Today there are more important jazz musicians who come from outside the United States than ever before. Some stay home and strengthen their local scenes. Some emigrate to the U.S., thereby enriching jazz in its native land. Misha Tsiganov is in the second category.
In “Misha’s Story,” published in 2007 in Jazz.Ru, Russia’s primary jazz magazine, he tells what it was like to arrive in the U.S. from St. Petersburg in 1991 and start at “point zero.” He had been offered a scholarship to Berklee, but when he arrived in Boston he discovered that there had been a misunderstanding about the numbers. The scholarship paid most but not all of his tuition, and Tsiganov could not make up the shortfall.
Almost broke, in a foreign country with no work permit, he made the hard choice: “When you put your instrument on the street for the first time, it is not a good feeling.” Collecting money in a hat in Boston subway stations was especially “not a good feeling” for a musician with three college degrees—including one from the prestigious Mussorgsky College of Music—who had played major concert halls in Russia.
Though money was eventually found for Tsiganov to go to Berklee, he moved to New York after one semester, in 1993, to take a job “with a decent salary” at a Russian restaurant. He played in Russian restaurants for eight years. But he didn’t play the classical music that he had studied from age six, and he didn’t play the jazz that had become his chosen musical language before he left Russia. He played “restaurant repertoire.”
Late at night, after the restaurants closed, he went to jam sessions and hung out in jazz clubs. He began to get occasional jazz gigs. In 1998 he started playing with Norman Hedman’s Latin band Tropique. Tsiganov says, “I still don’t understand why Norman hired me. I had no clue about what is clave, what is montuno.” But, like many Mussorgsky graduates, he could sight-read almost anything. After starting with Hedman, he “practiced Latin music day and night.” An important break came when Hedman recommended him to Chico Freeman, with whom he stayed for two years. Freeman then recommended him to Joe Chambers; their association lasted four years. Tsiganov says, “I realized quickly: Careers in jazz depend on good connections.”
“Misha’s Story,” the article in Jazz.Ru, ends in 2007, the year he released his first record as a leader. But the story continues. There are now six Tsiganov albums, three of them on the respected Dutch label Criss Cross. On The Artistry of the Standard (2014), the qualities that make him a special pianist are on full display. His rarefied chops (perhaps only attainable by someone who spent all those years in classical practice) make complexity sound elegant. He can balance speed and intricacy with heartfelt romanticism, as on Jerome Kern’s “The Song Is You.” (Regarding romanticism, Tsiganov says, “I grew up with Russian folk music, which is heartbreaking. I don’t want to lose that.”)
His second and third Criss Cross recordings, Spring Feelings (2016) and Playing with the Wind (2018), reveal a growing fascination with degree-of-difficulty. He says, “Jazz musicians might not admit it, but we are trying to compete. I was trying to outdo my peers, to create extremely advanced, complex music. Maybe I was trying to prove something to myself.”
A fourth Criss Cross album, Misha’s Wishes, will be out early in 2022. It continues the collaboration with Russian trumpeter Alex Sipiagin, who has appeared on every one of Tsiganov’s records. But it reveals a new direction. Tsiganov says, “I wanted to become more melodic. I don’t need to compete anymore.” It was recorded late in the second year of the pandemic. Pieces like “Hope and Despair” are his most vulnerable, reflective, poetic works to date. His formidable technical resources serve a single purpose: the revelation of melody as a means to emotional truth.
Criss Cross’ founder Gerry Teekens produced over 400 titles before he died in 2019. The label is now operated by his son Jerry. Based on the strength of Misha’s Wishes, one of the first albums issued in the new Criss Cross era, Teekens’ legacy is in good hands.