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Roman Kunsman - Heavy Skies (2003)

By the 1960's, American jazzmen on the road in Eastern Europe were coming home with tales of surprise. A Bulgarian pianist, for instance, was said to sound like Thelonious Monk if Monk had been raised as a rhapsodic gypsy. And there were other such reports. But what would you think of a jazzman from Central Russia, reared near the Volga, who has also absorbed Bird, among other fundamental jazz sources, and is at authoritative ease in classical music as well. Not that he "fuses" classical and jazz in any sterile "third stream" way. It's just that classical music is a natural part of his personal voice. Like being Russian. Like being Jewish. Like being Roman Kunsman, a jazz player.

As can be heard on this, his first American album as a leader, Kunsman is, among other things, a compelling melodist; a setter or intense, probing moods; a singularly lyrical alto saxophonist; and an unusually authoritative, penetrating jazz flutist. At base, with all his multiple skills as a player and composer, Kunsman is a romantic. A disciplined romantic.

But first, his odyssey. Born on December 7,1941, he came from a family in which, until then, no one had been musical. By the age of ten, Roman was a singer. Not just tunes, but classical songs, lieder, opera. TWo years later, Kunsman was studying clarinet in an army school where talented children lived in order that they might play in the army band.

A few years later, the eager musician was in Leningrad where he heard a dance band playing Glenn Miller and Count Basie charts. He had already, through Willis Conover's Voice of America jazz programs, been familiarized with such phenomena as Charlie Parker, but somehow he had never heard a big band before and was delighted. The band needed a saxophonist, but Kunsman had never played the horn in his life, and also had no money to buy one. A saxophone was borrowed for him and so, at 18, he learned the alto on the job, night to night.

If you'd walked in on one of his gigs at the time, you would have heard Charlie Parker coming out of the bell of this Russian teenager's saxophone. ("1 listened," Kunsman recalls, "to as much Parker as I could find and transcribed the solos.") Then came John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy and others. Jazz albums were so expensive that they cost the equivalent of two weeks' work, but for him they were necessities.

Kunsman meanwhile was also much intrigued by such breakthrough classical composers and Anton Webern, and for two years studied composition at a conservatory. He also wrote jazz pieces. One of them Loneliness, written in the 12-tone system, won a prize at a Leningrad Jazz festival. The organizers did try to persuade him to change the title. Who could be lonely in the people's state? But Kunsman, displaying the stubborn independence endemic to all durable jazzmen, refused.

As he moved into his 20's, Kunsman was working clubs, traveling with big bands, and making some records. The state of jazz in Russia depended on the state of foreign affairs. When relations between the U.S.S.R. and the United States were reasonably sound, jazz was allowed space and time. When they were not, jazz clubs were closed.

The young swinger finally got his first new alto saxophone when an uncle, living in Newark, sent him one. Eventually, Kunsman's family decided to immigrate to Israel. After the usual initial difficulties, they were allowed to leave, and in 1971, Kunsman was exploring the music scene in Tel Aviv. One of the groups he played with was styled somewhat like Weather Report, and in 1975, it was invited to appear at the Newport Jazz Festival. It was Kunsman's first visit to the United States, and at Newport, he became reacquainted with George Avakian, one of the more influential record producers in jazz history. They had first met some years before in Russia, when Avakian brought Charles Lloyd's group there. Here in America, it meant a lot to Kunsman that Avakian sufficiently liked his work to talk about eventually making a record.

Back in Israel, Kunsman decided to find his own voice. For some two years, he practiced six to seven hours a day - by himself. He did not listen to anybody else's recordings. "I had to hear myself," he says, "and work on what 1 heard."

In June 1976, he came to live in the United States, continuing to search inside his own sounds. Mostly these days, Kunsman plays Yiddish weddings, along with some jazz sessions led by Arnie Lawrence. His goal, of course, is to lead his own group. His own jazz group, and this album should begin to make that possible.

Kunsman had made recordings in Russia and Israel, but this one, in addition to being his first in the United Stated, is also his first since those years of unceasing self-probing. "My music now," he points out," is very much my own. It is what I feel, and what I most deeply feel comes out as jazz, although I do sometimes use classical music techniques for jazz purposes." He believes, and I agree, that a good way to begin getting into Kunsman's unique conception is to listen to Body and Soul in this set. It is surely unlike any other Body and Soul you ever heard and the scope of Kunsman's imagination, along with the play of timbre and dynamics, does herald an authentically original voice.

The opening Fata Morgana, with its deep, clear melody over the insistent, hypnotic rhythms, underscores Kunsman's goal in all these performances: "I want to involve the listener as strongly as I can in whatever I feel. I try to be honest with those who hear my music. I do not fake 'happy music.' That's for elevators and supermarkets. I write and play what is in my head and in my heart."

Magic Birds, a double canon, has - in the overdubbing on this particular track - two flutes and two alto flutes. In addition to his depth and beauty of sound on flute, Kunsman plays with remarkable flexibility and musical intelligence. "I never played flute in Russia," he told me, "until I heard Charles Lloyd there. I was so taken with it that I taught myself. Actually, I have had no lessons on any instrument. Just in composition."

Toward Higher Lights, has a compelling rocking rhythm base over which Kunsman plays a forceful, "talking" alto - Bird and others having become absorbed in Kunsman. Elevation, says Kunsman, "starts from one line and then elevates." It further illuminates a quality basic to Kunsman's music - a ceaselessly searching intensity. A continual stretching of expressive possibilities. Listening, I got a sense of what was going on during those years in Israel when Kunsman, alone in a room, kept probing into his musical being.

Combination, on which Kunsman returns to the flute, is described by the composer-performer as having mystical elements, but what this non-mystic hears is a lean, erring lyricism, which keeps drawing the listener into Kunsman's very special microcosm. All these performances, by the way, reward repeated listening, because each time there are new emotive revelations.

Heavy Skies, with its dense, but continually shifting textures, underlines yet another integral element in Kunsman's music - drama. He has a keen, supple sense of dramatic structure that continually vivifies his story-telling.

Kunsman points out, by the way, that all the parts are composed except for his solos on alto saxophone and flute - and one bass solo. Those are improvised. Combination is entirely written. He also wishes to express appreciation for what he terms the "invaluable" aid of George Avakian. And to Gil Evans who, after Kunsman played the tapes of this session for him, advised him on the order of the tracks.

For Roman Kunsman, who began in Russia, started again in Israel, and now hopes to be a vital part of the American jazz scene, this album is a report on how far he has come in his music. "I don't consider what I create Russian music or Jewish Music," he says. "Now it is music. I now know the music I want to play, I know it is my own, and all I want is to get a group together and get enough work so that I can pay my bills."

A modest enough declaration of independence. However long it does take Roman Kunsman to become a sufficiently widely known jazz presence so that he can live on jazz alone, he already has achieved the fundamental requisite - his music can be confused with no one else's. It is Kunsman music. (Nat Hentoff)

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