Valery Ponomarev learned to play the trumpet despite his government's wishes. 

Free to Groove

t would be a welcome treat to see the veteran Stevens, Siegel & Fergusen Trio playing by themselves; the addition of Russian trumpeter Valery Ponomarev makes their Modlin Center performance an event not to be missed.

According to the Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, Ponomarev's defection from the Soviet Union was the inspiration for the Robin Williams film "Moscow on the Hudson." If so, the musician's real story was far more unlikely than the screenplay.

"He has these crazy stories about how he got started," says pianist Michael Stevens. "Jazz was illegal, and he had to hide while practicing." Ponomarev heard the music broadcast on Voice of America; the government often jammed the news but let the music through. His model was '50s trumpeter Clifford Brown, the original trumpeter in Art Blakey's archetypal hard bop quintet, the Jazz Messengers. He learned, in part, through transcribing and practicing Brown's technically complex, emotionally compelling solos.

When Ponomarev arrived in New York, Brown was long gone (car crash, 1955) but Blakey was still in his prime. The first night he was in the city Valery found out where the Messengers were playing. So he went there, introduced himself to Blakey and asked to sit in. Blakey said 'OK, you can play with us at the end of the night,' so Valery waited. The night ended and Valery went up to play, but Blakey had left the stage, and had been replaced by another drummer. Somewhat let down, Ponomarev, nevertheless, demonstrated the results of years of playing the Messengers' music. "Before the song is over," Stevens says, "Blakey is back on stage playing with him."

It was the start of a four-year, 11-record association. When Ponomarev eventually left, to spend more time with his family, his replacement was the young Wynton Marsalis.

"He's an incredible musician, a true virtuoso," Stevens says of Ponomarev, "He has so much positive energy, he's like a little kid. He's fun to play with, and nobody else plays like him. He may not be famous, but musicians all over the world respect his work."

The same could be said of Stevens. An accomplished pianist, he's equally at home with straight-ahead melodies and modern explorations. "Bill Evans was my god, everything else came from that," he says. "I'm a big student of harmony; that's why McCoy Tyner and his pentatonic ideas are so important. I've gotten a lot from Cecil Taylor, Andrew Hill, Thelonious Monk, different structures, clusters, half steps."

But don't expect Cecil Taylor abstractions from the 11-year-old Stevens, Siegel & Ferguson trio. "Our music is very tune-oriented," Stevens says. "It is an extension of my love for the music of Evans and McCoy. We play mostly standards, if somewhat off the beaten path." Stevens prefers the more cerebral modern stuff, and Valery loves the blues, church-driven hard bop. Despite their differing tastes, the two manage to play off one another. "We try to find the vehicles that utilize our strengths," he says.

The program the group plans to perform at The Modlin Center reflects this balance, with material ranging from Hoagy Carmichael's ultrastandard "Stardust" to a blues piece from avant-garde saxophonist Ornette Coleman.

Bassist Tim Ferguson is an adept and subtle player, a good match for Stevens' Evans-derived approach, with a fluid style that recalls Evans' bassists Scott LaFaro and Marc Johnson.

But with Ponomarev, according to Stevens, the sound revolves around the axis of trumpet and percussion. "Jeff Siegel is the engine." Stevens says. "He is a strong drummer, and he makes a real connection with Valery. Those guys can really take off, and when they do, Tim and I are just the rest of the band."

Some great music has been brewed from a similar blend of contrasting styles; the fire-and-ice paring of John Coltrane and Miles Davis in the '50s is a prime example. This concert has all the ingredients for a connoisseur's night of jazz.


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