By Greg Ptacek
Already a fixture on the L.A. music scene with a string of sold-outperformances at local jazz clubs, Alexander Gershman (actually, that’s “Dr. Gershman”) performs with his band Sasha’s Bloc – a group of talented studio musicians who like him are fascinated by jazz’s early 20th century iterations.
L.A. Bassist Alex Gershman Revisits, By Way of Soviet Russia, Early Jazz And Its Influences In New Album by Sasha’s Bloc
The most unlikeliest of musicians – a Los Angeles M.D. who was born in Soviet Era Russia – is reviving and reinterpreting early jazz roots in his new album, “Melancholy,” set for release by AG Entertainment on September 17th.
Already a fixture on the L.A. music scene with a string of sold-out performances at local jazz clubs, Alexander Gershman (actually, that’s “Dr. Gershman”) performs with his band Sasha’s Bloc – a group of talented studio musicians who like him are fascinated by jazz’s early 20th century iterations.
The new album is actually released under the band’s name, a nod by Gershman to his renowned jazz comrades, who include Brandon Fields on saxophone (Earth, Wind & Fire, Quincy Jones), Lenni Castro on percussion (Eric Clapton, Boz Scaggs), Sergey Chipenko on piano (David Sanborn, Mindi Abair), Herman Jackson on piano (Stevie Wonder, George Benson), Mark Cargill on violin, Nahum Zdybel on guitar (Bruce Forman, Larry Koonse), Bob McChesney on trombone, Will Wheaton on vocals (Celine Dion, Michael Jackson), Kevin Winard on drums (Debbie Gibson, Paul Anka), Peggi Blu on vocals (Luther Vandross, Bob Dylan) and Adam “Aejaye” Jackson on vocals (Toni Braxton, David Foster).
But make no mistake: The creative force behind the album and band is Gershman, who leads the ensemble and co-wrote the nine original songs on the album with the band’s sultry vocalist Carina Cooper. Yes, that’s right. While it harks back to the era of 1920s and 1930s when jazz was the popular music, the album is a collection of original compositions that reinterpret the genre’s early days. Think of a big-band sound that recalls the vibe of New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Jazz Band infused with the blues, a hint of gypsy jazz, and touches of ragtime, contemporary jazz and swing. You might have heard something very similar in a Berlin cabaret, circa 1935.
Gershman’s story begins in pre-Glasnost Soviet Union where his brother’s fascination with Western pop and jazz exposed him at early age to a variety of musical influences. Contrary to popular belief, jazz was fairly common behind the Iron Curtain. “There was a wealth of classically trained musicians in Russia who enjoyed stretching their creative wings with the improvisational aspects of jazz,” said Gershman. He recalls George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” as the first jazz song he ever heard, performed live by local musicians.
The jazz bug really bit him after he had the opportunity to attend a concert in Mosow by a touring group of dyed-in-wool jazzmen from Chicago. “There were five musicians in the band, all very old – some walking on canes – and they played jazz from the early Twenties. I had never heard anything like them, and it was absolutely fascinating,” he recalls.
Fast forward a couple of decades, and Gershman has become a celebrated doctor of urology in Mosow. In fact, he garnered such an international reputation for innovation with laparoscopy robotic surgery that in 1988 he was invited to the U.S. as a visiting professor at Cedars Sinai and UCLA Medical Centers in Los Angeles. That visit eventually became permanent and L.A. has been his home for the last two decades.
Until recently, he and his band would perform jazz standards in local area clubs. But he really started getting the attention of L.A.’s substantial jazz community when a couple of years ago he began experimenting with a sound that incorporated blues, pop and even Gospel. “That surprised a lot of people and caught the attention of jazz musicians here. We suddenly got tremendous interest. You know, L.A. is known for its smooth jazz genre, which itself is a fusion of other sounds. But this was something different and they wanted to be part of it,” said Gershman.
Next up for the multi-tasker Gershman is a planned musical that will explore the Los Angeles jazz music scene in the 1930s when blacks escaping repression in the South and Europeans escaping repression in their homelands collided together in the Movie Capital of the World at the height of its Golden Era. “It’s a subject ripe with possibility and I’ve always been fascinated with the theatrical presentation of jazz – in movies and on Broadway. In fact, I’ve already begun incorporating a little dance and choral ensemble in my live shows to get a feeling for what it must have been like,” he says.