Alexey Kruglov from Moscow (Russia)

Interview with the saxophonist, actor and poet

How important was your upbringing for your decision to learn a musical instrument?

I was very much influenced by my father Vladimir Kruglov, who is a musician, reciter and actor. My artistic education was defined by the upbringing of my parents and close relatives. I was the only child in our family and had two cousins, daughters of dad`s brother. We spent a lot of time in summers at our grandparent`s house. There was a warm atmosphere. My grandmothers were retired at that time and taught me a lot of wise things. I was the only boy surrounded by girls and was taken care of my parents, sisters, grandparents. In Russia we have an idiom « rolled like cheese in batter ». I think it`s close to my childhood life. It was very important that there was no pressure on me and I could start music practicing in a natural way.

Were you brought up with a lot of music in the house?

It all started with the fact that different genres of music and poetry were always present at our home. Something creative was always happening. Recently in our house in the countryside we found a tape with the recording where my father and I are singing together songs from the repertoire of my father. I was 6 years that time. Having listened to these recordings I understood that, when I was a boy, I absorbed various types of art. Since then, there are no boundaries between different directions and genres for me. It was naturally for me to go to the music school at the age of seven as well as to attend the Class Centre of Music and Drama school where children used to play jazz and act as I was the 14 years old. Later I graduated from the College and the Russian Academy of Music of Gnosis as a saxophonist and the Boris Yukhananov Studio of Individual Directing.

Do you remember the time you first listened to jazz and do you recall the tune/tunes you heard?

I listened to a lot of jazz music from the very beginning thanks to my father. He began to give me recordings by saxophonists like Julian “Cannonball” Adderley and Charlie Parker when I started to play the saxophone. I remember several amazing albums which, I don`t remember how and where I had found them, which turned my life around. It was Jackie Mclean`s “Demon`s Dance” and Vladimir Chekasin`s “The Second Siberian Concerto”. I think I  listened to them in 1995. What I liked most in Jackie`s style was that he was playing with a direct sound without any “subtones”. Chekasin`s album was absolutely fascinating, with a long composition with different parts and a strong conceptual idea. And the most important thing is that I discovered in Chekasin`s music the connection with the Russian culture on a very deep level.

Later I fell in love with Gary Bartz`s sound (his alto sax really sounds like the tenor – I liked it the most) plus I was fond of Zbigniew Namyslowski, Evan Parker, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, all members of The Ganelin Trio, Vladimir Rezitsky`s jazz group Arkhangelsk and many others. It`s so amazing that several years later I could meet with Gary Bartz and play together as well with Vladimir Chekasin and many greats from my childhood years.

For example, the meeting with Chekasin was fateful. We met in 1999 and started to collaborate right away and took part in unforgettable projects. In the early 2000-s we played in Boris Milgram's production based on Fyodor Dostoevsky`s novel “Crime and Punishment”. Chekasin was a composer and he himself participated as an actor, too. When Vladimir could not come from Vilnius, I replaced him, played in several scenes instead of him. Once I managed to play in a joint scene with Emmanuel Vitogran. He was Svidrigailov, and I was a janitor. The sensations for a 21-year-old young man were absolutely amazing.

Was the saxophone the first pick when you learned to play a musical instrument?

At the age of seven I began to study the piano at the music school and was involved a lot in learning the essentials of classical music. And the piano skills have been giving me a lot of very important things from that time by now. At the age of thirteen I joined in a wind orchestra as a saxophonist. And it was a funny idea how my friends from our neighborhood said there were playing in this orchestra. And they recommended to join the wind ensemble because at that time they used to travel every year to a youth camp at the sea of Azov for free. I remember how my father and the conductor were choosing for me an instrument between the trumpet and the sax and had chosen the sax. I liked it a lot and in two years I started with the lessons at the college. Of course, I had amazing great teachers. I am grateful to them forever.

Do you see a relation between your personality and the instrument you picked?

