For most of us, the most daring unauthorized use of company property we’ll ever commit is to print off our March Madness brackets for the department pool. Which is amazing given the relatively tame punitive consequences of committing greater corporate sins. I mean, yeah, I’d probably get fired (and deeply embarrassed) if I got caught doing something indecent – say, distributing internet porn, or watching highlights from Glenn Beck – on my work computer. But that’d probably be it. Maybe a misdemeanor charge here or there, a fine, some probation, a bad reference. Whatevs. I’m confident I wouldn’t get dragged out of my home and shot in a city square, or tossed in a jail cell for indefinitely. Maybe it’s the predictable leniency of the punishment that keeps most of us from doing anything brilliant or consequential (and therefore risky) with our acts of petty corporate theft. If we were going to stake our lives on it, it would have to be brilliant, right?

Meet Pavel Sysoyev, Cold War-era Soviet government employee, and probably the closest thing to Herbie Hancock to ever emerge from the obscure Russian outpost of Abakan, a city of about 160,000 located just north of Mongolia in the Republic of Khakassia in extreme southeastern Siberia. Although to say he “emerged” from Abakan is a bit of a mis-statement. Mr. Sysoyev (who now lives in St. Paul, Minnesota) may, in fact, be more famous now in the American Midwest than he ever was anywhere in Khakassia where the fact that his recordings of his original, American-influenced funk and jazz compositions (and those of a burgeoning local underground he mentored and produced) were made after-hours on top-of-the-line government-owned equipment – and this at a time when American popular musical forms were as freshly and ambiguously legal in the U.S.S.R. as medicinal marijuana is now in the U.S., and far less respectable – made widespread release of his music in his home country a laughable impossibility.

It’s only more than 35 years after the fact that the underground jazz/fusion/funk scene Sysoyev grew under cover of night in his little Soviet-financed musical petrie dish is seeing the light of release, thanks to Minneapolis-based Secret Stash Records, who, just a couple months ago, released an LP called Soviet Funk – Volume 1 (on red vinyl, of course) with a second volume slated for release next week!   Soviet Funk – Volume 1 compiles ten instrumental gems (Look, Ma!  No language barrier!) from Pavel Sysoyev’s vaults (attic? closet? little cubby hole under the floorboards?), from sessions dating to the early ’70s, a few credited to Sysoyev himself, but also including bands Sysoyev produced like Pomogite and Da/N’et.   As startling as the mere existence of these recordings is (not to mention their sudden ready availability to schmos like me), it’s even more startling just how fricking great they are.  

The songs themselves are smart and sophisticated, full of jaunty, stylish melodies, unexpected rhythmic twists, and harmonies that occasionally wink-nudge at the Russian classical music tradition the players came from, but the playing is incredible – and incredibly joyful – and the recordings sound as sharp as anything Creed Taylor set to tape in the same time period.  For all the musical sophistication behind it though, it’s an immediately groovable record with no shortage of catchy, accessible tunes like the opener “Gostiny Dvor” whose bubbly, flute-driven melody sounds like a forgotten hit single.  This is a record that compels you to keep flipping it over (and to keep doing that dorky little dance that you do when you’re fairly certain you’re alone with your record player) instead of browsing your shelves for what to listen to next.  [Note:  by “record”, I mean “not a CD”:  Secret Stash is a vinyl-only label, but their records do come with .mp3 download cards for those of us who love our iPods as much as our turntables.]

In advance of the release of Soviet Funk – Volume 2, Secret Stash is now offering a free .mp3 download of a track by Pomogite, the seven-minute “Ubijcy v Belyx Xalatax” (did I mention it’s instrumental?) – an explosive saxophone-driven jam full of firework syncopations and out-of-nowhere time changes, bookended by a couple of elegant solo electric piano meditations.   Proof that Volume 1 was no fluke – in fact, it’s a strong suggestion that Volume 2 is even better.  I can’t wait.