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Full Focus

Sergey Kuryokhin

The Spirit Lives


The idea behind our Full Focus series is to let the reader listen to a track from an album at the same time as reading the concepts behind the track as seen by the composer and the musicians involved. In this article by Steve Day he looks back at the music of Russian pianist Sergey Kuryokhin:


Sergey Kuryokhin


In a manner of speaking, I recently seem to have spent a lot of time with Russians.  Writing about them.  Among the ones I haven’t really touched on until now is Sergey Kuryokhin.  This is probably because he is no longer with us.  He died in 1996, age 42, cancer of the heart, known as cardiac sarcoma.  It is rare; malignant tumours, thieves in the night.  They robbed the world of a great musician when he was still young and totally vital.  In his prime Sergey Kuryokhin was not like other people.  In Russia they called him 'The Captain'. 


Listen to Sergey Kuryokhin playing a tribute to Dave Brubeck with Blue Rondo A La Russ.




I know, of course we are all unique.  The thing about Kuryokhin was that he was truly a one-off casual genius. Bizarre, a prankster, even ridiculous, yet a musician with such a complete intelligence, whose whole conception and vision of the possible was so vast it is difficult to know where to begin any kind of appreciation of his music.  Whatever his penchant for feral absurdity it absolutely did not get in the way of him creating some of the most inspiring, magnificent music of the 1980’s.  Even the Soviet Bloc could not prevent news of his fermenting creativity.  In fact it was his outright commitment to cross those wretched barriers of accepted convention that freed up his ferocious technical mastery of music bringing him into a rich vein of a total creative take-off - witness his take on Brubeck's Blue Ronda a la Turk which he recorded as part of the soundtrack for Sergei Debizhev's 1992 film Two Captains II

The Captain started playing piano at the age of 4. A child prodigy who went on to cut across the romance of Rachmaninov, splicing rock music and jazz to such an extent that in his case it seems pointless to try to untie those particular knots.  He would not thank me for doing so.  In the early 1980’s Sergey Kuryokhin recorded a short complex piano and tuba duet of Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag, yet his later ensemble album, Sparrow Oratorium (Kurizza Records), could be said to draw on the work of his American buddy, Frank Zappa.  Kuryokhin would not find the two projects incompatible and neither do I. 


Here is Summer from Sparrow Oratorium. You can hear the whole album here.




As a piano soloist he was often described as inhabiting a place between such diverse piano players as Art Tatum, James P Johnson, Cecil Taylor, Carla Bley and Conlon Nancarrow.  The truth of any keyboard analysis is that Mr Kuryokhin sourced from a worldwide discography despite the Iron Curtain; he completely overtook his own influences.  If he were alive today it is his name which would be being used as a benchmark for ‘new jazz’, or whatever is the latest euphemism for critical creative jazz composition.  Even in the short space of his 42 years Sergey Kuryokhin emerged from the avant-garde underground, recorded a huge body of work, established key musical partnerships with leading Russian, American and European contemporaries in rock and jazz, became an established actor, toured the USA, recorded internationally, wrote film scores, became a household name in Soviet Russia via the TV shows Musical Ring and Fifth Wheel, played in Nam June Paik’s Wrap Around The World which was given a television broadcast on the eve of the 1988 Seoul Olympics, as well as inventing and touring his own orchestral synthesis of avant rock-jazz theatre under the title Pop-Mechanics, which on occasions included ‘burlesque’ dancers, opera singers and singing pigs.  I kid you not!  


Here is a video interpreting Sergey Kuryokhin's Donna Anna.




My current opportunity to write about The Captain is fuelled by the recent release of Sergey Kuryokhin: The Spirit Lives by Alexei Aigui & Ensemble 4’33”, a double disk package (CD & DVD) of a 2015 concert recorded at the Moscow State Conservatoire on 9th July, the same date on which he had died back in 1996.  A year on from the recording, Leo Records now release the special concert to mark this 20th anniversary.  Alexei Aigui’s task in bringing this music to fruition was a true labour of love.  He was using the acoustic full strings of the Ad Libitum Orchestra plus two additional units, Ensemble 4.33 and Ensemble N’Caged, in conjunction with various singers.  Everyone was required to use scores, yet everyone also had to improvise for extensive periods, albeit to very explicit briefs.  Sergey Kuryokhin rarely wrote any of his compositions down in the traditional manner, preferring to either jot scribbled scores on pieces of scrap paper prior to performance, or failing that, literally teach his musicians the music direct to memory in the Sergey Kuryokhin The Spirit Livesmanner adopted by Don van Vliet better known as Captain Beefheart, the American avant-rock singer/composer (There is no evidence as far as I know that this similarity of approach is the reason why Kuryokhin was known as ‘The Captain’ in Russia.) 

