What’s an improkofiev? For that matter, what’s a spirabassi? Spirabassi‘s Improkofiev has one of those inscrutable album covers, letters going every which way, so it’s hard to figure out what this CD’s about without listening. Here’s the low down: soprano sax player Stephane Spira has teamed up with pianist Giovanni Mirabassi, along with drummer Donald Kontomanou and bassist Steve Wood, to record this album, which is called Improkofiev. It includes a jazz arrangement of Sergei Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No.1–a favorite composition from one of my favorite classical composers. Spirabassi is the name of this quartet, and Improkofiev refers to the fact that only “excerpts” of Prokofiev’s angular yet stunning themes appear.
My first reaction to ideas explored in Spirabassi’s Improkofiev was oh, this is like the Jacques Loussier Trio performing all those fabulous jazz arrangements for popular Johann Sebastian Bach compositions. Spirabassi doesn’t restrict itself by sticking solely to Prokofiev, which I have to admit is an album I would buy in a second. Instead, the quartet runs through a few tracks first before launching into the three-part suite, giving us superb and lush interpretations of Erik Satie’s Gymnopedie No.1, Carla Bley’s “Lawns” and a couple of original tunes from Spira.
The order of the tracks makes sense. You are romanced a bit, softened up for complexity of the Prokofiev suite. I spent my college years listening to Itzhak Perlman’s version of Violin Concerto No.1 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, so I know the piece well and can immediately identify all the tangents in Spirabassi’s Improkofiev. While Jacques Loussier knew in advance that Bach’s most famous themes could blend effortlessly with a piano trio, this coupling is a bit thornier, and it needs wide open spaces for the improvisations.
Prokofiev was at the cusp of of more experimental compositions of the mid-20th century while still clinging to his post-Romantic approach, so he was considerably more atonal than Back could ever imagine. But he still knew how to compose beautiful music. You hear that in this performance. It’s not an easy partnership, but it’s one that ultimately works well.
Stephane Spira’s soprano sax reminds me of Jane Ira Bloom, especially in the way he captures that plaintive longing that’s so anti-Kenny G. Soprano saxes can be tense, so it makes sense to bring out that potential for conflict in the sound. This results in a suite that’s worth hearing, especially if you love Prokofiev–this is one classical composer whose pieces can be interpreted in wildly different ways. That makes Spirabassi’s Improkofiev more than successful and even worthy to cross over and become part of the Prokofiev canon, just like Play Bach did so many decades ago.