ROUGH AND READY As a jazz flutist, Kudina has had as influences Miles Davis’s trumpet and “screaming saxophone.”
Although Ilona Kudina is a flutist, I'm hesitant to call her new Nothing But Illusion a wonderful jazz-flute CD, because it's really just a wonderful jazz album. How could it not be? The 40-year-old Latvian-born Kudina has been living in Boston since 2001, and she's surrounded herself with some of the cream of the Boston crop: distinguished masters like drummer Billy Hart and trumpet/flügelhorn player Greg Hopkins, and younger firebrands like the pianist Vardan Ovsepian and bassist Akil Jamal Haynes. Everyone contributes tunes — all in the pocket of the progressive mainstream, all with their particular fresh wrinkles. There's the driving groove of the opener, Hopkins's "Nine Ate," a steeplechase of chord changes, with that title rhythm giving everything an edge. There's Kudina's "And So What?", her funked-up variation on the Miles Davis classic. And Ovsepian's abstracted "Every Tomorrow," and Kudina's title tune, on which she sings her own charmingly accented English lyrics.
And, yes, she's a formidable flutist. Although she's spent much of her career in classical music, her jazz playing is rough and ready. It's not just the spur-of-the-moment invention of her improvisations but her enthusiasm for jazz's idiosyncratic colors and rhythmic attack that keep her sound fresh and surprising. She'll overblow for full breathy tones, or sing through the flute, and when she gets caught up in the funkier lines of "Nine Ate," she marks her rhythmic turns with semi-audible grunts. Kudina says that in fact Miles has been her greatest influence. "When I play," she tells me on the phone from her Cambridge home, "I keep in mind the sound of a trumpet. But when I play something like 'Nine Ate,' I'm thinking of a screaming saxophone."
The CD also includes a couple of pieces based on Latvian folk tunes. "Tumsa Nakte, Zale Zale" is a song about "looking for a cause that is lost. But if you translate directly into English, it will get very funny-sounding." Rearranging the piece, she retained the mysterious minor-key motif but extended the theme to an odd nine-bar phrase. "It gave the piece kind of a Spanish flavor."
"Zidi Zidi, Rudzu Vorpa" is another nature-based folk song, this one from her native region of Latgalia. In this case, she kept the melody in 4/4, but with a 7/8 counter-rhythm. She wanted to "give it a little edge, a little movement," to reflect the Latgalian "temperate" character.
After her Scullers gig this Wednesday, Kudina will be off to Toronto to play a program of Latvian classical composers. Mixing classical and jazz, she says, is a way to maintain "both chops." But with this album's mix of folk and jazz and contemporary, she adds, "I feel like I'm home."