By Nick Ostrum
Two years ago, Leo Records celebrated its 30th anniversary, which is an incredible marker for a free jazz and experimental imprint. (Cheers, Leo!) The sheer number of releases by artists ranging from Sun Ra to the Art Ensemble of Chicago, from Joëlle Léandre to the celebrated series by Ivo Perleman and Matthew Shipp, from Eugene Chadbourne to Cecil Taylor to Evan Parker to Simon Nabatov. My first Anthony Braxton albums were almost exclusively released on Delmark and Leo. The Leo catalog is simply too deep already.
Amidst these American and western European releases, often overlook Leo Feigin’s (the man behind Leo Records) other service to the global scene: his documentation of a vibrant scene in the Russian orbit that otherwise would never reach my ears. This of course applies to the Lithuanian Ganelin Trio (Vyacheslav Ganelin, Vladamir Tarasov and Vladimir Chekasin), Sergey Kuryokhin, and the circles surrounding them. More recently, it comes in musicians such as the saxophonist Alexey Kruglov. Goddamn.
Recorded at the Leo Records Festival in November 2020, The Last Train from Narvskaya is an absolute gem. It starts understatedly and, really, remains so throughout its hour-long run-time despite some waves of heaving sound that periodically emerge out of the otherwise ruffling morass. As far as I can tell, this is free improvisation, or the scores, at least, are highly abstract. The music verges on soundscaping at points, though without the wide-eyed aimlessness that sometimes consumes those projects. In The Last Train, Alexey Kruglov’s muffled sax and Caroly Hume’s minimalist, neo-romantic piano statements ground the product in a more classically “musical” tradition. Paul May’s set work and Oleg Yudanov’s nondescript percussion wander from the unobtrusive grooves to avant-clitter-clatter to simpler, contemplative dialog. What is sometimes a gimmick and sometimes just a let-down on this album seems fitting. May and Yudanov play with a delicacy and telepathy approaching Hamid Drake and Adam Rudolph.
Although this is, indeed, is a group effort, I cannot shake the idea that Kruglov is a driving force. He never really soars. When he plays, however, the pieces open, either toward a mellifluous pastoralism or postindustrial wistfulness. Jazz phrasings pop in and out, but one gets the sense Kruglov is less concerned with quoting familiar patterns or jazzing it up, than pursuing his own path toward serenity through extended technique explorations, the occasional John Zorn frenetic outburst (with some energetic, though restrained accompaniment by Hume), and a couple less ecstatic Coltrane-esque runs invariably limited to just a few bars. (Oh yes, and he begins the final track with an extended run of vocal techniques that mimic some of the less idiomatic techniques he deploys on his sax, albeit with more evident playfulness.) Always, however, Kruglov has a disciplined focus on producing sound balanced with space, or vice versa. This is music beyond melody, and for that all the more evocative of the sentiments those hinted melodies would have merely synthesized. Here, the power resides in the soft balance and discipline practiced by these musicians who likely could have overwhelmed us with noise and virtuosity, but instead present us with an inconspicuous set of free jazz beauty.