Possessing fire, grace and edgy attitude alto saxophonist Zhenya Strigalev is a young virtuoso forging an increasingly high profile international presence. In the eight years since graduating from London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Music in 2007, Strigalev has cut a dynamic path between the London and New York jazz scenes. He’s worked with some of today’s most forward thinking musicians and appeared at many world leading jazz festivals, performing extensively in Russia, Finland, the Czech Republic, Austria, Poland, France and Britain. Now with five albums under his belt, Strigalev has reached a new level of artistic maturity on his superb new album Robin Goodie.
Making waves in London
It must be something in the water, but London has long had a transformational effect on musicians – be it an aspiring Jimi Hendrix relocating to form his Experience band or the sax legend Sonny Rollins burning it up at the original Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club – the city’s magnetic pull has always attracted great artists. It’s the latter pair’s fiery creativity that’s also found in the music of St Petersburg-born alto saxophonist Zhenya Strigalev. Relocating to London to study at the Royal Academy of Music and graduating in 2007, Zhenya is another musician who’s benefitted from the city’s renowned cultural melting pot and its opportunities to connect with countless top-level musicians. Now emerging as a charismatic figure on London’s wildly divergent jazz scene, where you’re as likely to hear swing as you are free, bebop or funk-based jazz, it’s his solid musical grounding, love of hard firing players like Sonny Rollins, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane and energetic soloing style that’s made him such a versatile musician.
There’s an experimental side to his playing that allows him to switch from free improv to hard-bop in an instant, all dispatched with razor sharp timing and effortless, fluid technique. Yet his passionate approach is driven by strong melodies and canny rhythmic explorations as reflected in his various collaborations with leading London-based jazz musicians such as Nick Ramm, Gene Calderazzo, Seb Rochford, John Parricelli, Ashley Slater, Tom Cawley, Mike Mondesir to name but a few. He’s performed regularly at major London music venues such as the 606 Club, Pizza Express on Dean Street and Pizza on the Park, Vortex, Purcell Room, the Royal Festival Hall Foyer, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Ronnie Scott’s and Kings Place among others.
Strigalev has also become something of a lynchpin figure among an international cast of musicians from Europe and America; yet choosing London as his home is almost certainly indicative of the high standing in which the British jazz scene is now regarded. He’s actively encouraged these exchanges via his work with t Wo music director Patsy Craig at North London venue Charlie Wright’s. Together they helped put the club on the musical map by bringing such high profile artists as Victor Bailey, Ari Hoenig, Rebecca Martin, Matthew Garrison, Robert Glasper, Chris Cheek, Mark Turner, Jeremy Pelt, Scott Kinsey, and Kurt Rosenwinkel to perform numerous critically acclaimed gigs there.
Often participating in these events as a guest, Strigalev’s fired up playing inspired several scorching musical exchanges. It was via these concerts that Zhenya instigated one his most explosive meetings between preeminent hip-hop jazz drummer Chris ‘Daddy’ Dave and former Miles Davis bassist, Foley. Videos of their hyper-funky improvisations have received hundreds of thousands of views on the Internet. It’s through all these partnerships and collaborations, and many a late night hang, that Zhenya has forged lasting musical friendships with some of the contemporary jazz scene’s most influential players.
Early Life: A journey into jazz not Siberia
Although an extremely driven individual Zhenya’s early path into music didn’t point to a career as a professional musician. With his father being a physics professor and his mother a chemist, it was through their love of music that he first discovered jazz; “Although my father wasn’t a professional musician, he graduated from a music school and was a big fan of jazz. He was the one who brought me in to jazz and built my taste and preferences about jazz styles. Some of his favourite recordings were the ones by Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald as well as the Dave Brubeck Quartet, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Teddy Wilson, Coleman Hawkins, Ray Charles and Johnny Hodges. Saying that, it was my mainly mother who encouraged me to pursue my musical aspirations.”
