The enigmatic Zhenya Strigalev in performance | Sunday Observer

The enigmatic Zhenya Strigalev in performance

The Sooriya Village, Colombo 5, hosted what is probably the ‘first-of-a-kind’ musical performance, on the evening of September 16th 2017. Alto saxophonist Zhenya who hailed from St. Petersburg in Russia, but who is now domiciled in London for the past decade and more, treated a limited audience to his exuberant and passionate improvised departures, for the most part, unaccompanied! Few players in the so-called jazz universe, apart from the redoubtable Sonny Rollins, Archie Shepp or the likes of Anthony Braxton, would venture to take on such a challenge, as having to handle melody, harmony, and tempo, while at the same time creating spontaneous and even intricate variations and improvisations without the support of any other. This kind of bravura has been compared to riding a bicycle without holding the handlebars and one which also has no wheels! [I read that in a Downbeat magazine some decades ago].

There was tangible disappointment on the part of several patrons among the small numbers present; for they may have expected a ‘concert’, where in fact, there was not.

The evening was an intimate ‘communication’ of one who has an amazing commitment to the genre, and a complete dedication to the mastery of his instrument while having absorbed the vitality of the whole gamut of historical elements in the mainstream of the Afro-American-pan-Eurasian epoch of twentieth century and contemporary ‘jazz’ saxophone. His recent performances at Ronnie Scott’s Club in London has drawn some very interesting reviews, and clearly, Zhenya is among the top most performers; as one established jazz trumpet player in the UK (Kevin Davy) remarked to me “Zhenya is one of the most highly rated musicians in the UK. I jammed with him in Camden around 2004 or so, around the time he was a student at the royal academy and is fast gaining a reputation. He’s known for bebop and post bop on alto sax.”

We were privy to his considerable talent as he delved into the complexity of the work of Thelonious Monk, the sultry lyricism of Wood/Mellin’s “My One and Only Love”, Kenny Dorham’s sprightly “Blue Bossa” [during which Radhika de Saram (violinist) debuted for the occasion playing the Latin-tinged electric-bass obbligato on request] and a bit of Ellingtonia as well.

The enigmatic element lay in his innovation with the alto sax practice-mute (of fibre glass with interior foam padding) hiding his horn but with the sound within being picked via a mic, and the resultant being coded through a tone-synthesizer, creating a whole ethereal aura and multiple voicing effects. With this experimental ‘jab’, one can only imagine the possibilities in the tonal palette with a reed instrument.

We shall look out for his next (promised) visit to Lanka, and when he might be able to bring a more complete ensemble to share his (technical) brilliance and his amazing energy through his music.

- Arun Dias Bandaranaike