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Valery Ponomarev Jazz Big Band: Our Father Who Art Blakey

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Valery Ponomarev was 30 when he defected from Soviet Russia for the United States in 1973. Four years later the trumpeter was a core member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, touring and contributing to several recordings before bowing out to go the solo route, his place taken by a young Wynton Marsalis. Although he never became a major jazz name, Ponomarev has maintained a solid career, releasing albums as a leader and penning a memoir, but he still recalls those first dream-come-true days with Blakey with great fondness.

This new release, his first live album, serves as something of a sequel to 2001’s The Messenger, but it’s nothing like it. Where the earlier set was a quintet record in Blakey’s own small-group hard-bop tradition, for this new one Ponomarev reconstructs several signature Blakey performances for big band. In doing so, his ingenuity allows him to succeed where so many tributes fail.

Blakey’s theme song, Bobby Timmons’ “Moanin’,” opens the disc and sets the tone. For added cred, Ponomarev goes so far as to bring in Benny Golson, who played tenor saxophone on Blakey’s 1958 original, to reprise his role. Golson can still blow, and his blues-informed solo, gentler than the earlier one, works just as well among the sharp, theatrical accents Ponomarev favors as it did within the Messengers.

Ponomarev, whose trumpet alternately stings and soothes, is big on dynamics. A whispery piano and percussion passage in “No Hay Problemas,” one of two Duke Jordan tunes, is punctuated by short bursts of horn power, and Freddie Hubbard’s “Crisis” is a rhythmic rollercoaster doubling as a showcase for the leader’s athletic leaps. The finale, 15-plus minutes of “Blues March,” the other track featuring Golson, swings madly. Art for Art’s sake.

Originally Published