Russian-born, once New York-based trumpeter Alex Sipiagin has recorded near twenty albums as a leader, yet Upstream marks his debut for the Posi-Tone label. He is backed by the label’s consistent and reliable rhythm team of pianist Art Hirahara, bassist Boris Kozlov, and drummer Rudy Royston, each of whom contribute originals to Sipiagin’s own set of penned tunes. You find only one cover, the well-known standard from Wayne Shorter, “Mikayo.” Sipiagin gets a strong endorsement from one of the top trumpeters, Randy Brecker, who is impressed with the advanced harmonies and melodies of the leader’s trumpet balanced by his lyrical takes on the flugelhorn.
We need to come back to the “once New York-based” line in the opening. Sipiagin spent 30 years in New York and most recently four months in Singapore. He and his wife are about to relocate to Northern Italy. So, he is used to “swimming upstream” and bucking some usual conventions. Yet, fans of Posi-Tone certainly realize that the label is a bastion of straight-ahead jazz, played by some of idiom’s top musicians. The same can be said for this one.
The opening “Call” sets the tone for the rest of the album, introducing us to Sipiagin’s bright tone and riveting high notes. The tune is inspired by a wake-up call from nature, an overflow of emotions which he channels beautifully in his playing as the rhythm section sturdily comps. The ballad “Echo Canyon,” composed by Hirahara, is a respite from the fury of the former, the first example of the lyrical flugelhorn playing alluded to by Brecker. “Sight” is a more focused, md-tempo extension of “Call” with crisp trumpet lines and terrific trap work, the kind Royston is known for. Hirahara takes the Fender Rhodes for this one, giving it a different hue than the previous tracks. “SipaTham” is the merging of the leader and wife’s surnames, penned during the pandemic, seeking some balance with the outside world and thereby an extension of “Sight,” this time rendered acoustically and featuring some flugelhorn.
Kozlov’s composition, “Magic Square,” is one that the two Russian-born musicians played when they were students in Moscow in the ‘80s. Surely this updated version with Hirahara on Rhodes, comes with the realization that as much as many things have changed, much has stayed the same too. Royston and Kozlov both get a chance to strut their stuff near the end of the piece. Kozlov, known for his wit, also Penned “Shura,” apparently Sipiagin’s nickname. The tune is in 6/8 time, introduced by Kozlov’s bass, and replete with a few twists, starts, stops, and nuances he knew would appeal to the trumpeter.
Hirahara is one of the most delicate pianists, and when called upon to perform that way he is exceptional, “Rain” being case in point, another ballad revealing Sipiagin’s lyrical flugelhorn, a gorgeous combination. This same dynamic is in play for Shorter’s love ballad, “Mikayo.” The closing title track was apparently inspired by a Russian painting depicting eleven men dragging a barge onto the banks of the Volga River, exhausted by the heat. Royston, who often sings the melody to himself, or envisions the theme while playing, is utterly brilliant in this spot. The tune is like a bookend to the opener, with Hirahara on Rhodes instead.
This is elite musicianship at every level, another gem in the rich Posi-Tone catalog. Few trumpeters play with the range that Sipiagin displays, aggressively reaching the highest notes on the burners and demonstrating uncommon restraint on the ballads. The album is well sequenced and amply allows stellar contributions from each quartet member – well worth repeated listens.
- Jim Hynes
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