Saturday, June 14, 2008

Valery Ponomarev's Muscle Jazz - "Universal Language"

Steven Cerra [C] Copyright protected; all rights reserved.
Because his CDs are still available on Reservoir Music – - Mark and Kayla Feldman’s gift to recorded Jazz, and because the music on these recordings is very special and deserves to be heard by a wider audience, Jazzprofiles turns the “solo spotlight” [with apologies to Howard Rumsey] onto Valery Ponomarev.

“Universal language,” the subtitle of this feature, has a dual meaning. It not only denotes the name of Valery’s quintet, but it also connotes the qualities in Jazz that reach out and touch the soul of people everywhere as is borne witness to by the following anecdote.

One day, in the spring of 1961, Valery Ponomarev, an 18 year old Russian studying trumpet at a college in the then, Soviet Union would hear a Voice of America broadcast that a friend had taped.

What Valery heard that day was “Blues Walk” as performed by the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet and it would change his life, forever – “That was music! Pinpoint accuracy, excitement, beauty, logic. It was just too much, man … and I was ‘bug-bitten’ ever since.” [see reference to Nemeyer interview below, p. 108].

Ponomarev would go on to become a fierce and fiery proponent of the hard bop trumpet style that Brownie helped pioneer and which can be heard in some of its earliest, recorded manifestations in the Birdland performances issued on Blue Note featuring Lou Donaldson on alto sax, Horace Silver on piano, Curly Russell on bass and Art Blakey on drums [Blue Note CDP 32146-2; 32147-2].

Ironically, almost 25 years later, Valery was to join Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and be featured nightly on performances of “I Remember Clifford.” Valery would go on to record nine albums with the group after joining Blakey and the Jazz Messengers in 1977.

For more details of the various stages of his career, please see the in-depth interview Eric Nemeyer conducted with Valery which can be found in Volume 4, No. 3 of Jazz Improv Magazine, pp. 108 – 114. Back issues may be available by contacting

Here are a few excerpts from that interview that may help provide some insights into Valery’s style and his thoughts about music.

“Jazz Improv [JI]: “Once you have the vocabulary – the harmonic and melodic understanding, then soloing gets progressively easier. Working in a drummer-driven band [such as Blakey’s], I imagine that you begin to realize that it’s rhythm that’s really important.

Valery Ponomarev [VP]: Rhythmic, harmonic, melodic, form-wise , it’s all language. And to teach, or to learn to speak jazz is identical to learning to speak any language. Just like a baby starts with first sounds [vocalizes non-verbal sounds] …. And then he goes on and on until those speech particles become words, then become a string of words then become a sentence. And then the person’s just talking …, it’s the same way with improvising. At one point it all goes to the subconscious and you’re playing music.

JI: How did you develop your own sound?

VP: I tell you. Maybe blowing long tones and all that helped me to acquire the sound I’m playing with, but … to develop an original sound – you can’t really. I mean, you’re already given an original sound, like your own voice. You know, you speak without any accent, right? You speak perfect English, right? But when you pick up the phone … when I pick up the phone, and you’re on the other end of the line, I know it’s Eric.

JI: Right, the nature of the sound, the tone, the inflections, the articulation – that combination of elements are all there. You can’t help but be yourself.

VP: Do you know how you get the concept of sound? You listen, as a little baby. You listen to your parents talking, or whoever it is nearby – your grandmother, or close kin. Then it crystallizes into a total concept. Then you start speaking. That’s your voice. Of course, you physical set-up has something to do with it, but more than anything it’s what you hear. The same with me: the same with anybody. I listen to my heroes – Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Blue Mitchell, Nat Adderley, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis … and out of this crystallizes one sound that I want to play with. No matter what trumpet I pick up, sooner or later there will be exactly the same sound, anyway.”

And since Valery is “… also an accomplished composer of memorable themes” [Ian Carr, Fairweather, and Priestley, Jazz: Rough Guide, p.513], I thought it might be of interest to also cite this portion of the Jazz Improv interview with the question of:

“JI: How do you approach composition; that is, how do you begin a song and then develop it.

VP: I do not write just for the sake of new music. I basically work on it when I need it, especially if I have a recording date coming up and I know I need a certain number of new songs….

I apply everything I know about composition. Then, slowly but surely, melodies start to come. And then I catch myself walking the streets and singing these songs. Beautiful! And then I realize that all of a sudden I’ve written an original and I go home and write it down.

As far as technique, as far as compositional devices, it’s the same as playing a solo, it’s the same as telling a story. … It’s development – melodic, harmonic. And it’s emotional charge. Ultimately you have to touch your listener emotionally. … And when it moves me, it will move others. I never write just a string of notes just for the sake of putting … [something together]. That just doesn’t make sense to me.”

