THE PRACTICE of extracting music from one context and artfully adapting it for another has long been a fascination. Church organists, for example, can be such masters of disguise, relishing the opportunity to befuddle their listeners with, normally, the most incongruous of selections. So, this quartet release of sparky arrangements and improvisations by Alexey Kruglov (saxophones) and Jaak Sooäär (electric guitar), based on celebrated Russian classical masterpieces, instantly grabbed the attention.
Saxophonist Alexey Kruglov is a rising, creative star on the Russian and international jazz scene (his 2014 ACT Music release, Moscow, with renowned German pianist Joachim Kühn, of particular note) and Estonian guitarist Jaak Soäär has, for many years, featured prominently in the pop and jazz culture of his homeland. Joining them are seasoned jazz musicians Mihkel Mälgand (bass) and Tanel Ruben (drums).
In a programme of Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin and Balakirev (the quartet sometimes include Cezar Cui – hence The Mighty Five), the players somehow retain the integrity of these familiar works whilst shifting them into an altogether different sphere – in turns, beautifully lyrical and punkily brazen. Yet, no matter how far they push the envelope, there is clearly a fundamental, underlying respect for and adherence to the originals.
The orchestral majesty of the first movement of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade (The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship) is, here, transformed by Kruglov’s alto into a luxurious, TV-theme-like sweep, with Sooäär’s guitar encouraging more energetic, improvised development – an altogether brilliant re-working. Polovtsian Dance (otherwise known as the Chorus of Polovtsian Girls from Borodin’s opera Prince Igor) is powered-up by crunchy rhythm guitar, its irregular metre paving the way for gutsy extemporisations. The first of the quartet’s interpretations from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition – The Old Castle – possesses a fine, bluesy swagger, thanks to the pliant double bass of Mihkel Mägland, Kruglov’s hard sax tone and Sooäär’s high-fretted wails; and, audaciously and raucously, Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Flight of the Bumblebee is compressed into 75 seconds of intense pleasure, its wild, frenetic, group activity bordering on free jazz.
Mussorgsky’s stately The Great Gate of Kiev is fabulously fashioned with solid drumming, eloquent electric bass improv and the irrepressible scribbles and scrawls of Kruglov’s alto; then a Balakirev piano Nocturne is elegantly reimagined for jazz quartet, amidst hints of restlessness. Mussorgsky’s Baba-Yaga is well suited to the anarchic romp created here, including some wonderfully chattering soprano against a fast electric bass undercurrent, and Sooäär’s imaginative guitar/electronics are superb – a stand-out track, in fact. To close, Prince Igor’s Aria (Borodin’s emotive No Sleep, No Rest from Prince Igor) is sympathetically realised as extended chamber jazz, its many facets reflecting the shared invention throughout this extraordinary, rather special album.
Released on 11 November 2014, The Mighty Five is available, digitally, at Bandcamp.
Alexey Kruglov alto, soprano and baby saxophones, train whistle, shouts
Jaak Sooäär electric guitar, live electronics
Mihkel Mälgand double bass, electric bass
Tanel Ruben drums
ArtBeat Music – AB-CD-09-2014-074 (2014)