Koktebel Jazz Party, Crimea, Russia

Now in its 15th year, the Koktebel Jazz Festival is long established in this Crimean resort on the shores of the Black Sea. Rupert Parker reports.

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It’s not like the old days of going behind the Iron Curtain but there’s something exotic about journeying to Putin’s Russia, particularly when you’re going for a jazz festival. It’s a long slog to get to this part of the world. First of all a flight to Moscow, an overnight in the airport hotel, then another flight to Simferopol, capital of Crimea, before another two hour drive to Koktebel.

Apart from the clusters of Soviet era blocks of flats in the capital, Crimea seems remarkably empty and there’s no obvious military presence. The road takes me across a treeless landscape, covered in wide flat fields of burnt stubble, before climbing slightly, and then dipping down to the coast. Here the fields are full of vines, plump with grapes, ready to be harvested and I learn that the region is famous for its local cognac.

Koktebel has a broad bay, bookended at one end by the Kara Dag Mountain, an extinct volcano, eroded into a sharp point. It was a tiny village of Bulgarian refugees until the Russian poet Maximilian Voloshin came here in the 1900’s and put it on the map. Other bohemians followed and it became a playground for the intelligentsia. In the 20’s and 30’s the Soviet aerospace industry tested gliders in the hills above the Black Sea.

These days, it’s a slightly faded holiday resort with a prom packed with tattoo artists, fortune tellers, candy floss stalls and even one of those punch balls which you pound to get a readout of your strength. It reminds me of the British seaside sixty years ago but there are only Russians here, enjoying a cheap family holiday, and nobody misbehaves. It’s like a parallel universe, familiar on the surface, yet underneath little possibility of communication. Few people understand English here.

The festival site is by the sea, right next to the nudist beach. There are a few hundred seats and space for others to stand on the shore. A large covered stage is kitted out with a state of the art lighting rig, there’s a video display and of course a sophisticated sound system. Now who’s going to be playing is a bit of a mystery as the website, apart from naming Russians who I’m not familiar with, is particularly vague.

I wonder if this is because they’re only booking the acts at the last minute but I’m told it’s to prevent musicians being singled out for harassment. The status of Crimea is still disputed internationally, and many Western governments warn against travel here. Indeed Joe Lastie, the New Orleans drummer, tells me the US State Dept. told him not to come. Apparently they said they wouldn’t be able to help if he got into trouble. He replied that they’d never been able to help him in the past so why should he worry.

Unfortunately a huge thunder storm makes the first night a washout, long forks of lightning posing an obvious safety risk. Strangely, the performances are not rescheduled and the musicians depart without playing a note. I never do find out who I’ve missed as it’s still a secret. Sergei Golovnya’s Russian Big Band were meant to open but they disappear with the rest without a trace.

It’s fine and sunny the next day so, in the afternoon, I attend a matinee performance in the leafy gardens of the poet Voloshin’s former residence. The performers are the Jazz Orchestra of the Children’s Art School of the Moscow Department of Culture and they’re rather good. I like the diminutive boy accordion player, completely dwarfed by his instrument, who plays beautifully nonetheless.

The evening is dry and the festival kicks off with Joe Lastie’s New Orleans Sound, a complete band all the way from Louisiana. They do the Saints and all the old favourites including Louis Armstrong’s greatest hits and the crowd love them. I can’t fault their playing but I wish their repertoire was slightly more adventurous. Next up is Valery Ponomaryov, the Russian trumpet player from Art Blakey’s late 70’s Jazz Messengers. He has a competent all Russian band and they play the music of Art Blakey from that period.

The highlight of the night, though, is the Brill Family, dad on the piano and his two boys on horns, who do manage to push the envelope, with the help of an excellent rhythm section. The sons tend to play too many notes, but the playing of Igor Brill is a delight. You never quite know where he’s going in his solos, which makes for exciting listening.

Next day I’m back at the afternoon stage, to see Domisolka, young musicians from a performing arts school in Moscow. They’re backed by a strong rhythm section and give stirring vocal performances, all in English. It’s a bit like a version of Russia’s Got Talent and none the worse like that. They run through some soul selections, a few jazz standards and even a torch song version of Queen’s I Want to be Free. The standout is a Bobby McFerrin wannabee who really delivers the goods.

In the evening, it’s back to the main stage to see the Double Bass Project, with New York drummer Gregory Hutchinson and a cool vocalist. They’re followed by the Brazil All Stars who do exactly what it says on the tin. Moscow pianist, Yakov Okun’s International Ensemble, turns out to have US tenor player Lew Tabackin as a surprise guest and sparks fly between him and the Russian tenor.

I’m enjoying their set when suddenly there’s another surprise. President Vladimir Putin walks onto the stage and delivers a few words about how music is a universal language that unites peoples. He disappears into the night but has already stolen the thunder of the next act, the Eddie Palmieri Latin Jazz Band. They’re topping the bill but I’m on my way home – I’ve already seen the headliner.

Koktebel Jazz Party has more information about the festival.