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***, ART BLAKEY'S JAZZ MESSENGERS, "The Art of Jazz," In + Out Records

July 28, 1996|Don Heckman

The Art Blakey College of Musical Education is what the Jazz Messengers' original musical director, pianist Horace Silver, called the group. And the title was right on target. In the 36 years of its existence--from 1954 to 1990--the Messengers served as a training ground for an astonishing number of players from several generations. Even a minimal list would have to include Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, Wynton Marsalis, Cedar Walton, Keith Jarrett, Wayne Shorter, Jackie McLean, Benny Golson, Chick Corea and Curtis Fuller.

"The Art of Jazz" was recorded at the 1989 Jazz Festival at Leverkusen, Germany, to celebrate Blakey's 70th birthday, with an all-star reunion that included Hubbard, Shorter, Fuller, McLean, Terence Blanchard, Walter Davis Jr., Buster Williams, Roy Haynes and singer Michele Hendricks. Characteristically, when Blakey saw the lineup, his immediate reaction was to insist that he wasn't going to play with "these old guys." And he was serious, asserting that working with younger musicians was the only way to "keep the mind active."

Fortunately, calmer heads prevailed, and the program went on as scheduled, with a mixture of performances from Blakey's Messengers of the time (the fine ensemble of Brian Lynch, trumpet; Donald Harrison, alto sax; Frank Lacy, trombone; Geoff Keezer, piano; Essiet Okun Essiet, bass) as well as the returning stars. Despite the shuffling back and forth onstage, the sessions come across with an energy and enthusiasm that honored Blakey and the history of the Messengers.

Regrettably, the otherwise quite good audio on this newly released session doesn't always adequately define Blakey's drumming. His great strength, and doubtless the primary pedagogical benefit of the Blakey "college," was his tough-love way of working with young players, persistently pushing them to expand the outer envelope of their improvisational imaginations. What can be heard underscores the fact that a year before his death of cancer at age 71, Blakey was still performing with his familiar, bomb-dropping, cross-rhythm sense of propulsion.

Other pieces include the all-star players joining in on "Along Came Betty," a jamming 15-minute rendering of Golson's "Blues March" and "Lester Left Town" (with stirring choruses by Shorter and Hubbard). And there is a particularly interesting drum duo in which Blakey and Haynes exchange challenges with the fire and intuition of two superb warriors.

The final track is a 12-minute interview with Blakey recorded in 1976. It provides illuminating insights into the life, the music and the personal philosophy of the man of whom Marsalis once said: "If I hadn't played with Art, I wouldn't have played jazz."


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