Review: Koktebel Jazz Party

Simon Adams heads out east to Crimea's Koktebel Jazz Party and encounters President Putin and an international lineup of musicians

Having long made an annual pilgrimage to the North Sea Jazz Festival and thought myself quite adventurous, the pursuit of the perfect jazz festival has taken me much further afield in recent years. Greece, Malta and even Haiti have beckoned me with their charms, but none has won me over as much as the Koktebel Jazz Party in Crimea. Not so much for the music, of which more later, nor for the fact that this is the first festival I have ever attended with a head of state in attendance. More, too, of Mr Putin later. But for the pleasure of listening to jazz on a sunny beach in a fine seaside resort with welcoming company and some of the cheapest food and drink it is possible to buy, this festival takes some beating.

Koktebel itself is a small resort in southeast Crimea established by the artist Maximilian Voloshin and a group of Russian bohemians in the early 1900s. Previously a haven for Bulgarian refugees, the village soon became a fashionable artistic retreat, maintaining that air of easy and stylish living to this day. One end of the resort has a long pedestrian broadwalk along the seafront lined with bars and restaurants. The other end is a delightful collection of boathouses, with iron tracks running down into the sea to allow fishing and pleasure boats to be easily launched from their trolleys. With a fine summer climate and wonderful views over the Black Sea, Koktebel is a small but highly enjoyable resort without any of the intensity of its Mediterranean rivals.

The festival took place over three days, although unfortunately a thunderstorm of biblical proportions washed away the opening concerts on Friday evening. The festival therefore began afresh on Saturday, taking place in a seated open-air auditorium on the beach that allowed large crowds to gather on the beach itself and listen in from their deckchairs and beach towels.

Joe Lastie’s New Orleans Sound (pictured left) was first up, a group of visiting American musicians whose love of their home city and its music infected every note they played. I enjoy New Orleans music for the pleasure it brings, but why is its repertoire so limited? How many more versions of Hello Dolly or When The Saints Go Marching In do we need to hear, especially as this is a city that has given us much of the blues repertoire as well as, more recently, Allen Toussaint, Dr John and the Neville Brothers?

Far better were the Messengers From Russia led by Valery Ponomarev, who played trumpet with Art Blakey’s band in the late 1970s and keeps the Messengers’ flame alive today. His was a classic hard-bop set, full of power and commitment. Next up was the Brill Family, a Russian family outfit of a piano trio plus two saxophonists. They played a modernist twist on the blues and a fine version of Kokomo, although the two saxophonists were too verbose for my taste. The trio, however, was outstanding, father Igor Brill an ironic commentator on each piece. The evening’s events were concluded by the German Club de Belugas, a nu-jazz outfit I missed when tiredness overwhelmed me.

Away for the main stage, music also took place in the grounds of Voloshin’s seaside dacha. Friday’s group were billed as Crimea’s Young Talents – think a juvenile Britain’s Got Talent and you are in the right direction. It is a tad uncomfortable to see girls as young as 10 or 12 sing Janis Joplin or Aretha Franklin songs in the original English, and to do it so well. Less incongruous was Saturday’s performance from the Big Band of the Children’s Art School of the Moscow Department of Culture – Stalinist nomenclature dies hard in modern Russia – whose set moved from fine big-band workouts through to some impassioned Russian folk songs. Their section playing was first-rate, although the soloing was at times tentative. However, a diminutive trumpeter excelled – and was given an ice cream later for his efforts as he was too young to drink – while an even younger and even smaller accordion player who was invisible behind his music stand played his little socks off with a swinging set of performances. I missed Sunday’s show, but apparently the vocal Domisolka went down well, with one brave youngster turning Queen’s I Want to Break Free into an empowering torch-song triumph. On principle, I also missed a jazz performance with live dolphins and performing seals at the local dolphinarium.

Back on the main stage for Sunday’s performances, the Double Bass Project (pictured right) opened proceedings with one of those festival shows that makes sense on paper but fails the musical test. A basic line-up of piano, bass and vocalist was joined by two double basses, which in reality added little to proceedings. Attention naturally focused on the vocalist, a rich-toned singer not afraid to experiment with the material, which ranged from the Beatles and Bye Bye Blackbird to her own songs. In such circumstances, the bass players just muddled each other up, which was a shame, since without the vocalist they could have shone. Next up was the Brazil All Stars, in reality more Portuguese in their moody intonation than an effusive Brazilian outfit.

Highlight of the day was undoubtedly the Yakov Okun International Ensemble, a piano-led group with two saxophonists, one of whom was the American Lew Tabackin. His acerbic attack contrasted nicely with that of his more sweet-toned comrade, making the set a pleasurable delight. Midway through, however, it was noticeable that the security round the stage had increased considerably, and rumours had started to fly. After a brief announcement and amid a blinding flash of cameras and phones, President Putin (picured below left) strode on to the stage. For a politician he was remarkably succinct, speaking for barely one minute and managing to mention “jazz”, “culture” and “Crimea” before he strode off with a wide grin on his face. Presidential elections are due in Russia in March 2018. Once everyone had calmed down, the Eddie Palmieri Latin Jazz Band brought proceedings to a tumultuous close.

For those willing to jump through the bureaucratic hoops of the Russian visa system, the Koktebel Jazz Festival is well worth the effort for foreigners. Flights are through Moscow and then south to Simferopol, Crimea’s capital, and on by bus or car to the resort. The Russian occupation of Crimea in 2014 is barely evident, and while security is present, it is not obtrusive. The British Foreign Office advises against all travel to Crimea and offers no consular services there. In reality, the only possible comeback is from Ukraine, which still considers Crimea to be part of its territory. If it discovered you had been to Crimea, it might impose a travel ban on any future visits you might want to make to Ukraine itself. Travelling Americans faced similar advice from the US State Department, but as one of Joe Lastie’s musicians said, “Since when have the State Department done anything for me that I might want to obey them now?”

Throughout the festival, I was made to feel very welcome. Local people all wanted to try out their schoolchild English and the organisers fell over themselves to be helpful to the press. Endless press conferences with all the musicians took place every day, and any question could be asked and would be answered, although I drew the line at listening to a simultaneous translation of the fine words of the deputy chairman of the Russian State Duma’s Committee on Nationalities, or of his colleague from the civic chamber of Crimea. I am sure they both spoke well. A veritable charm offensive was launched in my direction headed by a seriously impressive and extremely efficient and charming PR manager from Moscow. I must say it worked, as I returned from Koktebel in full support of their festival, which I hope goes from strength to strength.

For more details of the festival, please visit the Koktebel Jazz Festival website.

Photos by Rossiya Segodnya - International Information Agency.

[Simon would like to acknowledge the generous support of the Koktebel Jazz Festival and in particular thank Kristina Lyakh for getting him safely to and from the festival and for looking after him so well while he was there.]

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