Yes, sure. My teacher Ernest Barashvili in the Class Centre was saying that the instrument must become a part of the body of the musician, like the third hand or the second heart. Only now I understand these wordings. The instrument continues the player and represents the soul of the musician. And this is spreading to the whole music entity of the performer. For example, playing at the theatre as an actor I came up with the idea of including musical principles to acting. And the opposite: music images can be expanded by principles of play-acting. It`s about a base which the performer has inside, some internal impulse and he can`t exist without transforming it on stage.

You've been born three years before the collapse of the so called Iron Curtain. Did you enjoy the freedom during the following years and what did it mean to your career as musician?

I was so young in the Eighties but remember how we were singing the Soviet hymn in school. As a teenager I was trying to develop my professional path and didn`t notice many things happening then. But several years later I understood the scale of the freedom. But at the same time, we lost many things at the beginning of the Nineties as well… For many people life became worse, they lost jobs, for example professors had to go to earn money selling clothes on market… and so on. 

Of course, freedom and living without the Iron Curtain gave a lot of opportunities for people. People can feel free themselves under very tough circumstances and they can be locked up inside themselves under acceptable and nearly perfect social conditions. I noticed similar things with many Russian traditional jazz musicians now who play jazz technically very well but they don`t have something to say. In the period of the Soviet Union many bright musicians expressed themselves freely not being afraid of anything.

I realized many processes and the magnitude of a new world in 1999 when I did take part in a unique performance with the legendary and famous Soviet and Russian poet Andrey Voznesensky. That meeting will always remain in my memory as a great and wonderful event in terms of communicating with a legend. I remember how Andrey Andreich set me the task of playing before and after the video from the political meeting of the early Sixties. It was mixed, made up of the audio and photos. The video consisted of Nikita Khrushchev's endless shout at the young poet Andrei Voznesensky because he gave an interview to a Polish newspaper where he said that he is not a member of the communistic party. The endless ovations of the Politburo members were particularly reflected in my improvisation on this topic.

On the one hand such collaboration with the legend is filling you with an awareness of the connection with the wide history of art and on the other hand I could feel the restrictions myself.  Leo Feigin, my big friend and teacher, told me a lot of stories about the past of the Soviet Union. He had to immigrate. After all, being in London, he alone did many invaluable things for developing our new music more than all the cultural workers inside the Soviet Union.

You were a student of Arkadi Shilkloper a terrific horn player. What was the reason to select him and what did you learn from him?

Arkady Shilkloper sometimes came to the Class Centre to give master classes. I wasn`t a real student of him. We just met, I spoke a lot with him, we talked with each other about art and music. He was very open and gave me a lot of inspiration. Most important he showed us what freedom in music means and that became a very important thing for us young artists. Since that time we became colleagues and friends. He supported me in 2012 during the first Leo Records Festival in Russia. Being the organizer was for me a big honor. I am happy that Pago Libre, a band Arkady has been playing for many years, participated at our last festival in St. Petersburg.

What makes the difference between jazz played in Eastern Europe and the rest of Europe?

Speaking about the main members of Eastern Europe musicians I would use the word « mysticism ». West Europe musicians are more practical. They achieve correctly the set goals, hold, manage, allocate art principles in dependence of the idea of the production. Eastern Europe jazz musicians consider themselves not only as jazz musicians but as performers in a wide and even wild way. For example, the heroes of the Soviet period of jazz – The Ganelin Trio, Sergey Kuryokhin, Jazz group Arkhangelsk, Orkestrion, Moscow Art Trio, Valentina Ponomareva, Sainkho Namchylak and many others – they were not only musicians playing on stage, they were carrying ideas which didn`t fit only in a musical space. They paid attention to some philosophical questions, were focused on musical specificity of performances and often left genuine jazz and music. Instead they tried to analyze art spaces with an extraordinary outbreak of energy. Regarding music it`s sometimes a way to approach the melody and find the way out of it. All these things create a metaphor of the world-view of Russian musicians and refer to Eastern European jazz musicians in general.

