PREVIEW/ INTERVIEW: Zhenya Strigalev and Never Group (Album release 1 Apr, Ronnie Scott’s 3 Apr)

Zhenya Strigalev. Photo credit: Kelly Campbell

London-based Russian saxophonist ZHENYA STRIGALEV has a new band. Their album “Never Group” (Whirlwind Recordings) will be issued on April 1st and the UK launch is at Ronnie Scott’s on April 3rd. In this interview with  Alison Bentley he talked about his saxophone inspirations, about working with Eric Harland, Larry Grenadier and Tim Lefebvre, and how jazz saved him from being sent to Siberia:

London Jazz News: You studied piano as a child- did you study classical music?

Zhenya Strigalev: At the beginning I played some études, some classical pieces.

LJN: How did you get into jazz?

ZS: My father liked jazz. I started listening to it when staying with him. Dixieland, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Cannonball Adderley, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Paul Desmond, Johnny Hodges. I even listened to Kenny Ball and his version of Midnight in Moscow!

LJN: You studied at St Petersburg Music Academy- was that jazz?

ZS: That was mostly jazz oriented- sax was my primary instrument. I was there for a year and a half.

LJN: Then you did your National Service in the Russian Army. Did jazz really save you from being posted to Siberia?

ZS: Yes, because I was playing in jams at a jazz club at that time. When it was time to go into the army, the guy who ran the jazz club said, ‘You should serve your time in the army band. You can even go to study in College at the same time.’ He talked to people in the army band. They were also trying to do jazz, so I was a useful person there. You have to be there sometimes at 7 or 8 in the morning. The life is organised and you have to build your practice around that. I was still playing concerts while in the army. I guess the positive side was that it was disciplined.

LJN: Why did you decide to come and study in the UK?

ZS: I needed more information and there were not many musicians coming to play in St Petersburg; not many interesting concerts. At the beginning, like many people, I tried to go to America but I didn’t get a visa. And maybe it was for the best. The Royal Academy offered me a place and a full scholarship. [He graduated in 2007.]

LJN: Then you set up the jazz club at Charlie Wright’s International Bar in London. Was that around the same time?

ZS: It was a bit later because when I came here, I noticed straight away that although there were a lot of musicians and good concerts happening, the late scene wasn’t what I expected. It took about two years, trying to find a place, and finally I found Charlie Wright’s where we started these late night jams. It went very well and as you can see, now there are quite a few places which have late sets. The idea was to invite international musicians to Charlie Wright’s who don’t usually come to England.

LJN: So you went to New York yourself in 2010. Is that where you met all the guys?

ZS: I did an album here with a quartet of UK musicians which I liked very much. Then I wanted to do another album with the foreign musicians, because that reflected my work at Charlie Wrights. These musicians I met there.

LJN: Eric Harland and Larry Grenadier ?

ZS: They all played at Charlie Wright’s. But then obviously, I wanted to go to New York and see how the scene is there, and to see the same musicians in their own environment. I went to some jam sessions, so it happened organically.

LJN: Who are your favourite sax players?

ZS: Sonny Rollins is one of my heroes. Charlie Parker, Wayne Shorter, Art Pepper…I also like Gerry Mulligan with Chet Baker or Art Farmer. Coltrane- I transcribed a lot of Coltrane. Michael Brecker- he’s obviously unique and has his own style.

LJN: Ornette Coleman?

ZS: I like Coleman. There are some people you admire but you don’t study them. I spent time studying earlier people who I think are relevant to him.

LJN: Sometimes your writing makes me think of Ornette Coleman?

ZS: Yes, that’s a possibility because I like some of his compositions. Sonny Rollins recorded with Ornette Coleman’s rhythm section.

LJN: Moving on to your new album and your new band- why is it called the Never Group?

ZS:  It’s a combination of people who I don’t feel will ever become a group together [laughs]. We’ll never play a gig altogether- I guess that’s one of the meanings. Nowadays it’s very difficult to keep the same band for long. I don’t see many people who tour and record with the same band, like, say the Modern Jazz Quartet, or even like Duke Ellington’s band- how many years did they have the same people? People are not available or there’s not enough money in jazz. Also, I like to add new elements. It’s a kind of process; we go along the road though life and we meet different people, and then we invite them into our group. So it’s never the same group- it’s always changing.

LJN: Do you write for the particular musicians that you’ve chosen? And does the music change depending on who’s playing?