Wanting to pass on their enthusiasm for music they started him on piano aged eight. However, with a growing enthusiasm for jazz, at the age of fifteen he took up the saxophone. Having been bought a used saxophone by his grandfather he stopped practicing when the reed broke. Finally contacting the instrument’s former owner and informing him that he’d not touched the sax for three months, the man insisted he return the sax if he wasn’t really serious about playing. Jolted to his senses – and in now in possession of a replacement reed – he began practicing three hours a day and soon found himself studying at St Petersburg’s music academy. Forced to do national service with the Russian army soon after, his abilities on the sax were to save him from an unforgiving spell of sub-zero military service in Siberia. Instead he worked hard on his technique and went to jam sessions at night and played in the army band during the day.
At seventeen, Zhenya won “The Best Saxophonist” award in a well known St. Petersburg jazz competition and soon began performing at many leading European, Russian, and UK Festivals, as well as well as starting to tour internationally. Soon after completing his military service he was granted a full scholarship to attend London’s Royal Academy of Music in recognition of his outstanding musical talent. Once in London he also studied with such leading jazz musicians as Lee Konitz, Peter King, Bob Martin, Dave Holland, Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts, Mark Turner, Jean Toussaint and Gerard Presencer. Having arrived in the city with practically no money and just his saxophone it’s testimony to Strigalev’s obvious talent, tenacious creativity and sheer hard work that he’s now regarded as one of the most exciting young musicians in London.
New York – Smiling Organizm album project.
In late 2010 Zhenya decided to head to New York for an extended stay to immerse himself in the city’s buzzing jazz scene. Established among some of the world’s finest jazz musicians he played, listened, watched and wrote music that reflects his own restlessly imaginative style. This came together as a new album project.
Recorded in June 2011 and featuring an exceptional group of US, UK and Russian musicians that include bassist Larry Grenadier (Brad Mehldau, FLY), drummer Eric Harland (Charles Lloyd, Dave Holland’s Overtone Quartet, Joshua Redman) and electric bassist Tim Lefebvre (Rudder, Wayne Krantz), British pianist Liam Noble (Tom Rainey, Christine Tobin and Ingrid Laubrock) and Zhenya’s fellow New York-based countryman, trumpeter Vitaly Golovnyov. Set for release later in early 2012 on bassist/label boss Michael Janisch’s Whirlwind Recordings, Strigalev’s album ‘Smiling Organizm’ brings all his skills as composer, soloist and bandleader together in his vibrant recording.
A melodically accessible album, the dynamic set is fuelled by the rock-edged attitude of NYC’s influential Downtown scene, but happily slips between swing, free improv, modal vamps and darting post-bop forays without ever losing its compositional focus. The perfect distillation of jazz forged at the cutting edge of the contemporary music scene, performed by some of its most imaginative and virtuosic musicians, the album emphatically marks Strigalev’s artistic coming of age and his arrival as a creative force in his own right. This is joyful music that’s brimming with life.
In February 2015, Zhenya returned with his acclaimed six-piece Smiling Organizm to release their latest album, ‘Robin Goodie’, featuring trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, double bassist Larry Grenadier, electric bassist Tim Lefebvre, pianist Taylor Eigsti, and drummer Eric Harland.
Robin Goodie was co-produced by Strigalev and Harland and is a powerful mix of the saxophonist’s many musical loves, the heart of which is high-octane, hard-swinging post bop. This is an ensemble work that showcases Strigalev’s razor-sharp instincts as composer and arranger, as well as the depth of his knowledge of a wide range of musical styles, from free improv to funky fusion, out-and-out swing and extended harmonically rich melodies.
Zhenya dedicates ‘Robin Goodie’ to his time in England, describing it as ‘a mixture of Robin Hood and Boogie woogie.’ His love for nature and adventure is reflected here, with many tunes being partly written while camping with his father in the Belarussian forests. This is the first album in which he combines double bass with bass guitar, allowing him to experiment with combining straight ahead jazz with groove/fusion beats.
If Smiling Organizm’s debut album introduced the world to Strigalev’s highly personal musical vision, then Robin Goodie finds the band stepping up a gear, increasingly comfortable as a unit, growing to become more than the sum of its considerably talented parts. Matching quirky humour with serious musical intent, delicate melodic hooks with heavyweight rhythmic muscle, this is a band and an album that leaves a vivid impression.