Mastery, Mystique Prevail at Russia’s Sochi Jazz Festival

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Somi (left) Toru Dodo and Liberty Ellman perform at the Sochi Jazz Festival on Aug. 4.

(Photo: Courtesy Sochi Jazz Festival)

Although the vocalist Somi was only female headliner at Russia’s seventh annual Sochi International Jazz Festival, two other women made huge impressions.

One was bassist Daria Chernakova, 26, whose classical chops (she graduated from Moscow Conservatory), rhythmic suppleness, sensitive ear, soloistic skills and serve-the-music attitude enhanced sets by tenor saxophonist Sergei Gurbeloshvili’s quartet and trumpeter Alex Sipiagin’s quintet with alto saxophonist Will Vinson during the festival’s first two days.

On Aug. 6 on the festival’s outdoor stage, Chernakova applied her formidable skills to a trio led by Jack Sheynin, a strong technical drummer who emigrated to the States in 1979. (He’s now based in Brooklyn.) The third member was the formidable 43-year-old pianist Ivan Farmakovsky—a one-time pianist with Igor Butman’s quartet who is currently a top call for international musicians on tour in Russia.

Propelled by Sheynin’s judicious, accurate timekeeping, Chernakova and Farmakovsky dialogued throughout a six-tune, 50-minute set that—if you imagined Farmakovsky on a Steinway and not a Nord Piano 2 keyboard—would have passed muster a quarter-century ago at Bradley’s, the iconic Greenwich Village piano saloon.

Although the repertoire was “traditional,” both displayed complete freedom within the forms, telepathically switching between soloistic and supportive roles. Chernakova’s opening solo on Bill Evans’ “We Will Meet Again” comprised logical, swinging lines, conveyed with full-bodied, centered tone. After anticipating Farmakovsky’s every move on a snaky solo on Jobim’s “Chega De Saudade,” she uncorked another several choruses, centering every resonant note on a harmonically astute declamation.

Her staunch walking bass line cushioned Farmakovsky to do anything he wanted on a Monkish blues, and her solo on a well-known soul-jazz number (à la Junior Mance and Bobby Timmons) was requisitely greasy and consistently interesting.

Later that evening, at the Winter Theater, pianist-singer Natalya Smirnova grabbed the spotlight during the second half of a concert showcasing her husband, drummer Oleg Butman, and his older brother, saxophonist and festival producer Igor Butman.

After spending the entire day tending to her lively three-year-old daughter, Smirnova changed into a performance gown, applied her makeup, and offered a performance that embodied a famous quote about Ginger Rogers: “Sure, Fred Astaire was great, but don’t forget she did everything he did backwards—and in high heels.”

Perhaps thinking of their daughter, Smirnova and Oleg Butman opened with “Isn’t She Lovely.” Smirnova began with a bluesy, orchestral piano fanfare, sang the lyric soulfully, as though English was her native tongue, and, as Oleg Butman and bassist Sergei Korchagin locked in, sculpted a surging, contrapuntal solo that she self-accompanied with cohesive scatting. As Butman constructed a solo of complex rhythmic permutations, she played the rhythms back.

Sipiagin and Vinson augmented the trio for “Darn That Dream.” After Vinson’s lovely alto sax introduction, Sipiagin soloed on flugelhorn with pure tone, while Vinson was Bird-like on a lucid solo. When they were done, Butman launched precisely calibrated figures on the cymbal, over which Smirnova sang “I Got Rhythm” in elongated meter, and later—after Vinson’s feisty bebop solo and a clarion turn by Sipiagin—created fresh scat variations.

There followed a bravura husband-wife duo on “Take Five.” Smirnova abstracted the theme through a long section that evoked turbulent darkness before changing keys to evoke a lighter mood. She then uncorked a lengthy contrapuntal solo over the form that involved mutual deconstruction of the 5/4 meter. Smirnova and Korchagin duetted a few blues-imbued choruses on “In A Mellow Tone.” Here, Vinson’s long, serpentine lines channeled Benny Carter, and Smirnova scatted with fresh syllables. Then she left the stage, changed back into mom-wear, and again tended to her daughter.

The first half of the Saturday night concert, directed by Igor Butman, showcased the blind 26-year-old singer and piano virtuoso Oleg Akkuratov, with whom Butman recently recorded the album Golden Shadows (Butman Music).

Akkuratov opened the set with an unaccompanied classical, Russian-tinged fanfare, morphed the flow into a fast blues, and launched a declamation that refracted vocabulary from Duke Ellington, McCoy Tyner and Paul Bley, after which Butman soloed on tenor with vigor.

At the start of the next piece, Akkuratov played romantic, Tchaikovsky-esque piano variations, setting up a creamy Ellingtonian melody over Oleg Butman’s stately brush-stroked tempo. Igor Butman imposed a boudoir feel, then switched to double-time with a sequence of well-wrought arpeggios. That Akkuratov knows how to sustain a melodic through-line was apparent on his lovely, harmonically astute solo.

Oleg Butman swung buoyantly throughout Horace Silver’s “Nutville,” on which Sipiagin paid homage to Woody Shaw (the trumpeter on the source recording, from Cape Verdean Blues) with his own bravura sound; Igor Butman acknowledged Joe Henderson (also on the original version) with lines that swooped and soared; Akkuratov juxtaposed locked-hand passages with fleet lines, presaging Oleg Butman’s powerful, well-designed, groove-rich solo.

Later, Akkuratov applied his sonorous tenor to the refrain of Mary Hopkin’s 1968 pop hit, “Those Were The Days” (the melody of which is based on a Russian folk song). After scatting variations of the theme, he then rendered the lyric on tenor over Oleg Butman’s brisk ride cymbal. The final number, a cover of “I Feel Good,” sounded slightly fishy to American ears, but not to the Russian audience, particularly when Akkuratov, who seems innately attuned to blues expression, stretched out on a rollicking, sometimes dissonant solo that highlighted his powerful left hand, setting the stage for alpha-male declamations by Sipiagin and Butman.

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July 2021
Julian Lage
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