Thursday, December 31, 2015

Valery Ponomarev Big Band Our Father Who Art Blakey

Shortly after his arrival in the US in 1973 after leaving the Soviet Union, trumpeter Valery Ponomarev met Art Blakey, who would become his mentor and "jazz father." The years he spent as one of Blakey's Jazz Messengers left a firm imprint on him and now four decades later, with the Valery Ponomarev Big Band, recorded a tribute to Blakey, "Our Father Who Art Blakey" (Zoho), transforming a number of songs associated with the legendary drummer and his most famous ensemble into big band charts which were recorded at Dizzy's Coca Cola Club at Jazz at Lincoln Center and at the Zinc Bar. The booklet accompanying this CD did not include the members of the big band who are: Saxophones –Todd Bashore, Chris Hemingway, Peter Brainin, Steve Carrington, Anthony Nelson; Trombones – , Stafford Hunter, Alvin Walker, David Wight, Jack Jeffers; Trumpets – Rick Henly, Miki Hirose, Josh Evans, Waldron Ricks; Piano – Mamiko Watanabe; Bass – Ruslan Khain and Drums – Victor Jones. For the Zinc Bar, Andrew Gould replaced Brainin; Corey Wallace replaced White; Danny Hall replaced Walker and Ricks replaced Allen with Benny Golson appearing on the two numbers from this performance.

Ponomarev, discussing transforming Blakey's small group charts for a big band, suggests that it was not the challenge it might seem. He observes that if one listens to Blakey's music, it is already big band already and notes Blakey's own background in big bands. Ponomarev also states in his arrangements that he quotes some of the solos from the originals. Listening to this recording, one is impressed by how he has maintained so much of the feel of Blakey's music.

After a brief overture from the leader, the band launches into Bobby Timmons' classic "Moanin'" which features strong solos from Ponomarev and Golson and some nice scoring. The rhythm section of Watanabe, Khain and Jones is superb  in capturing the snap, crackle and pop of the original recording, and Watanabe's own solo is punctuated by riffs of the brass and reeds and Khain solos as well. Freddie Hubbard's "Crisis" features Josh Evans' trumpet which is thoughtful, imaginative and capable of considerable heat followed by a strong tenor solo from Carrington and fervent trombone from Hunter.

Ponomarev's rationale for including Duke Jordan's "Jordu" is based on Clifford Brown's association with Blakey as well as Brown being his main trumpet hero. The band arrangement is based on Brown's solo from the classic Clifford Brown & Max Roach recording, and provides the foundation for  solos from Rogers on trumpet and Brainin on tenor sax for this fresh interpretation of a jazz classic. Victor Jones helps lay the Latin rhythmic foundation for another Duke Jordan composition, "No Hay Problema," that Blakey performed for the film "Les Liaisons Dangereuses." Evans and Carrington both are afforded considerable solo space by the 56-bar form of the composition, and Evans (who I have seen with the Evans-Lacy Legacy Band) impresses with his mix of mellowness and fire. The leader's scoring of his horns is splendid.

Ponomarev's original "Gina's Cooking" post-dates his time with Blakey and the composition has a Mingus-like flavor with tempo changes. It showcases Anthony Nelson's take no prisoner's baritone and alto sax from Bashore before Jones takes a short solo as well as pushes the performance on.
The album concludes with Golson's classic "Blues March," which Golson recalled writing after Blakey mentioned he had never played a march. Jones sets the tone and groove before Ponomarev and Golson, the two Blakey alumni, each solo at length. Trombonist Wallace, alto saxophonist Bashore and pianist Watanabe also stretch out on the recording's longest performance.

"Our Father Who Art Blakey" is a real gem of a big band recording with classic compositions, superb arrangements and terrific ensemble playing in support of the marvelous solos that were enthusiastically received.

I received my review copy from a publicist. Here is the Band in performance.

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