For a place that was so recently in the eye of a political storm, Koktebel feels almost negligently laid back. This dusty Black Sea resort town was once a hangout for bohemian intellectuals, most famously turn-of-the-century poet Maximilian Voloshin and his circle, but has been a popular holiday destination since Soviet times. Nowadays it’s a bit like the Crimean equivalent of Margate, or perhaps Skegness, known for its hang-gliding, local brandy and pebbly, naturist beaches – which sounds like an accident waiting to happen.
Wander along the main drag and it’s all bouncy castles and bulgy bronzed bodies, jet skis, inflatables, ferris wheels and shooting galleries, though here they use decommissioned AK47s for the pellet guns. You get the impression that everyday life is much as it was before the Russian annexation of 2014. According to the locals there are slightly fewer tourists around, but it’s still heaving. Business as usual.
Koktebel Jazz Party has never been quite the same however. Founded in 2003 as a joint Russian-Ukrainian venture, it has been Russian-only since 2014, when the Ukrainian contingent left to set up their own version in Odessa. The past two editions have been marred by politics, with artists, including De-Phazz and Arturo Sandoval, pulling out following pressure from their home governments.
Koktebel © Thomas Rees
I worried a great deal about coming here for fear of tacitly condoning the occupation, saying the wrong thing or indicating any kind of support for the views of the festival’s director, Dmitry Kiselev, a notorious TV news anchor appointed by Putin to head-up government owned news agency Rossiya Segodnya in 2013. He was recently described by The Economist as Russia’s ‘propagandist-in-chief’.
But I was told that the 2016 edition would be different. Koktebel Jazz Party was a cultural event, designed to promote ‘honesty, internationality and artistic freedom’. This year all of the US bands would be announced on the day to avoid any hassle for the musicians and Kiselev (a dedicated jazz fan) would be taking a weekend off from the kind of jingoistic punditry that has landed him on the EU sanctions list – describing Ukraine as a failed state for instance, or making sabre-rattling comments about the size of Russia’s nuclear arsenal. Politics was to have nothing to do with it.
Dmitry Kiselev © Evgeniya Novozhenina/Rossiya Segodnya
Almost inevitably, that didn’t come to pass. This year’s logo was red, white and blue for a start (the colours of the Russian flag) and Kiselev couldn’t help mentioning in his opening night speech that Koktebel Jazz had been given a ‘second wind’ by the occupation (questionable when you look at line-ups and photos from previous years). Arina Novoselskaya, Minister of Culture of the Republic of Crimea (one of several political attendees) went a step further, describing the peninsula as ‘the embodiment of a free Russia’ in an address that was anything but apolitical.
With the Russian Ministry of Culture and lead sponsor Smolensk Diamonds fronting the cash, no expense had been spared on the stage, a beachside confection complete with giant video screen and roving red and blue spotlights. Sat in front of it on the first night, in a half empty stand separated from the cheap seats on the beach by a ring of burly security guards in tight-fitting Koktebel Jazz Party t-shirts, I briefly wondered whether this was all just for show, a spectacle for no one but the press and the TV cameras. But then the first of the bands came on, the stand filled up and Kiselev put down the mic and retired to the VIP balcony to survey the scene over a glass of brandy. The next three nights were mostly about the music.
Takuya Kuroda © Evgeniya Novozhenina/Rossiya Segodnya
Nights one and two were uneven, though the music-loving holiday-makers in the crowd were wonderfully appreciative, needing little encouragement to get up and dance. Shanghai-based trumpeter Li Xiaochuan, a leading light on the Chinese jazz scene, proved himself a superb technician and an imaginative improviser, but his set of indie rock-inspired originals was scuppered by one of several sound-crew meltdowns that left the stage littered with blown amps and agitated roadies. A performance from the Japanese-born New York-based Tachibana Quintet felt a bit thrown together, though Blue Note-signed trumpeter Takuya Kuroda and pianist Martha Kato impressed with some gutsy solos; and we saw our fair share of sketchy vocalists.