If you like your Jazz with Clifford Brown’s explosiveness, Art Blakey’s pulsation, both interwoven into unison-lined and closely harmonized hard bop compositions with lots of riffs, countermelodies, and interludes punctuating and propelling the soloists, you are going to love the music on the following CDs under Valery Ponomarev’s leadership. This is Muscle Jazz at it’s best and is guaranteed to have you bopping-on-down-the road with a huge smile of your face.

Means of Identification [RSR CD 101] was not only Valery Ponomarev’s debut CD, but also that of the Reservoir Music label’s. It was issued in 1985, about four years after Valery left The Jazz Messengers. Joining him on this set was Ralph Moore on tenor saxophone, Hideo Takao on piano [a last minute substitute for guitarist Kevin Eubanks], and the dynamite Engine Room duo of Dennis Irwin on bass and Kenny Washington on drums.

Ponomarev wrote six straight-ahead originals for the date – Dialogue, Means of Identification, Mirage, Fifteenth Round, Envoy and Take Care and he is also featured on his, by now, signature version of Benny Golson’s I Remember Clifford. Valery’s tunes all have their roots in hard bop and many of them have a variety of 4-bar or 8-bar motifs and riffs that serve to literally launch the next soloist into their improvisation. Everything is so well-constructed and such a joy to listen to and Kenny Washington’s various drums breaks are set up for him as though he were jumping to a volleyball net to deliver a can’t-miss-spike.

Richard Cook and Brian Morton had this to say about the recording in the Sixth Edition of the Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD:

“When Ponomarev was with The Messengers, Art let him loose on ‘I Remember Clifford’ night after night. It’s the outstanding performance here, a flowing, feeling solo on what the trumpeter considers to be one of the greatest jazz compositions ever. His admiration is evident, as it is for Art Blakey himself in “Envoy,’ a fresh and soulful original. The opening ‘Dialogue’ pits him against Moore, an exciting duel that recalls the great Blue Note recordings. No surprise that this session was made at the van Gelder studio in Englewood Cliffs, NJ. … Takao came in on short notice and sight read the charts with ease …. Irwin is a former Messenger, beautifully featured on ‘Mirage.’ Washington has his moment on ‘Dialogue’ and keeps things tight throughout.’

Three years later, in 1988, Valery and Reservoir followed this initial release with Trip to Moscow [RSR CD 107]. Such a journey was very much on the ex-patriate Ponomarev’s mind at a time when the years of the Brezhnev “freeze” was melting under the “glasnost” of the Gorbachev regime. This sentiment is also reflected in the titles of Valery’s originals on the date such as Gorky Park, Gettin’ to Bolshoi and Trip to Moscow. I particularly treasure the group’s arrangement of Irving Berlin’s The Best Thing for You which is done as an up-tempo cooker and it provides another superb examples of one of Valery’s 8-bar rhythmic interludes following each soloist that serves to propel everything forward in unrelenting, hard-bop style.
Ralph Moore on tenor saxophone once again joins Valery on the front-line and Dennis Irwin and Victor Jones return as the back-line with Larry Willis in on piano for the date. Lee Jeske had this to say about the recording in his insert notes :

“This is one of those easy-going, hard-blowing, hard bop dates that jazz fans cherish: the kind of session that Rudy van Gelder steered so many times for Blue Note and Prestige back in the hard bop heyday; the kind of session that Valery, Ralph, Larry, Dennis and Victor gobble up like a handful of Raisinets. These guys dig their heels in an blow, and if you think this is one of those ‘bands for a day,’ forget it. Ralph and Dennis have played in Valery’s band for years … Larry Willis and Victor Jones slide in like they’re oiled, and the date just slips along….”

1991 would see the release of Profile [Reservoir RSR CD 119] on which Valery is joined by Joe Henderson on tenor saxophone and Kenny Barron on piano with Essiet Essiet taking over for Dennis Irwin on bass. Victor Jones, who made such a large contribution to Trip to Moscow and is one of the most overlooked and/or under-appreciated drummers around continues to power the Engine Room.
Three more of Valery’s captivating originals are offered on this recording along with two standards – I Concentrate on You and My Shining Hour – and Richie Powell’s Time; all tunes that seem to appeal to the virtuoso side of Jazz trumpeters at one time or another during their career.

