January 21, 2014 5:47 pm

Zhenya Strigalev’s Smiling Organism, Ronnie Scott’s, London – review

The Russian saxophonist and his band balanced flowing jazz with funk beats

Russian alto saxophonist Zhenya Strigalev has been a visible presence in London jazz since organising events at Charlie Wright’s in Shoreditch in the late noughties. There he honed his singular mix of free jazz shout, modernist swing and Russian melancholia and developed a stage presence that leans somewhat towards the absent-minded professor. At this gig the announcements were decidedly left field and, second number in, he dashed off stage to get the sheet music for the tune they were about to play.

But his preferred support is the disciplined hardcore urban funk that a succession of top-drawer Americans played when they sat in at Charlie Wright’s late-night jams – drummer Chris Dave and musicians from Beyoncé’s touring band indicate the quality. At this two-set one-nighter, a high-gloss international band gave Strigalev urban grit to spare.

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Using connections forged at Charlie Wright’s, the Smiling Organism currently touring Europe features top US drummer Eric Harland powering two equal status bass players – Larry Grenadier on upright and Linley Marthe on bass guitar – while pianist Liam Noble and Blue Note-signed trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire bolster Strigalev’s left-field inclinations.

Balancing flowing jazz with disciplined beats is always a big ask, especially with structures as loose as Strigalev’s – this performance stretched three numbers over each set. The opening theme was stately, angular and floated over a chatter of drums; the second, “Binge”, unfolded over compound-time bass; and the long finale changed rhythm and style. Fanfares, fiddly bits and hints of Russian heritage added spice.

Solos were long, open-ended and built purposefully over Harland’s compendium of funky beats and mastery of swing – the drummer can tingle the spine with a single hi-hat inflection. Both bassists locked in, Liam Noble’s prompting runs were tinged with minor-chord melancholy and with subtle shifts of texture there was a real sense of a band in the making.

The second set delivered moments of solo brilliance without the same sense of collective endeavour. Bass guitarist Marthe played umpteen notes and made each one fit, Akinmusire squeezed jazz trumpet history into a sequence of short breaks, while Harland’s long-awaited drum solo raised the roof for “Midnight in Moscow” as an encore.



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