Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Igor Butman light up Crimea’s Koktebel Jazz Party

At the 2015 Koktebel Jazz Party weekend in Crimea, jazz was thrust into the political arena to an extent not seen in this part of the world since it was banned under Soviet rule. The festival owner Dmitry Kiselev, who started it all up in 2003, is not best known for being a jazz fan. But as a provocative TV news anchor and head of the state-owned international news agency Rossiya Segodnya (appointed by Vladimir Putin in 2013) he’s as notorious as they come. Putin’s so-called spin doctor has been blacklisted by the EC since Russia's takeover of Crimea in 2014. Keeping politics out of jazz therefore proved an impossible task at this year’s event.

It started with the news that American artists including Arturo Sandoval and German nu-jazzers De-Phazz had pulled out of the festival following ‘pressure’ to stay at home from the state authorities and fear of a touring ban in both the Ukraine and EC countries. Since the “reunification”, the Festival has been split into two. Kiselev's ex-partner is Ukrainian and keeps the title Koktebel Jazz Festivalthough it’s now held in Odessa. Meanwhile Koktebel Jazz Partystays on its original site, a highly atmospheric, secluded strip of heavenly coastline by the Black Sea in the eastern part of what is now Russian Crimea.

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For the evening performances on the beach, an enthusiastic audience of jazz lovers replaced the daily throng of sun worshippers; Koktebel was a major seaside resort during Soviet times. But it was a very conservative selection of predominantly Moscow-based bands that performed for the most part on a mega-buck stage of rock festival proportions. Among the best of the bunch was a stylized tribute to Jimmy Smith (Vladimir Nesterenko Organ Quartet), an enjoyable if highly derivative take on Woody Herman's Four Brothers (Four Tenor Sax) and a cool modern jazz standards group (Yakov Okun’s International Jazz Quintet). The latter featured the first prominent international guest, the Israeli New York-based trumpeter Avishai Cohen, his richly expressive phrasing and vocalised tone absorbed from Jewish song traditions.

The Israeli connection was further established later with a superjam in which a quartet on a big screen via satellite from Tel Aviv exchanged licks with an onstage Russian horn section. A brief event that nevertheless sticks in the memory for reasons other than the music; the backdrop of an image of a Star of David joined to the Russian tricolour, is the stuff of nightmares for the ‘liberal’ westerner. Far and away the best Russian jazz offering came via the saxophonist Igor Butman, a national hero and Wynton Marsalis-like ambassador for jazz in his home country. Indeed his ensemble was like the Russian equivalent of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, with a repertoire that paid tribute to Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington, through which the robust, Brecker-ish Butman proved a compelling soloist as well as arranger. His performance was the only one that defied the US authorities’ warning about playing in Crimea; Butman has dual Russian-US citizenship. He was not, he argued, (at one of the numerous press conferences) in Crimea on business but as always because of his passion to play music and promote jazz, and compared the authority’s response, in a peculiar twist of irony, to the censorship on jazz artists in Soviet times. He reminded us of the Russian musicians who had played jazz in the Soviet era in spite of the dangers then.

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Dmitry Kiselev mirrored Butman’s sentiments entirely, expressing his hopes that “jazz will be above politics”. Sat in a press conference next to the recently appointed official head of Crimea, his plea was far less convincing. Yet very happy to perform were the saxophonist Antonio Di Battista and pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba from Italy and Cuba respectively. Di Battista’s set was based on his upcoming CD dedicated to Women from Mary Bloom through to Coco Chanel and was playful and high-spirited if a little too eager to please; But it was Rubalcaba’s Volcán Quartet – featuring the brilliant drummer HoracioEl Negro’ Hernandez – that stole the show with a thrillingly percussive, polyrhythmic blend of folklorist clave beats and contemporary jazz. With this calibre of musician and its special location, Koktobel Jazz Party has the potential to become a Jazz à Juan of the East. But the large amount of political manoeuvring behind the scenes makes that seems a very long way off for now.

– Selwyn Harris

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