Messer’s Cook and Morton, in the Sixth Edition of the Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD commented on the recording in this fashion:

“Henderson makes an enormous difference …, as you’d expect, and his shrewd exchanges with the trumpeter are marked with the kind of wry humor and playfulness that sometimes gets lost in his more brooding work. Ponomarev’s tone … has become broader and more resonant in Henderson’s company. He also seems inclined to follow the saxophonist and let lines spin out an unravel at very much greater length, notably on a superb version of ‘I Concentrate On You,’ which is one of his key recorded moments. The rhythm section are flawless and the sound very rich and responsive. An excellent disc all around."

Here’s a review of the CD by Eugene Chadbourne from

“This is a dream date for Russian hard bop trumpeter Valery Ponomarev that should keep fans of the hard bop style of jazz wide awake. The program is an even mix of standard selections and the trumpeter's original compositions, which the band digs into with the type of appetite that might have been stimulated by the previous sentence. The truth is that Ponomarev is in fine form throughout. "I Was Afraid You'd Never Call Me" kicks off the album, the title perhaps a reflection on the career of this often-overlooked but never under-swinging trumpeter and composer. If this early-'90s session sounds exactly like an old Blue Note or Prestige session, it isn't just because of the players' style; engineer
Rudy Van Gelder was in the booth, doing his usual beautiful thing.”
Given how difficult it would have been to following such a superb studio recording, Valery and Reservoir cleverly switched to Live at Sweet Basil [Reservoir RSR CD 131] as their next release and also wisely added Don Braden on tenor saxophone, John Hicks on piano and Peter Washington on bass while keeping the irrepressible Victor Jones in the drum chair.
With the exception of Fred Lacey’s Theme for Ernie, all of the tunes on this recording are Ponomarev originals and the form and composition of each is explained to insert notes writer James Rossi along with these comments by Valery about the musicians in the group:

“John Hicks not only plays the contemporary language, but he also plays the instrument incredibly well. His pianism is on an extremely high level. He enjoyed playing my tunes so much that I really loved watching him play on this date. He was inside the music. It flattered the hell out of me.
Peter Washington provided such a reliable foundation that you can literally free yourself over it. His time and his swinging are so impeccable that it added a great deal to the overall excitement of the record.

Victor Jones is an extremely musical person. He responds and reacts so quickly. He feels music extremely deeply, and never just bangs the drums behind you. He plays the music and plays the tune. Whenever I solo, I feel his accompaniment; he’s not soloing behind me.

Don Braden has an incredible command of his instrument. As far as vocabulary is concerned, he’s on the cutting edge. He uses a lot of vocabulary that’s been recently introduced into the language. His tone, pitch, and ensemble work are beautiful. He feels very comfortable with the changes.”

And Cook and Morton had this to say in the form of glowing praise about Valery and the CD:

“The trumpeter’s love affair with the language of jazz has shown no signs of cooling….What has changed is the subtlety of Ponomarev’s perception. ‘Friend or Foe’ has a totally surprising twist [“At the end of the melody, instead of going into B-flat as you’d expect, the last chord is an A13.”] which everyone negotiates with ease but which might throw less seasoned players than Hicks or such carefully listening youngsters as Braden. The pianist is a key element on every cut of this crisply registered live session, but he excels himself on ‘Be Careful of Dreams’ and ‘Theme for Ernie.’ Jones turns out to be a key recruitment. On “My Alter Ego,’ … [Ponomarev has] a quiet flirtation with free jazz, [but] he never quite leaves the chords behind; … they are interpreted … within a much less regular pulse. Intriguing stuff.”

A Star for You was to follow in 1997 [Reservoir RSR CD 150] with a complete change of personnel. Scott Yanow offered the following in
“Valeri Ponomarev, one of the most underrated trumpeters in jazz, has a style based in the hard bop tradition of Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan, and Freddie Hubbard, yet he keeps an open mind toward newer developments. On this CD, he is teamed with tenor saxophonist Bob Berg (whose soulful post-bop style has long been influenced by Michael Brecker), the little-known but talented Philadelphia-based pianist Sid Simmons, bassist Ken Walker, and drummer Billy Hart
. The quintet performs six of the trumpeter's tricky yet swinging originals and a reharmonized rendition of "We'll Be Together Again." Ponomarev's very impressive range (hitting high notes with little difficulty), full sound and inventive ideas clearly inspire his sidemen .Berg puts plenty of passion into his solos, and Simmons makes one wish that he were recorded more extensively. Easily recommended to modern straight-ahead jazz collectors.”

And Cook and Morton were effusive in their praise giving the album 4-stars and a “Highly recommended.” They authors go on to say in their review [paragraphing modified]:

“Perhaps the vintage Universal Language to date. Hart is as revelatory as ever, a hugely musical drummer who always has ideas to impart and energy in superfluity.