For the The Spirit Lives concerts Alexei Aigui had the laborious task of writing new scores transcribed from Kuryokhin’s recordings.  Among the cast of musicians available to Aigui were Sergey Letov (saxophone), Vladimir Volkov (double bass) and Vyacheslav Guyvoronsky (trumpet), all of whom played regularly with Sergey Kuryokhin and were able to advise/verify that the final outcome “was very close to the original”.

Bravely, or some might say foolishly (I’m in the ‘brave’ camp), Alexei Aigui decided to include two versions of one of Kuryokhin’s most absurd pieces, Tragedy.  Despite the title, whatever form Tragedy comes in, it is hard to find a tragic version, the composition is vibrant, built on two distinct riffs with plenty of room for spontaneity.  The first version attempted at Aigui’s concert is called Tragedy, Rock Style.  It features Sergey Letov on tenor and Alexei Kruglov on alto, two of Russia’s finest sax players.  Here they sound as if they have been kidnapped by James Brown’s horn section, then escaped, only to find themselves recaptured by Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention.  The second version travels under the name Tragedy In The Style of Minimalism.  It flirts with an attempt at a minimalist approach only to find itself waylaid by Letov and Kruglov who just about break the repetition into a thousand pieces.  The audience roar at the end of this performance as if they are collecting up falling notes dropping from the air.  The whole ensemble quickly segue into Donna Anna from the Kuryokhin’s Sparrow Oratorium and I am left believing the sky has truly fallen in around them.


We can watch a video performance of Tragedy In The Style Of Minimalism.




Kuryokhin’s creativity is all about drawing from various techniques to make a complete ‘whole’ programme of music.  Perhaps a good, instant example on The Spirit Lives concert is Last Waltz.  It is only just shy of three minutes in length but is totally finished, requiring no further embellishment.  In structure it is also in utter contrast to Tragedy.  It begins with a vocal refrain appearing as a choral work only to quickly establish a minimalist structure which in turn is taken over by a brief supercharged improvised orchestral interruption which is then ‘contained’ and completes the piece as a final coda.  The fascination with a piece like Last Waltz is that within a very short time span, the composition (and that is what it is despite the ‘built-in’ improvisation) Kuryokhin/Aigui are able to present several different, quite distinct genres, as fully realised performances.


Last Waltz from The Spirit Lives.




Mystic (sometimes translated as Mystics, plural) is another quirky riddle – on The Spirit Lives album even the orchestral setting cannot mask the strange filigree of sound (strummed violins acting as ukuleles), the trained solo operatic soprano voice presenting the melody on an instrumental backdrop which is almost mock vaudeville.  On Sergey Kuryokhin’s original versions of Mystic the contrast between formal and theatre music is even more starkly apparent.  When the soprano singer enters in Kuryokhin’s original she is both operatic yet totally burlesque.  There’s a good argument for saying Mystic is a kind of Soviet version of New Orleans Storyville.  Red Light, back of the bar Basin Street reincarnated as performance art in Leningrad (St Petersburg).


Listen to Mystic(s).




My interest in Sergey Kuryokhin is that musically I identify with him.  If you want to understand The Captain, at least on some level, you have to embrace the connection between what, ordinarily might seem like quite different territories of music.  The link between Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis (they were actively planning to play together at the time of Hendrix’s death); Davis’ own touch-base to Charlie Parker and Igor Stravinsky; the mammoth importance of Duke Ellington to avant-garde jazz orchestration; The Duke’s critical status as a piano stylist (one of the bed rocks of the founding fathers of jazz-rock; Weather Report’s awesome version of Ellington’s Rockin In Rhythm); ‘jazz’ conceptually both part of Tin Pan Alley, Gershwin, Dixieland and the radical extremes of European Improv.  It goes on, and on, music is not pigeon holed – jazz is a vast expanse.  Sergey Kuryokhin was a brilliant stride piano player, his wonderful set of duets with multi-reed player Anatoly Vapirov contain both musicians playing a set of Portraits, the first entitled Benny Goodman Is Just Round The Corner and the second, Duke Ellington In Bedouin Garb (from Document New Music From Russia (Leo Records).  These are not fake titles; Vapirov honours Goodman, as does Kuryokhin’s forensic take on Ellington’s piano fantasies.


Listen to Weather Report playing Duke Ellington's Rockin' In Rhythm.




When the new two disk set of The Spirit Lives dropped on my door-mat I felt I had no choice but to gather my thoughts together on what exactly I understood to be Sergey Kuryokhin.  At best I hope I might have conveyed a slight flavour of the great man.  I don’t expect everyone is going to like his music or want to follow up some of the trails I have put forward.  Perhaps it is enough that he is name checked once more and that music is not just labelled, commercially packaged and given away like a charity freebie.  My thanks to Sandy Brown Jazz for allowing me a smidgeon of space to write the name SERGEY KURYOKHIN.       




Steve Day


© Sandy Brown Jazz 2016

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Visit some of our other Full Focus pages:

Tommy Andrews - Crystal Car
Dave Maningon's Riff Raff - Agile
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