It`s always exciting when these two views and perceptions are meeting. We have a wonderful collaboration with English musicians Carolyn Hume and Paul May, with German musicians Gerhard Ullmann, Frank Gratkowski, Almut Kühne, Simon Nabatov, with Luca Sisera’s “Roofer” from Switzerland. Those meetings with such amazing musicians from different regions with their own conceptual views enhanced the diversity of performances.

For example, our album with Carolyn and Paul released by Leo Records called “Last Train from Narvskaya” is the improvised music of our quartet with the percussionist Oleg Yudanov. Oleg and I tried to plunge into the wonderful images of the duo of Carolyn and Paul, bringing a little Russian recklessness to it. The culmination of the album is the final composition, named by us in two languages – “Voices from the Moon”. In this composition I went beyond the limits of my instrument to the facets of extended voices, recalling my theatre roles. This culmination seems to be the unity between English and Russian views of improvised music, forming European music space influenced by the principles of classical music.

For you, how important was and is classical composed music from Bach, Bartok and others?

It`s very important. I like to decipher the codes of classical composed music and reflect and transfer it into my compositions. Bach`s monogram influenced me a lot as well as dodecaphony or flights of Romanticism or even Minimalism. I was privileged to play with Fritz Hauser to whom John Cage wrote music. 

I am addicted to play and develop classical music in different directions. It can be a direct score with the original material by composers or the way like we do with our Kruglov-Sooäär Quartet. When preparing our CD with Pyotr Tchaikosvky`s music we tried to correlate the author's material with the style of our quartet, give unusual colors to Pyotr Ilyich's masterpieces, find a new field of developing his ideas. As somebody from our friends said: “Tchaikovsky would be glad and play with you!”.

Jaak and I also see the importance of playing not only classical tunes and our material but contemporary tunes from the 20th century from the country where we were born. When we prepared our concert in April the 30th this year (2021) celebrating the International Jazz Day we were located at both sides of the Narva river at the Estonian-Russian border. “Music without Borders“ was born. We decided to include the tune “Taiga” by Yuri Milutin. This composition was flying over the border, gifted to Estonian and Russian audience and giving hope for better times. We played as well compositions by Modest Mussorgsky and Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov. Many people said that listening to the concert they were crying, sincerely thanked us and we had incredible responses from all around the world – for example from the famous The Washington Post.

Was and is American jazz important for you?

Yes. It is becoming more important for me especially when I play with the American legendary jazz musicians. I was lucky to collaborate with Jimmy Heath who told us many stories about his friends Parker, Coltrane, Benny Golson. I used to play with Christian McBride, Joe Lovano and as I said before with Gary Bartz.

In the jury from the competition in Staicele (in Latvia, 2000) - where I won the first price - was Billy Harper who liked my music. Such events inspire a lot and give much positive emotions. I remember when we cooperated with the legendary German pianist Joachim Kühn, recording with him a CD release afterwards on ACT Music, we were speaking with him a lot. He told me various stories about his meeting and collaboration with Ornette Coleman, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp and about his life in the USA. That led to new inspiration and flowed into the recordings of Krugly Band last year. In dedication to the 100th birthday of Charlie Parker the album “Yardbird Suite” was released. The album is a reflection about Bebop and its place in the history of jazz.

Which subgenres like Bebop, Cool, Modern or Fusion seem most influential to you?

Bebop, Modal Jazz and Free Jazz are the most influential for me. Of course, Cool especially the Third Stream also attracts me.

Considering your latest records it seems that improvised and free contemporary music is your cup of tea? Am I right or wrong? And why do you see improvised music as a way to go?

Yes, improvised music is one of my favorite directions, a way where I feel a lot of freedom. I also find the common principles between it and what we do with my friends of the Krugly Band. We created the method Dromuse (a connection of words Drome and Muse), a system which is based on the search of the unity of word, sound and plastic art and refers to Ancient Greece and to life when there were no boundaries between arts. This summer I directed five new performances with my colleagues and free improvisation flow filled each performance with its own colour.

Improvised music brings something very unknown and unique which we try to open and implement making new projects.

© Photos Ferdinand Dupuis-Panther – Interview:  F. Dupuis-Panther/A. Kruglov


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