Valery Ponomarev’s latest release, The Messenger, reminds us that he still is a leading jazz trumpet player who has remained consistent through his years on the scene. His tone is still as bright as ever, and his licks are entirely appropriate for the solos he improvises, and his presence elevates the sidemen who work with him. Even though he doesn’t seem to call his group Universal Language any longer, Ponomarev’s style still is one that makes use of music as a wordless language that can reach the hearts of listeners and unify them in spirit. In that sense, Ponomarev, first coming to public attention as a Jazz Messenger, is a messenger in a larger sense of the word, as are all jazz musicians who become a channel for a universal message. That message usually involves truth.
Ponomarev’s journey to the realization of truth was one that few other jazz artists have taken: surreptitious flight from from his native country by deceit. But it worked. Pretending to be part of a legal Jewish emigration exodus, Ponomarev joined them and flew from the country to Vienna. And eventually to America. Where he met his idol, Art Blakey. And more unbelievably, played in the group that he used to hear over Voice Of America.
Some of those experiences are reflected in The Messenger as Ponomarev gives names and musical description to some of his experiences.
“Escape From Gorky Park” symbolizes his flight from Russia, the repression of his music more than he could stand. Playing in fits and starts and then breaking into a run, Ponomarev’s fleeing eventually results in freedom at the end of the tune. The minor-keyed “Dark Alley” wordlessly describes the fearsome walk in the shadows at night (again reminiscent of the poorly lit alleys of MoscowI’ve seen them). And “Driving To A Gig II,” with its 3/4 sway, refers to Ponomarev’s thoughts as he hurries along the interstate highway to a club, his ideas coming from nowhere and taking shape along the way.
But then he relaxes on “Stardust,” paying tribute to the succession of trumpet players who have performed the famous tune, including Ponomarev’s idol, Clifford Brown.
Once again, Ponomarev is backed by an exceptional group. Michael Karn’s deep tone is entirely reminiscent of the same richness of Ralph Moore’s or Bob Berg’s, earlier Universal Language musicians. Sid Simmons brings a harmonic depth to the tracks, elaborating on the implications of the horns’ work instead of resulting to unimaginative comping. And then there’s Jimmy Cobb, one of the most famous drummers in all of jazz, providing the feel for the tunes that magnetizes the group toward the rhythmic center.
Solidly within hard-bop territory, Valery Ponomarev nevertheless personalizes the work on The Messenger, as he always has, to allow the listener a glimpse into the events that made him into one of the most interesting, and most under-recognized, trumpeters in jazz.
Track Listing: Driving To A Gig II, Messenger From Russia, Long Distance Relationship, Escape From Gorky Park, Dark Alley, Star Dust, Mirage
Personnel: Valery Ponomarev, trumpet; Michael Karn, tenor sax; Sid Simmons, piano; Martin Zenker, bass; Jimmy Cobb, drums