By Don Heckman
Hearing a collective of mostly Russian musicians impressively swinging their way through a program of jazz standards and Great American Songbook classics wasn’t exactly what one ordinarily expects to hear Upstairs at Vitellos. Yet there they were Friday night – Sasha’s Bloc Band – playing everything from “C Jam Blues” to “Sunny Side of the Street” with enthusiasm and authenticity.
Not that it should have been surprising. Russia – from the Soviet Union through the Russian Federation – has been both a receptive environment for jazz and a seedbed for generations of gifted jazz players. And that was true even during the Soviet years, when jazz was officially seen as part of the hydra-headed monster of Western decadence.
But no more. The seven members of Sascha’s Bloc Band – six Russians and a Pole – brought everything they played vividly to life. Bandleader and bassist Alex Gershman – “Sascha” – was the music’s sparkplug, via his highly charged bass lines and his jaunty vocals. On tunes such as “Money Can’t Buy My Love,” “Route 66” and “Sunny Side of the Street” he led the way, singing and playing. Between numbers, Gershman – who, when he’s not on stage, is a highly regarded surgeon – was a warm and amiable front man for the Bloc Band.
Young singer Carina Cooper, with a style vivaciously blending jazz and r&b qualities made the most of her in-the-spotlight vocals in a program of tunes embracing “Summertime,” “Cheek To Cheek,” “Straighten Up and Fly Right” and “Autumn Leaves” as well as an emotionally intense “At Last” and a rock-tinged “I Just Want To Make Love To You.” Still finding the center of her style, Cooper’s convincing potential will reach its full expression when she moves more directly into the jazz area.
Pianist Sergei Chipenko, whose resume includes gigs with everyone from Jeff Lorber and David Sanborn to Dav Koz and Will Kennedy, displayed keen mastery of the Bloc Band’s far-ranging jazz styles, moving easily from bebop to swing to stride and beyond.
The same can be said for guitarist Rudy K, whose deeply swinging solos often shifted into combined vocal and solo lines challenging the best of George Benson and John Pattituci.
Saxophonist Jacob Nakhman was equally versatile, playing bar-walking tenor lines as fluidly as his arching, bebop-driven solos.
Supporting it all with propulsive drive, drummer Kevin Winard (the Bloc’s American member, replacing Igor Krylov) and rhythm guitarist Andrei Nyderek (the Band’s only Polish member) joined with Gershman and Chipenko in establishing one irresistible rhythmic groove after another,
Listening to this gifted group of Russian (and Polish) artists in action, one couldn’t help but be fascinated by the authenticity and affection they brought to music that is not, after all, their own cultural heritage.
Ironically, however, the one quality that was missing was a stronger linkage with the Bloc players’ own roots. Appealing though they were as interpreters of classic jazz styles, they might have been even more intriguing if those styles had been blended with the traditional – and often improvisational — musics of Russia and Eastern Europe. Bringing those traditions – with their complex rhythms, soaring melodies and modally-oriented harmonies – into a creative marriage with jazz would more effectively delivered on the promise of the group’s name, Sascha’s Bloc Band, while opening new performance vistas for these talented artists.