At a time when American artists like Dave Douglas, Michael Wolff or Chick Corea are infusing their work with rhythms and modes from Eastern European or Middle Eastern references--or with allusions derived from such cultures, like Don Byron's celebration of the klezmer music of Mickey Katz, resulting from Eastern European Jewish immigration--it's gratifying to find a group that performs such music with indigenous authenticity, rather than adopting the American jazz idiom instead, as, for example, Valery Ponomarev or Joe Zawinul had done a generation before. Russian musician Alex Rostotsky and Uzbek native Yuri Parfenov have recruited exceptional musicians from their own country to investigate the amalgam of musical influences that seeped into Russia from its far-flung borders. With Europe to the west, Middle Eastern countries to the south and Asian influences to the southeast--not to mention the republics like Kazakhstan and Belarus gaining independence from the U.S.S.R. in 1991--Russia's music is as rich and and variegated as that of any country in the world. But few outsiders knew that because the Communist government imposed control on broadcasting and cultural assimilation until its demise.
Amazingly, it seems that authoritarian governments like Communist Russia or Cuba--or even the fortunately delegitimized Talibans--never learn that they can't suppress the natural communication or feelings of its citizens, particularly those expressed in music. Once the controls fail (and they always do), the expression of the people through music flows once again.
Rostotsky and Parfenov present not so much a cultural exposition of the music they grew up hearing, as a investigation through curiosity and joy of the possibilities made available by those genres. This happens to be a characteristic of all
musicians, that lifelong search for the beauty of music through ever-varying approaches.
One of the more noticeable differences of Rostotsky's and Parfenov's music is their adoption of electronic instrumentation, for Rostotsky performs the electric bass or lays down orchestral midi-enabled soundscapes on most of the tunes. And as dictated by the needs of the music, they bring in Yakov Okun or Anton Sevidov to lay down synthesizer backgrounds, usually with slowly changing orchestral results and slowly evolving, or never-evolving, chord changes. And in that respect, Rostotsky and Parfenov are similar to Joe Zawinul's growth from Viennese Tristano-inspired jazz pianist to one of the leaders of the 1970's fusion movement. Indeed, many of the tracks on Once Upon A Time In The City Of Kazan
recall fusion, such as "Oh, You My Field" with its swelling electronified sounds and kinetic drumming behind Parfenov's contrasting deliberateness of improvisation.
But Once Upon A Time In The City Of Kazan
isn't quite that simple. In fact, it's rich in atmospheric detail, swirling non-conventional meters and shifting sonic texture that owe their existence to the complexity of the cultures Rostotsky and Parfenov incorporate into their music. Having advanced the CD to track #3, I thought, "Well, the best way to describe this tune would be as a 'dervish,' before, sure enough, I looked at the liner notes and found its name: 'Dervish.'" With twisting diminished-scale trumpet lines over Rostotsky's and drummer Sevastianov's mixing of threes and fours, and with seemingly extra beats added at the end of phrases, "Dervish" without rush invokes danceable rhythms without really building modulations into any sort of depth. Rather, the tune is built on variation over repetition.
Keshab Kanti Chowdhury's work on tablas adds a vocal element that's unheard in the American fusion of Indian percussion with jazz licks, like Miles Davis' On The Corner
with Badal Roy or Renee Rosnes' Life On Earth
with Zakir Hassain. That is, Chowdhury fairly amazingly sings the rhythms that he plays as
quickly as he plays them, roughly comparable to Toots Thielemans' whistling the improvisations he plays on guitar. In the interludes between Parfenov's middle-range trumpet lines, complete with ornaments, Chowdhury gives vocal expression to the sounds--the din's and da's--of his percussiveness.
"Minaret" is just as descriptive a song title as "Dervish," and Parfenov's evocative tone, understated and appealing, paints the scene of a sunrise over a quiet city, solitude rising above crowdedness. "Elrisha" is notable, for it is one of the rare recorded uses of the bassoon outside of symphony orchestra. Bassoonist Alexander Alexandrov underlies Parfenov's plaintive cries with a haunting half-note circular pattern. Ivan Volkov's bass clarinet work, recalling to some extent Eric Dolphy for its breaking of boundaries, is equally a treat as he sinks to the lowest notes of the instrument, only to rise into a wild altissimo, overtones and wailing and stuttered repetitive notes abundant throughout.
And you know, I wasn't even sure where the city of Kazan is. So, I looked it up and found that it's the capitol of Tartarstan. I didn't know where Tartarstan is, and I found that it's 800 kilometers east of Moscow, "between the Volga River and the Ural Mountains. The Tartars have their own language, their own culture, their own age-old traditions and festivals and their own faith." An ancient culture in the truest sense of the word "ancient," Tartarstan is smack dab in the center of centuries of invasions by neighbors from the east and west and from as far away as China, from which Genghis Khan started his invasion. This melting pot, as Americans would call it, has yielded a vastly detailed and music influenced by peoples from all over the Eurasian continent. And that, without dilution or simplification, but with electronic enhancement, is what you hear on Once Upon A Time In The City Of Kazan.