By the 1960's, American jazzmen on the road in Eastern Europe were coming home with tales of surprise. A Bulgarian pianist, for instance, was said to sound like Thelonious Monk if Monk had been raised as a rhapsodic gypsy. And there were other such reports. But what would you think of a jazzman from Central Russia, reared near the Volga, who has also absorbed Bird, among other fundamental jazz sources, and is at authoritative ease in classical music as well. Not that he "fuses" classical and jazz in any sterile "third stream" way. It's just that classical music is a natural part of his personal voice. Like being Russian. Like being Jewish. Like being Roman Kunsman, a jazz player.
As can be heard on this, his first American album as a leader, Kunsman is, among other things, a compelling melodist; a setter or intense, probing moods; a singularly lyrical alto saxophonist; and an unusually authoritative, penetrating jazz flutist. At base, with all his multiple skills as a player and composer, Kunsman is a romantic. A disciplined romantic.
But first, his odyssey. Born on December 7, 1941, he came from a family in which, until then, no one had been musical. By the age of ten, Roman was a singer. Not just tunes, but classical songs, lieder, opera. Two years later, Kunsman was studying clarinet in an army school where talented children lived in order that they might play in the army band.
A few years later, the eager musician was in Leningrad where he heard a dance band playing Glenn Miller and Count Basie charts. He had already, through Willis Conover's Voice of America jazz programs, been familiarized with such phenomena as Charlie Parker, but somehow he had never heard a big band before and was delighted. The band needed a saxophonist, but Kunsman had never played the horn in his life, and also had no money to buy one. A saxophone was borrowed for him and so, at 18, he learned the alto on the job, night to night.
If you'd walked in on one of his gigs at the time, you would have heard Charlie Parker coming out of the bell of this Russian teenager's saxophone. ("I listened," Kunsman recalls, "to as much Parker as I could find and transcribed the solos.") Then came John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy and others. Jazz albums were so expensive that they cost the equivalent of two weeks' work, but for him they were necessities.