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Koktebel Jazz Party, Crimea

Andy Hamilton enjoys the playing of Tom Harrell, Valery Ponomarev and others at a kind of Blackpool on the Black Sea.

Valery Ponomarev

At a press conference in Koktebel, festival founder Dmitry Kiselev explained the difficulties his Ukrainian team faced this year in Crimea. In its 12th season, the festival, like Crimea itself, has had a change of ownership, and the event was put together in just three months – while another festival, Jazz Koktebel, was begun in Odessa. "I wish success to my friends. The more jazz festivals the better", Kiselev added.

Ultra-cautious UK Foreign Office advice was not to travel to Crimea, and for those already there to leave immediately. It was no surprise, therefore, that apart from musicians, I didn't meet anyone from outside Russia or Ukraine – but then Crimea has never been an international tourist destination. According to the proprietor of one of the many pizza outlets along the seafront, there are fewer tourists than last year. But at this small version of Blackpool on the Black Sea, people were friendly or at least benignly curious towards a non-Russian speaker – except perhaps for the man wearing a Putin T-shirt, who I avoided.

The programme was a mix of musicians from the former Soviet Union – their names not always easy for me to decipher, as the programme was in Russian – and major visiting players. Day one featured the enjoyable fusion of Andrei Kondakov and the Brazil All Stars with Sergio Brandau, followed by jazz-rock from Russia, with a Russian Mike Brecker and a Russian Mike Stern – it was clear how the intricate chromatic lines of this style are traced back to bebop. The International Jazz Quintet of Yakov Okun and veteran American vocalist Deborah Brown (pictured below) concluded the evening. The second day began with the Khuun-Khuur Tu band, featuring a Tuvan throat-singer, followed by more standard issue jazz-rock – this was getting a little predictable – and a jazz-rock-driven Cuban band. The final set, though, put things into perspective.

There have been great Russian jazz players – not many, but including Sergei Kuryokhin, and the Ganelin Trio. But the greatest, I'd say, is trumpeter Valery Ponomarev. Ponomarev defected from the Soviet Union in 1973, and from 1977 worked for four years with Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers – the only white trumpeter that Blakey had, and fully equal to any of that stellar list. Appropriately given his fanatical and understandable devotion to the late lamented bebop master, he performed at the Clifford Brown Memorial Concert in 1991, with Max Roach and Harold Land. He first returned to Russia after the fall of communism in 1990, and has returned often since.

Miles Davis famously retorted to a criticism of Art Blakey – "If Art Blakey's old-fashioned, I'm white!" With the test of time, we can see that Blakey is a classic, whose work Ponamarev returns to as a living tradition, with his We Remember Art Blakey sextet. (His big band has the unforgivable title Our Father Who Art Blakey.) A superb line-up featured Peter Brainin (tenor sax), Stafford Hunter (trombone), Mamiko Watanabe (piano), Rouslan Khain (bass) and Victor Jones (drums). In a stirring, inspired version of Blues March, Brainin's solo quoted extensively from Monk's Epistrophy. A plangent Chelsea Bridge followed, and on All Of Me, trombonist Stafford Hunter did a crowd-pleasing vocal. The leader is clearly a crowd favourite, and his bravura style, rich, burnished tone and unobvious lines were a consistent delight. This was a real festival set, mixing art and entertainment.

The third evening featured a set that was all art, but which still communicated. It was the surprise of the festival, for me – an extraordinary performance by the Tom Harrell Quintet, with Jaleel Shaw on tenor sax, Danny Grissett and piano and keyboards, Ugonna Okegwo on bass, and Johnathan Blake on drums. I'd regarded Harrell as a technically assured but rather unexciting player – maybe this was true of the recordings I heard, but it now looks a totally mistaken judgment, on the evidence of this amazing performance. Harrell has played with many of the leading players in jazz, including Horace Silver, Phil Woods, Bill Evans and Charlie Haden. The Clifford Brown influence is apparent in his work as in Valery Ponomarev's, but their manner couldn't be more different.

The first three numbers were especially austere and minimal, but with a hypnotic pull – themes were fragmentary, minimal frameworks for improvisation. The tenor solos could have been mistaken for standard contemporary Coltrane, but were designed to enhance the total ethos – a very modal style, but exploiting chromaticism. The band knew exactly what Harrell was trying to do, and the pianist in particular was immediately convincing. The mood changed completely with a duo version of Body And Soul by Harrell, lyrical and poignant on flugelhorn, supported only by bass. I left during one of the final numbers, a funky, churning original with Grissett moving to electric keyboard. Harrell stood as still as a statue throughout, gaunt and head bowed, eyes closed – I've never seen such striking disengagement from the audience, in total contrast with Ponomarev, and no doubt due to the debilitating schizophrenic condition with which he has struggled for many years. What is amazing is that despite this affliction, he can set out an artistic vision and communicate it to his fellow musicians and audiences. His music does demand to be heard live – though his recent recordings on HighNote, featuring the same musicians except for Wayne Escoffery on tenor, feature the same mix of originals and thoughtfully realised standards.

In support were the Russian-US quartet with truly basic Coltrane jazz, followed by the Alex Hutchings Band, led by the British guitarist, whose soaring lines were indebted to John McLaughlin. With James Morton on alto sax, he produced some pleasant jazz-rock, though with a penultimate number of surpassing ugliness. The final evening held fewer surprises. The Jamal Thomas Band, led by Maceo Parker's drummer, was the main feature, but the highlight was Club des Belugas from Germany. Compared to many festival stages with their remoteness and over-amplification, this was a good achievement at Koktebel – my only complaint was being dazzled by the rotating stage lights, presumably to allow the cameramen to see and film the audience. But then those guys with the cameras, they always think the show's put on for their benefit.

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