Remembering Aleksander Rjabov
The following is intended as tribute to a grand old man of Estonian jazz and "pops" music, - clarinetist, composer, arranger and conductor Aleksander Rjabov, who passed away on August 27th, a day before what would have been his 77th birthday. My thanks to Eevi Ross, Rjabov's partner in both life and music, for sending me this disc in 2003, which has been a frequent late evening listening selection since - a companion, if you will. The companionship that music can generate is difficult to express in mere words, going beyond taste. Suffice it to say that Aleksander Rjabov's joie de vivre remains alive after his passing, thanks to recording technology.
To these ears, this gem of a CD captures a legacy - of living life through music to the fullest, playing jazz with glee and evident enthusiasm. The title chosen here says it all - Rjabov was grateful for all that music and performing had granted him during a long and stellar career. Highlights of those years were joining the Estonian Radio Symphony in 1956 after graduating from the Tallinn Conservatory, then founding the Estonian Radio Pops Orchestra the next year. His abilities as conductor and arranger saw him guest-conduct in Riga and Leningrad, as well as lead big bands during the Soviet era. And it was not only in the world of jazz where Rjabov's footprints are to be found - his classical music work, most notably in chamber music, cannot be overlooked. (To select just one example: to my mind, his interpretative recording of Ester Mägi's "Dialoogid" [Dialogues] stands out. It seems in retrospect, that for Aleksander Rjabov deep musings with Brahms, for example, came as naturally as exuberant swinging with Benny Goodman.)
This live recording, from May 8th, 2003 in Narva, captures Rjabov and his friends - known simply as "Five" - in fine form, during a tour that led up to the clarinetist's golden jubilee. David Goloshtshokin ably supports Rjabov on violin and piano, Tiit Paulus on guitar stands out both soloing, and in complementing the rhythm section of bassist Toivo Unt and Aivar Vassiljev on percussion. The quintet swings with precision and verve through standards - from the Leonard Bernstein composed title track through the bossa nova of Luis Antonio's "Menina Mocca" and Antonio Carlos Jobim's "O Grande Amor." The energy emanating from these tunes is formidable. Ray Brown's sensual "Gravy Waltz" is performed with elan and cool passion, and Duke Ellington's "Tonight I Shall Sleep With a Smile (On My Face)" is gorgeously lush, evoking Nelson Riddle's orchestration without the bathos [and the strings!]. Goloshtshokin's electric violin playing is at times reminiscent of Jean-Luc Ponty's early experimentation with feedback. During Jimmy van Heusen's "Oh You Crazy Moon" the violin and clarinet duet bring to mind the stylings of Stéphane Grappelli and Artie Shaw. Tiit Paulus stands out on the bossa nova tracks, Unt holds the bottom with flair, and Vassiljev's subtle work allows the soloists plenty of room. Perhaps the only off-note in this recording is the inclusion of youthful vocalist Jelena Juzvik. On the Benny Carter chestnut, "Only Trust Your Heart," Juzvik's English is not up to the task, and her glissandos sound forced. It is a pale effort beside what I consider to be the benchmark, Diane Reeves' recording with Carter himself in 1996. While simplicity and naïveté à la Astrud Gilberto can be charming, Juzvik's technique on this recording is not of a caliber to compensate. She holds promise, however, and thus this is a minor complaint, in the context of the whole recording.
Engineer Oleg Tsivarev has straddled the fine line of catching the "live feeling" while ensuring that the recording has a balanced sound. The "bravos!" and applause after solos and completion of tunes are wisely left in, confirming that the audience enjoyed the performances.
Still, after all that, this CD carries throughout the autograph of Rjabov, a man for whom "Lucky to be me" could be a credo. His distinctive musical signature and phrasing leaves no doubt as to who is pulling these magnificent licks from the licorice stick. As Immo Mihkelson notes in the, alas, far too brief liner notes to this CD, few musicians are granted such an immediately recognizable style. The listener immediately finds the proper wavelength, and the resulting enjoyment is considerable.
The Estonian music world has lost an unique musician, who appreciated all life gave him, believed in having fun, and shared his luck and talents with appreciative audiences.