Despite playing in Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers somewhere between Freddie Hubbard and Wynton Marsalis, Valery Ponomarev hasn't gotten a whole lot of attention, but he was and is an impressive trumpeter. On The Messenger he plays with a quintet that includes the great drummer Jimmy Cobb and three younger postbop players, tenorman Michael Karn, pianist Sid Simmons and bassist Martin Zenker.
Ponomarev's at the top of his game here. Influenced by Clifford Brown, he frequently plays a lot of notes, articulating precisely but also with lightness and grace. His upper-register work is not only accurate and strong but also musical: his high notes are intelligently integrated into the overall fabric of his solos; he's not screaming just to show off. And he's thinking all of the time; while his spots are complex, he doesn't fall back on cliches or pet phrases. Ponomarev's also got a pretty tone with a unique, fast vibrato, in evidence on his gorgeous, nuanced take on "Stardust." Aside from "Stardust," Ponomarev wrote the compositions on the CD, and they hold up very well; they're not just vehicles for improvisation. Dig in particular the beautiful, undulating "Long Distance Relationship." Karn swings his tail off and constructs his spots intelligently, but is derivative, owing too much to 1950s tenormen, particularly Sonny Stitt and Sonny Rollins.