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Yakov Okun


Liner Notes to CD "New York Encounter", Criss Cross Jazz.


Amongst the international fraternity of improvisers who play in Russia, the abilities of the Moscow-based pianist Yakov Okun are anything but a well-kept secret. At 38, Okun "who leads a strong all-Russian trio with Makar Novikov on bass and Alexander Mashin on drums, and also sidemans with the profound trumpeter German Lukyanov "has toured both in Europe and his homeland with a multi-generational cohort of luminaries, a short-list of which includes Lew Tabackin, James Spaulding, Eddie Henderson, Craig Handy, Mark Turner, Donny McCaslin, Jimmy Greene, Alex Sipiagin, Gary Smulyan, Larry Schneider, and Jeremy Pelt.

For a sense of the breadth and strength of Okun’s conception, and his powerful chops, go to Youtube and look for a clip that documents him on the bandstand with the late bebop master Johnny Griffin, who has just finished soloing on “Lover Man,” Okun uncorks a long, relaxed, swinging, “horn-like” solo with enough inventive twists and turns to keep Griffin smiling, clapping his hands, placing hands to heart, and verbally signifying "when the pianist seems ready to conclude his declamation, he compliments him by requesting another chorus.

Okun displays similar prowess and scope throughout his Criss-Cross debut, a powerful trio recital with New York A-listers Ben Street on bass and Billy Drummond on drums that spans three Okun originals and five songs drawn from the less-investigated corners of the jazz canon. Though they had just a single rehearsal to absorb the material, the trio interacts in equilateral triangle fashion, spurred by the leader, a bebop devotee who doesn’t play licks, inhabits a broad timeline of vocabulary with deep soul, a sense of humor, and an endless will to swing, and executes his ideas with crisp authority, nuanced touch, and imaginative flair. While he navigates pathways that are far from virgin territory, it’s clear that Okun has found an aesthetic room of his own.

“My first records were Duke Ellington, Horace Silver, Charles Mingus with Eric Dolphy and Jaki Byard "the highest, best-taste music,” Okun says of the first principles that guide his musical production. “It’s a main point of how I want to play.”

The records to which Okun refers belonged to his father, Mikhail Okun, one of the most prominent Russian jazz pianists of his generation, who built his collection on LPs purchased by Soviet diplomats during their postings in the West. Although Yakov listened to them "and to Thelonious Monk, the Bill Evans Trio, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Tadd Dameron, Bud Powell, and a host of others "throughout his formative years, he played exclusively classical music until age 16.

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