It doesn’t take a huge leap of faith to assume that fans of this genre of music have mental lists of favorite musicians who’ve never received acclaim commensurate with what they perceive to be their talents. The Russian born pianist Simon Nabatov is at the top of my list. Sure his releases receive positive, often glowing, reviews and I’ve never encountered anyone even slightly dismissive of his technically intricate while still melodically welcoming playing. But I just don’t think he’s gotten the push his talents merit and he doesn’t get mentioned as often in discussions as Schweizer, Crispell or Shipp for example.
The first Simon Nabatov Quintet release was the delightful 2001 collection of pieces inspired by sections of the underground Stalin era Russian novel “The Master and Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov, a tour de force of literary interpretation. The intervening 18 years have featured mostly smaller groups, primarily on Leo, including other Soviet era literary interpretations, as well as less programmatic undertakings. The current release marks his Clean Feed debut with a different New York centric group of saxophonist Tony Malaby, Brandon Seabrook on guitar, bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Gerald Cleaver.
If being on the new label exposes him to new listeners, this would serve as a good introduction to his playing and compositions. The opening cut, Old Fashioned, starts off with a bouncy bop-ish melody after which the piano bass and drums start stretching the boundaries before Seabrook’s guitar adds some scratchy discordant figures to produce some tension. Then Malaby’s tenor enters with a Charlie Rouse type solo adhering closely to the melody which frees the piano and guitar to chatter at each other. They briefly restate the melody in unison at the 5:30 mark followed by a controlled chaos winding down to a quiet conclusion. Two of the songs seem titled based on Cleaver’s drumming: Rickety begins with a clattering rapid stop and go rhythm around which the song is built and Marching Right Along starts with a martial cadence which reoccurs throughout the song alternating with more understated and subdued tempos. Malaby has some fine soprano features in Slow Move and Marching Right Along and Formanek is responsible in Afterwards for getting things moving again after everyone else dropped out. Seabrook’s guitar is the wild card in the mix by lobbing electric darts and bombs to keep things from getting too relaxed and serving as a good foil for Nabatov’s lyricism. But the leader is in fine form here as well. If his playing isn’t as out front as in some of his trio dates (Tough Customer is a particular favorite) he is constantly interesting within the quintet format.
So maybe this will raise Simon’s critical exposure. Or maybe it was a misapprehension on my part of how he is thought of. I was heartened to see the late Eric Stern included Last Minute Theory in his Best of 2019 list and that he was instrumental in helping Nabatov meet musicians when he first came to New York. I thought of that quite a bit while listening to this.