Ponomarev makes it clear that this set is very much dedicated to the spirit and memory of Art Blakey…. The opening ‘Commandments from a Higher Authority’ is absolutely in the spirit of The Messengers’ great days, a wheeling driving theme which never quite comes to rest but exudes authority in every measure. ‘Uh Oh’ was apparently a Blakey vocal mannerism. It’s a more jocular idea and the trumpeter has fun trading figures with Hart.

Bob Berg is the key addition to this group, superb on ‘Dance Intoxicant’ and the long standard, ‘We’ll Be Together Again,’ adding a warm-toned confidence to every track. Simmons and Walker get to show why the got the call, playing with intelligence and taste, never over fussy, but subtle when the tunes calls for another dimension.

Back at van Gelder’s place, the band gets exactly the sound it deserves; rich and ringing with plenty of space round the horns and kit, but not so much that you feel the guys are working in parallel rather than as a unit.”

In 2000, Reservoir’s unwavering support of Valery and his music resulted in The Messenger [RSR CD 166].

Over the years, Valery has paired-off with on his recordings with Ralph Moore, Don Braden, Bob Berg and Joe Henderson all of whom are superb tenor saxophone players. This recording introduces to a wider audience another absorbing tenor saxophonist, Michael Karn, about whom Valery had this to say:

‘He’s a fine young talent. The first time I heard him I was amazed at how well he plays and how much music he knows. He’s a natural musician. Music is all he breathes, thinks, sleeps and eats and I’m so happy he’s on my record.”

One can recognize the influences of the likes of Coltrane [early years], Dexter Gordon, Hank Mobley and Joe Henderson in his playing. Karn’s solos on this CD are consistently well-constructed and interesting; they will serve to announce a fine new talent on today’s Jazz scene.

Perhaps the quality of Karn’s performance on this recording has something to do with Valery for as Bob Bernotas observes in his insert notes:

“Valery always seems to stimulate his sidemen to perform at their highest level and tell their own stories. ‘You know, I can’t argue with that,’ he agrees. ‘I actually do see the pattern. My personality, or the way I play, or whatever, is kind of contagious. And when musicians play with me, they tend to show their absolute best. I think I acquired that quality from Art Blakey, who knew how to help musicians let their best out. So, subconsciously, I, in turn, have helped people bring their best out of themselves.”

Speaking of “best,” there more of it on this recording as Jimmy Cobb assumes the drum chair and adds his defining presence to a rhythm section that continues with Sid Simmons on piano while introducing the young German bassist, Martin Zenker.

In addition to Stardust, an evergreen, which like I Can’t Get Started, it seems all Jazz trumpet players want to try their chops at, the album also contains six more of Valery’s original compositions with their characteristic complex and intricate lines, shifting tempos and imaginative harmonies – a veritable feast of hard bop from beginning to end.

In 2005, Reservoir issued Valery’s Beyond the Obvious [RSR CD 186] and although I have not had the opportunity to listen to its music at the time of this writing, for the sake of ‘completeness’ [with apologies to Michael Cuscuna], I located this review by Ken Dryden on and have included it as follows:

“Russian expatriate Valery Ponomarev has been an impressive trumpeter from the time he arrived in the U.S. after fleeing his homeland. This 2005 session pairs him with several younger musicians, including seasoned tenor saxophonist Don Braden, bassist Martin Zenker, and Juilliard student Jerome Jennings, who the leader compares favorably with veteran drummers. With Braden stuck in traffic, Ponomarev improvised a blues to warm up with the others and ended up with the peppy opener "You Dig, I Hear You, You Know What I Mean, Etc." The trumpeter makes use of the full range of his instrument in his expressive solo, also trading licks with Jennings. The blend of trumpet and tenor sax in Lee Morgan's slinky "Party Time" gives the piece a bit of an eerie flavor. His arrangement of "Chelsea Bridge" has more of a mournful air than the typical bittersweet setting of this landmark Billy Strayhorn composition. Ornette Coleman's "The Blessing" proves very accessible and features some great interplay and a bit of arco bass by Zenker. Ponomarev's Latin-tinged "Sale on Love," a barely disguised reworking of Cole Porters "Love for Sale," is a harmonically rich extended performance. The lack of a pianist is never a problem, as the musicians filled in the missing chords in their heads as they played their hearts out throughout this rewarding studio date.”

Clifford Brown left us some time ago; Max Roach only recently. Art Blakey is gone, too. But one would suspect that, from their vantage point in Jazz Heaven, listening to Valery Ponomarev and Kenny Washington/Victor Jones/Billy Hart would only serve to put a huge smile on their faces, respectively.

From your vantage point down-here-on-the-ground, these recordings will only serve to do the same.

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