Review: Zhenya Strigalev - Smiling Organizm at Ronnie Scott's

Zhenya Strigalev
Photo Credit: Angus Forbes

Zhenya Strigalev - Smiling Organizm
(Ronnie Scott’s, Monday 20 January 2014. Review by Andy Boeckstaens)

The multi-national sextet assembled by Russian alto saxophonist Zhenya Strigalev for the thrilling 2012 CD Smiling Organizm vol.1 (Whirlwind WR46240) has reconvened for a 15-gig European tour. Sandwiched between visits to Switzerland and Spain, their one-nighter at a sold-out Ronnie Scott’s was electrifying.

Due to its participants’ schedules and commitments, the group’s personnel has always been flexible. Here, the star quality was enhanced by the inclusion of American trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and Mauritian electric bassist Linley Marthe, while the experienced “original” rhythm section of pianist Liam Noble, Larry Grenadier on double bass and Eric Harland on drums was retained.

Unlimited Source of Pleasure highlighted Strigalev’s pithy, staccato style, punctuated by impassioned wails produced from what always appears to be an uncomfortable stance with his head tilted right back. Akinmusire employed his outstanding technique intelligently, improvising brilliantly and economically on a relatively simple motif. There were no unnecessary pyrotechnics.

Several themes were stated by sax and trumpet together, but that traditional format seldom lasted long. Predetermined or not, solos seemed to emerge empirically, and the episodes in which a horn was accompanied by piano, bass and drums were rare. Much of the music was angular, with unsettlingly irregular rhythms.

During Binge, somebody asked what the time-signature was. I could only shrug and mutter an approximation of “blowed if I know”. It was so complex that one could listen a hundred times and still be unable to hum the briefest phrase. But there were many changes of pace and dynamics: a beautiful passage led by Akinmusire, reminiscent of Miles Davis’ band c.1968, and, later, a few lovely moments of good old-fashioned, straight-time, noddin’ ya head swing.

The presence of two bass players – best known for their work with great pianists - brought energy and diversity. On Horizontal Appreciation, Marthe (who was in the Joe Zawinul Syndicate for the last years of its existence) worked closely with Harland, before Grenadier (who recently celebrated 20 years in Brad Mehldau’s trio) took over. Later in the piece, a fine drum solo was underpinned by both basses, although for much of the show either Marthe or Grenadier was silent or deferred to the other.

Sarmas - after a measured, plodding start - brought startlingly funky contributions from Akinmusire and Strigalev, although it was as far away from a down-and-dirty blues as you could get. It became imperceptibly faster, and Marthe showed off his dazzlingly fast fingers on a popping, yelping solo before gradually bringing the tune back home.

A slow theme, crackling drums and skittering piano on the encore, Moscow Nights, may have gone some way to expunge a re-titled British rendition from the memory of those from a certain era. It was one of just two selections from the CD, and marked the end of a heady helter skelter of a gig by a restless, probing band that is unlikely ever to take an obvious direction.

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