ZS: I often write for the musicians I know I’ll be playing with. For example, I know that on my previous album Robin Goodie, for some tunes I had in mind a double bass player like Larry Grenadier. That helped me to resolve, to finish some tunes. Sometimes while listening to concerts or recordings, I think that some of my tunes could work well with a specific musician. After the first album that I did with Eric [Harland] and the team, which is Smiling Organizm Vol. 1, I was thinking about doing something just with Eric and Tim Lefebvre. So with some of the tunes on the new album, I was thinking specifically about how they would sound together.

LJN: The new album sounds more groove-based than the previous one.

ZS: That was the idea, to show a little bit more of Tim Lefebvre’s bass style, because he has a unique sense of groove and using pedals. He plays with more groove-type rock bands than Eric Harland does. So that was the idea, to go more into this area. Robin Goodie is more Eric’s area, I guess. Here the idea was to go more into a groove thing and develop that.

LJN: And you brought electronic composition and effects in. How did you meet Bruno Liberda?

ZS: Last year once or twice a month, I was doing some sessions in a trio. We were playing in a small electronic club in Vienna. And after I recorded this album [Never Group] with Tim and Eric in Berlin, I was editing the album. We recorded a lot of music, so I was cutting stuff and listening to how Tim Lefebvre was using his pedals, which reminded me of some of the electronic music. Then the person who was running that club in Vienna mentioned that he knew this electronic musician who teaches in Vienna Conservatory. So he introduced me to Bruno Liberda. He does lots of interesting things as well as writing electronic operas and classical pieces. I sent Bruno some tracks from the album, and what he did I liked very much. So I included it.

LJN: You got Alex Bonney to edit it.

ZS:  We were editing with him and I thought it would be nice to add some trumpet. And I knew that Alex played trumpet, so it was fun.

LJN: You have lots of interesting ideas about music, for example: ‘I like to be free but to use the right language.’ Do you think music is like a language?

ZS: The right language within the music. The music is one thing, and then there are a few languages. People sometimes jam too freely on something that they don’t know anything about!

LJN: You said you wanted this new music to be chordless, to expand your own musical language.

ZS: You can expand it in different ways. Maybe I’ll do my next album with two pianos to expand my musical language- the same goal! I like to be chordless, so you can really appreciate the rhythm section- bass and drums. When there’s more people, you may not able to hear every note the bass drums are playing, and how they communicate with each other. Eric and Tim are great musicians and they never played together before my projects at all. The idea was to show how amazing they are. As for me, I just concentrate on improvisation and communication – go wherever you want to go.

Zhenya Strigalev and Linley Marthe
Photo credit: Josep Manel Jarabo Carbonell

LJN: It’s going to be Linley Marthe on bass for your tour and at Ronnie’s?

ZS: Yes, I met him at Charlie Wright’s too. I think I first heard him in Moscow with Joe Zawinul. Linley Marthe is totally amazing and he lives in Paris. He’ll be playing bass guitar and keyboard at the same time. I don’t know how he does it.

LJN: It bought out a funkier side in Eric Harland?

ZS: That’s the uniqueness of Eric because he really can do everything- swing, Dixieland and then go into funk. That’s why I like playing with him so much because he can switch styles immediately.

LJN: For your Ronnie’s gig you have guitarist Federico Dannemann too.

ZS: I think he’s amazing- I want people to know him better. I met him at the Royal Academy, and I noticed his broad knowledge of different styles. He really knows about Django Reinhardt, gypsy jazz, all the early music, rock, bebop, plus he knows all the different styles of Latin music. That’s good for my project- because he knows a lot of styles, he can switch any moment to different things. I’m really looking forward to it!

ALBUM LAUNCH: Ronnie Scott’s , Sunday 3rd April 2016
Zhenya Strigalev’s Never Group!

Zhenya Strigalev – sax
Linley Marthe – bass
Eric Harland – drums
Federico Dannemann – guitar


​New CD: Never Group by Zhenya Strigalev

Release date: Friday 1 April 2016 Whirlwind Recordings – WR4685 (LINK)

Zhenya Strigalev – alto saxophone
Tim Lefebvre – electric bass
Eric Harland – drums
with guests:
Bruno Liberda – electronics
Matt Penman – double bass
John Escreet – keyboards
Alex Bonney – trumpet
Charles Armstrong – voice

Alison Bentley is a singer and teaches singing. Her music is on Soundcloud

Categories: miscellaneous

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