Excessive praise can damn a fledgling career. Yet there are occasions when a critic hears a new voice that is just that – that is different, distinctive and even dissident. I hesitate to say it but Russian saxophonist Alexey Kruglov may just be all these.
Take the two records he has made with veteran drummer Vladimir Tarasov – Dialogs and In Tempo. Tarasov was for years part of the legendary Ganelin Trio. Lesser talents would leap into the fray or be so transfixed in the master’s presence they could barely utter a note. There is an absence of awe about Kruglov – respect, yes, but ‘awe’ precludes the possibility of a genuine meeting. On In Tempo, in particular, Kruglov is an equal partner his wide throaty tenor huge and authoritative in the mix.
Yet, still I worry that I could be mistaken. For Christ’s sake, I even ended my review of his Russian Metaphor CD (Leo) with the words, “This young man might just be a genius”. Kruglov plays UK dates in October with Estonian guitarist Jaak Soäär (drummer Paul May joins them at the Vortex). Okay, we’re not talking Springsteen in Hammersmith ’75 but….
My interview with Kruglov took place at one remove. His English is limited and my Russian non-existent, Leo Fagin (Leo Records) took my questions to Alexey and translated his answers. I’d asked how he saw himself in relation to the tradition of Russian jazz built up by the Ganelin trio with Tarasov and Vladimir Chekasin, by Sergey Kuryokhin, Jazz Group Archangelsk and others.
“Of course I am developing my own method, my own direction, but my direction is very close to the style of our avant-garde players. And this is only natural, for with many of our legendary musicians I used to play in the past or playing now.”
Kruglov has also performed with both Chekasin and Ganelin, as well as with various musicians from Arkhangelsk. In fact, Oleg Udanov (drummer with Jazz Group Archangelsk) plays on Russian Metaphor. Kruglov was fortunate enough to attend Sergei Kazarnovsky’s “Class-centre”, an establishment less a school than a cross between Julliard and A.S. Neill’s Summerhill. As well as jazz and classical music, he also study theatre. “I had a fantastic teacher – Ernest Barashvili, who made me love not only jazz but classical music as well,” he says adding that, “Kazarnovsky stage interesting performances and musicians not just played music but were employed as actors. This experience gave me the feel of the stage. I also understood that the art can be full of variety.” This was clearly a place that took children’s creativity seriously.
Though he didn’t study formally with Arkady Shilkloper, the brilliant Russian horn player has proved a source of inspiration and advice. “He may not teach you how to play the notes correctly,” Kruglov explains, “but he would teach you how to feel free on the stage, how to feel the sound, rhythm, the inner theatre of the musical image. All these find the place in his music. I experienced it by playing with him and with other outstanding musicians as well.”
One important feature of Russian free jazz has been the injection of humour. It might be ironic, surreal or even slapstick but was often a response to the darker aspects of the human condition. Humour also finds a place in Kruglov’s music. “It is like in life — one cannot live without humour” and he acknowledges the precedents in Russian jazz, “Arkhangelsk and Kuryokhin were unique in this respect and they were very natural. We do not work at humour but it emerges as a result from the tension after the difficult musical parts or inside them. When we play a concert with Oleg Udanov in our final compositions Seal of Time during his solo I leave the hall or play coda while lying down.” And he adds, “When the humour becomes a part of a scenic, musical form, the whole action acquires a deeper sense.”
Karate, his most recent album is, dispelled any doubts I had – it’s a whole new tradition absorbed and mastered. Guitarist Jaak Soäär is a real find – aggressive, witty and with an amazing rhythmic sense. This is radical music from a radical talent.
Like that earlier generation of Russian musicians, Kruglov hears in African-American jazz of the sixties a spirit that communicates directly to a country that has experienced centuries of oppression. “A special aspect in their music which is important for me is the inner freedom, a feeling of flying and ideas of creativity,” he says, adding, “I respect Afro-American music, I hear creative energy. Probably because I lived in the USSR and was restricted and always wanted to get out of these restrictions, that’s why I have a special feeling for Ayler and Coleman.”
Once again, respect rather than awe. The only hint of frustration comes when he castigates what he calls ‘traditional Russian jazz’ for just aping ‘American tradition of 50 years ago’. But it’s a comment that comes from a confidence rooted in that sublime combination of raw talent, study and practice. When I ask about the differences between Russian and American jazz, he focuses first on the influence of art music on Russian and European jazz but adds, “American jazz has its own powerful tradition, but Europeans are more artistic in this respect. But the jazz practised by Coltrane, Coleman, Art Ensemble of Chicago has very important aspect.”
An accomplished poet, Kruglov’s projects often incorporate spoken word – sometimes structured into the performance, at others spontaneously. Understandably, the saxophonist is an admirer of Mayakovski – the Bolshevik poet. “In 1999, I was lucky to work with a legendary Russian poet Andrei Voznesenski, who considered Mayakovski to be his teacher,” he tells me. “I was creating a special atmosphere when the poet read his poetry. That evening was an impulse for me to start developing my own musical projects with literature. I realised that the word and sound can become metaphors, which allow to reach much deeper and turn to philosophical, cultural, spiritual themes.”
Alexey Kruglov is evidently a very ambitious young man but he has the kind of imagination, creativity and ability to realise even the highest of his ambitions. For those of you who cannot catch him on Leo’s ‘Joy of Making Music Tour’, the Vortex gig is to be broadcast by Radio 3. I have seen the future of jazz and his name is…..