continues intrinsic on the very fine Disrespectful album released by Russian label Rainy Days.

Smiling Organizm, which also became the name of the Strigalev band back in the day upped the ante a few years later with the line-up rejigged and if anything was even more spectacular because Zhenya had recruited the former Steve Coleman trumpeter and future Blue Note signing Ambrose Akinmusire and Charles Lloyd drummer, an Elvin Jones of our times, Eric Harland still at the kit.

Obviously the Russian was much regarded by players at the highest level who would agree to be on his records and tour. This became a more mature sound in a few respects, certainly in the detail of the writing, there was a lot of individuality in the customised bop approach, Akinmusire’s apocalyptic style, that doleful anthemic sense he brings to the music, perhaps making most difference.

Strigalev’s key strength is his feverish writing and while the 2020 album instead stripped things back more than some of the earlier work in his Whirlwind label period, the tunes such as ‘Kuku’ with almost an Afrobeat accent to it, ‘Horizontal Appreciation’ a sinuous bass guitar-led injection of pace that could go into jazz-rock but doesn’t, and ‘Sharp Night’ has a frenetic leaping momentum that enables thoughts of Strigalev as a latterday Charlie Parker.

Back to life in Russia. ‘I’ve been in the country outside St Petersburg for 10 days with Jamie Murray,’ he explains. What’s he doing there? ‘Cabin practice, separately and then we get together.’ I think that is lost in translation, even though Zhenya is speaking fluent English and the phone line is as clear as a bell.

He can’t recall when he met Jamie first. ‘I can’t properly remember but maybe four years ago at a jam session. He helped me get the drums together. We discussed practice a bit. I was in a band called Beat Replacement in which at some point a musician was late and it became eventually JZ Replacement.’ This is how mischievously although resolutely-deadpan he refers to his new band featuring Lefebvre.

But who exactly is Jamie Murray? Flashback to 2016, we on marlbank were tipping him highly that year after accidentally encountering him at a jam. It was like field research coming across him. On that occasion hearing the drummer for the first time it was in an environment not unlike Charlie Wright’s. Zhenya says that when Charlie's was going, there weren’t the number of jams operating as much, with only Uncle Sam’s at the Haggerston pub on the Kingsland Road in Dalston among them. Then Austrian guitarist Hannes Riepler’s Sunday jam at the Vortex over by Gillett Square got its thang together. It was at the Grim Reaper’s reliably satisfying session that ran for years, now over, that I heard Murray for the first time. From memory he had a loose scrambling style, certainly not involving orthodox spang-a-lang although he can do that very well if he wants to.

Jamming on a standard with pianist Rick Simpson and the excellent Can of Worms tenorist George Crowley plus the bassist Dave Manington they played slightly disconcertingly the antique standard ‘Stompin’ at the Savoy’ downstairs in Derek's domain on that occasion. But it did not sound as it usually does when grandaddio jazzers swing it way too much, in other words bringing on boredom. Not in the least. I listened as the tune winged its way from the loping modernistic collision of bop and beyond back to the distant past and echoes of the more plainly spoken melodically swinging Chick Webb era bundled up in the resolutely chipper optimism and jaunty feel of jazz on the cusp of swing that the jammers delight in. There was no point missing out and musing in your ivory tower about who the great new talents of the future happened to be I thought. “People can lose their lives in libraries. They ought to be warned,” wrote Saul Bellow.

Strigalev with his beak-like stance and high angled embouchure on his older records, for instance on a track such as ‘Unlimited Source of Pleasure’, with Akinmusire he cooks up a catchy opening that allows the band the scope it needs, Strigalev delivering eventually one of his most convincingly nuanced solos, really tonally distinctive above all, and controlled.

Piano doesn’t always contribute such an obvious role on Strigalev’s albums as among the bass lines or horns there’s such a crowd of sound sometimes, and it’s left on some albums to Grenadier or whoever bassist it is to lead off a tune such as the paradoxically-slow ‘Urgent Ballad’ before Strigalev summons vast reserves of energy.

Zhenya talks a little about his ‘alto box’ (in the photo, top). An unusual, swollen, looking instrument that looks like a case used particularly in his later highwire Never band. Actually the box is not really an instrument, more a kind of mini-cave that has gained a mutant ninja type lifeforce all of its own. He says that it is a ‘mute’ with a microphone he places inside it. It gives a bigger size to the sound and can cheeringly sound quite bizarre in context and makes us listen uncomplacently and certainly injects some cartoon-like diversion. It allows me he says ‘to add electronics. I don’t want to hear the sax. It makes me sound differently. I saw it in the sax shop, saw the mute, got it. It isolates the sax sound.’