Still, there were plenty of high points too. A set from British blues man Julian Burdock, performing with his all-Russian band the 24 Kopeks, was a huge hit with the crowd and brought theatrical guitar, harmonica and washboard solos, along with a cheeky rendition of The Beatles’ ‘Back in the USSR’. Russian/Cuban outfit Mambo Party, led by all-singing-all-dancing frontman Juan Horlendis Baños, delivered hip-swinging grooves; and performances from Georgy Garanyan’s Krasnodar Big Band and Russian pianist Yakov Okun and his International Band were both excellent.
Yakov Okun’s International Band © Vladimir Astapkovich/Rossiya Segodnya
Garanyan had teamed up with Finnish clarinet player Antti Sarpila for a tribute to Benny Goodman that was all spit and polish – a right royal rumpus full of silky melodies and raucous big band shouts. Okun’s set of intricately arranged standards was an excuse for his all-star septet to stretch out. Horace Silver’s ‘Filthy McNasty’ saw the pianist knit a Monkish cat’s cradle of lines and ‘Body and Soul’ was deeply moving, with passionate solos from trombonist Phil Abraham, Spanish alto player Perico Sambeat and trumpeter Viktor Guseinov, full of age-old phrases and hard won wisdom.
On the final night, the mystery Americans rolled into town, the stand was packed, the sound crew seemed to have ironed out the kinks and the quality remained consistently high. New York Connection were one of several bands formed especially for the festival and featured a rock solid rhythm section of pianist Miki Hayama, bassist Gerald Cannon and drummer Willie Jones III. With Johnaye Kendrick on vocals, ubiquitous tenor player (and festival art director) Sergey Golovnya and trumpeter/bandleader Vitaly Golovnev completed the frontline.
New York Connection © Evgeniya Novozhenina/Rossiya Segodnya
Golovnev was a semi-finalist in the 2007 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Trumpet Competition (won that year by Ambrose Akinmusire) and proved his mettle in the opening number, an original called ‘Long Hands’ studded with dissonant hits. From there the six-piece swung through some lesser-known standards and straightforward Kendrick compositions. Hayama’s solos, all clambering motifs and nerve-shredding harmonic tension, were a highlight, but Kendrick was the darling of the crowd. When she reached for the top of her register, scatting and stretching notes to breaking point, it brought the house down.
The grand finale was a set from drummer Jimmy Cobb. It was more straightahead jazz, but immensely enjoyable all the same, with fluid, rhythmically inventive piano solos from Alexei Podymkin and some magisterial alto-playing from Vincent Herring. He hurtled through ‘Blue Monk’ quick as a cannonball and poured a lifetime’s worth of language into his flourishing double-time cadenzas. Cobb swung hard but kept things low key before letting loose with a bustling, feature-length solo on Gershwin’s ‘Strike Up the Band’, mouthing the rhythms as he went and taking his applause with an almighty stretch, a playful grimace and a grin. He’s seriously impressive for a man of 87.
When the organisers came back on, Cobb was thanked profusely for ‘being brave enough to come to Russia’. I suppose the implication was that he’d defied a repressive US regime in order to do so and at that point I lost interest.
View from the beach © Vladimir Astapkovich/Rossiya Segodnya
If you want to find the soul of this festival you have to join the crowds of loved-up couples, hippies in harem trousers and tie dye, and families with babes in arms down to the beach, away from the bright lights and the posturing of the main stand. Sitting out there in the gathering darkness, listening to the lazy lap of the waves and the crunch of pebbles beneath sandy feet as the sound of Legends of Brazil drifted across from the stage, the world of geopolitics seemed very far off indeed. Nationalism and nationality were utterly irrelevant.
The same was true of the sprawling, vodka-fuelled jam sessions that rocked the hotel bar until five am each morning, but, as a whole, the festival isn’t quite there. It still feels as though it has a secondary, if not an ulterior, motive and it’s questionable whether it can ever be truly apolitical while Kiselev remains at the helm. This year was a step in the right direction, but if it wants to emulate its carefree host town and easy going audience and to ensure that boycotts and moral dilemmas become a thing of the past it still has work to do.
– Thomas Rees