Opus 5 (Alex Sipiagin, Seamus Blake, David Kikoski, Boris Kozlov, Donald Edwards) – Swing on This
(Criss Cross Jazz 1406. Album review by Peter Vacher)
The Mingus-minded among LJN readers will recognise these five players as frequent participants in the European tours by the Mingus Big Band. And in the band’s New York appearances, for that matter. With that background in common, they formed up as a quintet in 2010 and decided as booklet essayist Ted Panken puts it, “to organize a new band to play original music that did not reference the music of Charles Mingus that they’d been playing together for many years in the Mingus Big Band.”
So not a satellite outfit then, or a band-within-a-band, rather a fresh offshoot whose musical empathy was spring-boarded by their Mingus connections. And given full rein in a series of albums, all on the Dutch Criss Cross label, with Introducing Opus Five released in 2011, Pentasonic in 2012, Progression in 2013 and the alluringly-named Tickle in 2014. Time having rushed by, it’s been seven years from then until now, this gap partly filled by tours in Europe and Russia, conflicting professional demands, the onset of Covid and Seamus Blake and Alex Sipiagin having relocated to Europe. It may be a touch fanciful to suggest that the vivacity of spirit that imbues this new album reflects both their relief but also their sheer delight at being back in the studio together.
Six of the eight pieces presented are band originals, thus keeping to their stated desire to stay away from the more familiar Mingus canon. And boy, do they do it well. Each piece has shape and direction aplenty, following a broadly post-Messengers hard bop template, with the title track, by pianist George Fontenette, a friend of drummer Donald Edwards and fellow-student with Alvin Batiste, hitting hard. This has a boppish construct, played at pace, Sipiagin soloing first, his confident passage a blend of long notes, flurries, high stabs, and kickbacks, before Blake takes over, more sober and then David Kikoski plays games with bassist Boris Kozlov, alternating short stabs with tip-and-run responses, Edwards restless, the collective energy quite palpable. Then it’s back to the head and out. ‘Pythagoras’ is by Kikoski, its rhythmically complex form and zig-jag direction emanating from ‘a taped free-form improvisation taken apart’ and re-assembled, the pianist raising the bar in his solo. Kozlov’s ballad ‘Moonbay’ is inspired by the view of New York Harbour from his apartment; its somnolent quality somewhat at odds with the zest evident elsewhere. ‘Finger Painted Swing’ by Edwards opens and ends with fast-moving, bass-and-drums sequences, the overall meter shifting here and there, the frontliners responding with a collective jam. Kikoski is on Fender Rhodes for Sipiagin’s exuberant ‘Sight Vision’, the composer unfurling a cleverly contoured flugel solo, Blake similarly sinuous.
It was Blake’s idea to arrange Bobby Watson’s 1981 Messengers piece ‘In Case You Missed It’ to round out the album. Kikoski is bluesy, funky almost at first, ahead of the clarion-like theme, each man soloing with vigour, it eventually dissolving into a cheerful kind of musical anarchy. If pressed, I’d opt for the title track as the best thing on the album but there’s enough here to make this a stone-cold certainly for my Top Ten Albums of the Year.
Alex Sipiagin (t, fgh); Seamus Blake (ts); David Kikoski (p, kbd); Boris Kozlov (b); Donald Edwards (d).
Recorded Astoria NY, 7 September 2021.