Zhenya mentions that he plays on the local and dauntingly vast Russian scene in some local places in St Petersburg, or ‘Sankt’ Petersburg, he says adopting the language of Pushkin, and in Moscow has played Butman’s place, one of the main clubs there, the club named after very controversial Wyntonian the saxist Igor Butman. Zhenya rolls his tongue around one of the others, ‘Esse’.

Strigalev in context sits alongside another explosive alto saxophonist Alexey Kruglov (born 1979) worth getting to know but who is relatively little known in the west, although the Leo label has championed his cause to the free-jazz diaspora by releasing his records and and a game Siggi Loch put him out on his label in duo with Joachim Kühn. Clearly more in the Ganelin tradition than Strigalev he has a very powerful sound on Moscow as if he’s playing a seriously hard reed and uses it to expressive effect whether caressing the notes or simply bludgeoning them in pursuit of their innermost core. His characterfully-robust stylings in terms of inflection isn’t unlike the ever so slightly more conventional Strigalev approach. (Strigalev by the way is in no way that conventional.) But like Strigalev Kruglov is highly combustible at fast tempi. Unlike Kruglov however Strigalev is not really influenced by Ornette Coleman. Zhenya surprises me by mentioning Paul Desmond as an influential alongside Parker however.

Reminiscing for a moment about Charlie Wright's he says that a ‘lot of players do not know the ins and outs of putting on gigs’. He got involved a lot in this, sometimes even putting up his own money back then if needed especially if people putting on the gig in question were being stingy. He talks about how much a jazz spot needs personality. The bandleader says he wants to be comfortable on stage and we talk about lighting a bit. It can be too intense some time when people are shining lights on musicians in all the wrong places randomly. 'You can’t just turn it on and turn it off,' he muses.



Bruno Heinen, 1000 Trades, Birmingham


JZ Replacement, Vortex, Dalston, London


Winston Clifford quartet, Herts Jazz Festival, South Mill Arts, Bishop's Stortford


Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong All-Stars, Black and Blue, Verve ****

'Black and Blue' is one of the ultimate protest songs addressing the oppression of African-Americans through what feels so like personal pain both physical and emotional. A song that does not shy away from expressing the essential brutality of …

Published: 15 Oct 2021. Updated: 2 years.

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'Black and Blue' is one of the ultimate protest songs addressing the oppression of African-Americans through what feels so like personal pain both physical and emotional. A song that does not shy away from expressing the essential brutality of violence and pertinent like a prophesy to inform a climate shocked still by the abomination that was the killing of George Floyd and ongoing police brutality.

This version, illuminated by a strolling Reginald Veal bass riff, of the venerable piece just released scales an impossible mountain by travelling along an ascending path up from the routes of traditional jazz to a new high altitude base camp designed by hip-hop culture that seems a galaxy away. No, the version is not reached via other styles such as MBASE or free-jazz but via trad and the building blocks of jazz going back to the early 20th century and the music of New Orleans. Leading musicians from New Orleans and particularly musicians who have radicalised trad in their own often ''modern'' (hard bop or swing big band) ways despite appearances are involved including Wynton Marsalis, probably the best known jazz musician in the world today. Don't think Wynton is a radical trad artist not that this needs to be the point here but where have you been since Blood on the Fields in 1997? His wake-up satirical album The Ever Fonky Lowdown last year probably gave us more of a recent clue about long established directions in his music (Black Codes, another exemplary statement of highly considered composition) often lost in the big suits and corporate institutional bigwiggery he rolls with on a day-to-day basis and all the offputting didactism that sometimes gets in the way when it shouldn't.

From The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong All-Stars (ft. Common, Wynton Marsalis) A Gift To Pops you'll find for instance Pops in 1964 on 'When It’s Sleepy Time Down South' while Wynton guests on another radical tradster Nicholas Payton’s arrangement of 'The Peanut Vendor'.

'(What Did I do to Be So) Black and Blue' was written by Fats Waller with lyrics by Andy Razaf and Harry Brooks and was first recorded by Louis Armstrong in 1929 when America was segregated and decades away from civil rights coming into federal law. Here many years since the days of Dr Martin Luther King and Malcolm X after civil rights changed America for the better but with still a lot of wrongs to be righted it's Payton singing Waller’s lyrics (back in the 1990s he also interpreted the song in more trad guise all easy with Doc Cheatham) and then Common rapping 'My school of thought is black openness/To define and redefine what the culture is.” SG. Out today

Louis Armstrong photo: Jack Bradley via Verve/Louis Armstrong House Museum