Jazz.com tries to cover the whole world of jazz, and not just the famous players at the name clubs. This is more than a quest for brotherhood and goodwill, but also driven by a realization that some of today’s most exciting developments are happening outside the US, especially when talented artists mix the jazz sensibility with the best of their local or regional musical culture.
Frederick Bernas, who covers the Moscow jazz scene for us, finds just this in a performance by Alex Rostotsky at the V & J Club in central Moscow. Here Rostotsky, a hot electric bassist in a Jaco mold, takes on the music of Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881). Rostotsky's new CD is still a rare item in the West, but you are encouraged to check out the video, even if your Russian is rusty. T.G.
Jazz and classical music enjoy an unpredictably tempestuous relationship: polar opposites in one sense, yet drawing ever closer in another. The very act of improvisation is alien to many classical players, but jazz musicians often receive a dual upbringing. Contemporary jazz in particular has seen frequent blurring of genre boundaries between the two, with people including Wayne Shorter, Chris Potter, Jacques Loussier and Uri Caine experimentally combining elements of both and compositional techniques growing ever more sophisticated.
Russia is no exception to this rising trend. With its magnificent classical history and fertile developing jazz scene, perhaps that’s no surprise—but it is nevertheless slightly unusual that one of the leading advocates is Alex Rostotsky, an electric bassist who favours a distinctly Jaco-esque fretless fusion sound.
On February 28, Rostotsky presented his new album Pictures at an Exhibition or Promenade with Mussorgsky at the recently opened V & J Club in central Moscow. As the title would suggest, it features jazz interpretations of some of the great Russian composer’s most famous works; Rostotsky is aided by pianist Yakov Okun and Alexander Mashin on drums, with a grand finale featuring the Russian State Symphony Orchestra and original music by Alexander Rosenblatt. An optional DVD to accompany the CD gives a fascinating insight into the making of the final track, a 16-minute sweeping epic that ebbs and flows through the full emotional continuum.
“The music of Mussorgsky is so strong that it invites interpretations and assimilations in other genres,” said Rostotsky in an interview with jazz.ru, Russia’s leading jazz magazine. “Maybe this was the first composition in Russian musical history for jazz trio and symphony orchestra. I dreamt for many years about such an idea. I heard a few seconds of Rosenblatt’s demo recording and immediately understood we had to make the project together.”
The live experience, although lacking an orchestra, nevertheless nearly matched the viscous intensity catalysed by Rosenblatt, Rostotsky and conductor Sergey Skripka in Rosenblatt’s “Concert Fantasia.” The trio’s deft interactions were augmented by Spanish artist Fernando Gimeno Perez, who produced spontaneous sketches to accompany the playing, every stroke projected onto a screen beside the stage. During a couple of quieter moments, the gristly brush of the charcoal even became a musical voice in itself.
“Rich Jew, Poor Jew” sees a klezmer-oriented bass drone slowly build up after Rostotsky’s introduction, before a brief piano interlude and the return of the ostinato and Okun’s harmonically dexterous overlaid solo. He has inherited something of the mathematical, scientific approach from his father Mikhail, a venerable elder statesman of Russian jazz who performed at the V & J on February 26. Mashin cuts loose for a few rounds between crashing dissonant chords, before settling back down to burn menacingly, eerily scraping his cymbals as the track draws to a close.
Rostotsky’s sustained, humming presence is a feature of the record, like an electric current running through the music as he channels the energy of his counterparts. It adds welcome variety to the standard trio palette—his occasional devious intrusions are worth listening out for beneath Mashin’s busy beats and scampering ideas. A fine example is “The Old Castle,” a 10-minute offering where the rhythm section works together to subtly up the ante for Okun’s ponderous, musing solo that understatedly takes its time to say what he wants to say.
The words ‘Mussorgsky’ and ‘post-bop’ in the same sentence may seem an unlikely marriage of conflicting interests. Some conservatives would splutter at the very thought of such a union. However, there is one essential aspect of human nature which must not be forgotten: opposites attract.