By: Jim Hynes, Making a Scene

The Ukraine is in the news often lately as it becomes a central focus in the impeachment proceedings but musically we can all be on the same side welcoming Ukrainian-native, Brooklyn-based pianist Fima Chupakhin who is presenting his first album as leader, Water, accompanied by a group of stellar international musicians who have also found a home in  New York City – Vuyo Sotashe (vocals), Josh Evans (trumpeter), Sergey Avanesov (saxophone), Yoav Eshed (guitar), James Robbins (bass) and Jonathan Barber (drums). These nine tracks comprise six Chupakhin originals, an arrangement of a traditional hymn, and two staples of the Great Jazz Songbook.

Throughout the proceedings, Chupakhin ably demonstrates his conviction that the pursuit of beauty is at the very core of bebop expression. He cites Charlie Parker’s remark, “When you slow down all the bebop lines or themes or heads, it’s just pretty melodies,” upholding the aesthetic example set by such progenitors of the idiom as Bird, Tadd Dameron, Bud Powell, and Thelonious Monk, and descendent master practitioners like Barry Harris and Mulgrew Miller. So, the music will sound familiar and Chupakhin traverses the last forty years of Black American Music, in mostly hard bop or post-bop  style, with some twists along the way, putting his own stamp on the tunes, while giving his bandmates ample room to maneuver. His own solos are subtle, persuasive, exploratory, never harsh or aggressive.

The album kicks off with “Don’t Let It Get You Down” – a medium-tempo number, propelled by Jonathan Barber’s steady, unrushed beats; after a section featuring brisk exchanges between the leader and Russia-born saxophonist Sergey Avanesov, the tempo slows to rubato, and trumpeter Josh Evans (best known in recent years as a member of Christian McBride’s New Jawn Quartet) brightens  the melody with a poignant, affirmative statement. The album’s title track features expressive vocals from South African-native, Vuyo Sotashe and brings Chupakhin into the spotlight. While “Dedication To Roy” references the late trumpeter Roy Hargrove and becomes a vehicle for Evans,  “Winter Sun Is Deceiving” features a Chupakhin solo that evokes the spirit of Andrew Hill. In fact, the album comes off rather contemplative, as in the style of Hill. There are exceptions of course. “Dedication to Roy” appropriately burns hot. “Unarmed” is a lively piece with tight ensemble work and sparking interplay between Evans on trumpet and Avanesov on soprano.

Scintillating guitar and piano marks “Lullaby for Marfa.” As expected with most pianists, at some point they turn to Monk as Chupakhin does in trio format for Monk’s “Off Minor,” injecting his own flair into the tune. Then he turns to Fender Rhodes to recontextualize John Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice” with a spacy, languorous-to-ascendant reading, articulating his harmonization of the melody with interesting textures in dialogue with Barber’s cymbals. Another highlight is the hymn “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” on which vocalist Vuyo Sotashe finds the requisite gospel feel  in duo with the pianist.

Upon receiving a Fulbright Scholarship, Chupakhin enrolled for the 2012-13 academic year at William Paterson University, where Mulgrew Miller  — who died at the end of the term — was serving as Director of the Jazz Studies program. After two years of intense piano studies with maestro James Weidman, Chupakhin earned a Masters at WPU in 2014. He returned to his native Ukraine for a year, then received an artist visa that enabled him to move to New York in 2015.

Early history cites that Yukhym (Fima) Chupakhin was born in Krivoy Rog, an industrial city in the East part of Ukraine. He was exposed to classical piano repertoire and choir music when he had entered a music school, and that had significantly influenced his future musical outlook. During the last year in the school, Fima discovered the world of jazz and had decided to study it along with classical music at the Krivoy Rog Music College. At the college Fima became more confident about his path as a jazz musician, after attending a concert of the famous Ukrainian jazz pianist and composer Segey Davidov. Just a few years later, Davidov became Fima’s teacher and mentor at the State Kharkiv University of the Arts. In 2005 Fima Chupakhin started his jazz career, entering the First Moscow International Jazz Piano Competition. In 2007 Chupakhin formed his own jazz project “Acoustic Quartet”, with whom he recorded three albums of mostly original music.

Stay tuned as Chupakhin has already shaped his own voice in the shadows of the legends that inspired him. His piano  playing seems just right, never dominating but always in the right place (like Bill Evans) while the front line players – Evans, Avanesov, and Eshed, have their own shining moments. The Russian – U.S. connection in jazz is immeasurably strong as documented in other reviews on these pages. Leave the many talking heads to comment on the political connections.

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