If there's such thing as a sure thing in jazz, it's taking a group of legends and putting them together in one band. Because the heart of jazz is cooperative improvisation, this works much better than mixing all-stars with different styles in other musical genres.So, it is no surprise that Art Blakey and the Giants of Jazz is a band of exuberant awesomeness. Formed in 1971, every member of the band, with the exception of bassist McKibbon (a prodigious veteran in his own right), was a leader of their own significant group and already an icon of jazz for the era. Even though by the time this recording was made (1972) they had lost their original trumpet player--one Dizzy Gillespie, who had returned to focusing on fronting his own quintet--they carried on magnificently by replacing Diz with not one, but two gifted trumpeters, Roy Eldrige and Clark Terry. While the tunes are all familiar standards, they are merely vehicles for launching these jazz stars into jam-session orbit. Everyone gets a chance to stretch out and the net result is a record bursting with the joy that is jazz music well played. It is fitting that the opening tune, "Blue 'N' Boogie," gets started with a brief solo by Blakey, who is the rhythmic center and organizing figure of the band. The brief solo choruses by Terry and Winding are just warm-ups to a long exposition by Stitt on alto, who leads us on to hear from the indomitable Roy Eldrige, 61 years old at the time. As if this weren't enough, we still get to hear from Monk, who plays several choruses of his signature angular block chords; McKibbon follows with a tasteful bebop bass solo; and then the whole band jumps back in to wrap up with a recap of the melody and a classic jazz party "trash can" ending.And so goes the rest of the record. There are two other open jam tunes. "Perdido" is more than 15 minutes of improv celebration kicked off with choruses by the typically whimsical Terry. There is also former band member Gillespie's own "A Night in Tunisia" to close the session.
The remainder of the tunes are ballad features for the prodigious talent on the bandstand. On "'Round Midnight" we get to hear the composer himself, Thelonius Monk, demonstrate what the tune really sounds like to him; a rare treat since this song has been covered by hundreds of jazz musicians over the years. "Stardust" is a feature for Terry and he proves his star status with his combination of technical virtuosity and lyrical solo lines. Trombonist Kai Winding, who became best known as J.J. Johnson's partner in a quintet during the 50s and 60s, proves he belongs with this group on "Lover Man." "I Can't Get Started With You" is covered elegantly by Sonny Stitt on alto, and trumpeter Eldridge, building on more than 40 years in jazz, plays "The Man I Love" with a captivating mix of passion and grit.This is a wonderful record that captures the spirit of both the Monterey Jazz Festival and the legendary musicians that give it life.