Blakey’s Beat captures Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers in two evening performances filling two CDs with two different line-ups and nearly two hours of Blakey’s brand of unremitting, veracious two-fisted attack of hard bop. Held at the long defunct Keystone Korner in San Francisco, each set has something different to offer and provides a rare glimpse of Wynton Marsalis before his meteoric rise to popularity.
The first evening recorded in May of ’78 seems to have the looser blowing and more expansive sound with a garden variety of compositions. Rounding out the front line-ups are Russian import trumpeter Valery Ponomarev, an excellent Robert Watson on alto and David Schnitter holding the tenor chair. Pianist James Williams, bassist Dennis Irwin and, of course, the chairman and drummer Art Blakey help to anchor the rhythm section.
The opening agenda is set by a thunderous drum announcement by Blakey before the Messengers introduce the song Pamela
, a samba that ignites this set in full bop guise with a stirring alto lead by Watson. Williams, who recently departed and will be deeply missed, shows his compositional acumen with the vigorously swinging Untitled
and the soulful In This Corner
, a nicely swinging tribute to the great jazz club Birdland. Here, trumpeter Ponomarev, who is still active and can be heard at Swing 46 in Manhattan, navigates the muted trumpet opening with a Roy Elderidge-like swiftness. He is flanked by the horn men’s riff-based blues calls which are reminiscent of the paired-down jazz ensembles coming from the late 40’s early 50’s. Hammerstein’s The Song is You
is delivered with the galloping charge of a thoroughbred. After Ponomarev’s trumpet lead, Watson dominates this tune with a smoldering alto declaration. On the mid-tempo Dark Side Light Side
, Schnitter rollicks on the tenor for a brief solo followed by Ponomarev who blows hard over several measures. His middle-upper register sounds uncannily like an old Blakey compatriot, Lee Morgan. William’s own 1978 (1977A.D.)
is an exhilarating romp as he is heard gliding over the keys behind Blakey’s scorching backbeat. Ponomarev pulls triplets and half-valves before Schnitter’s rolling and controlled tenor hits peak cries. Watson, in usual stride, grinds out a piercing solo in a number that was left off the original release and comprises this set’s longest track.
Three years separates the above performance from this June ’81 date. These new Messengers communicate more directly and need less space to do so. This set has one hard hitting track just under 10 minutes compared to the two 10 minute-plus extended blues tracks that predated the earlier performance. Save Williams on keyboards and Watson on alto, we see the rising trumpet star Wynton Marsalis along side Bill Pierce on tenor and Charles Fambrough on bass.
The opener Falling in Love With Love
shows us that Blakey was continually active in recruiting top flight firebrands and unleashing them before the public. Notably, it is interesting to hear Marsalis who opens this ballad without pretensions or clichés. Williams who has been steady throughout both performances shows his sensitive accompaniment on the opener as he does on My Romance
, a showcase for William’s resonant tone which sparkles in this mid-tempo reading. Blakey pounds the kit in open display to Bud Powell’s Webb City
swung hard here in this sets longest piece which allows for ample soloing by all. Check out Watson (excellent in both sets) who charges fearlessly ahead with the dexterity of Sonny Stitt and Marsalis who solos with a calculated intensity.
Providing respite from the breakneck tempos, Marsalis quietly ushers in Berlin’s How Deep is The Ocean
behind Williams’ featherweight strokes before pitching this ballad into a mid-tempo dance with a featured dialogue between trumpet and piano that segues back into a dreamy restatement of the theme. E.T.A
is a featured hard bopper in which you hear the evening’s strongest soloing from all with Marsalis’ 16-note runs to the usual strong display from Watson and Pierce. Fambrough who provides the sturdy foundation and lift with his excellent bass work even puts in a brief but snappy solo in this set’s opener. Miles Davis’ The Theme
closes out this evening of rousing music.
If you’re looking for Blakey’s most stellar Messenger line-ups, you needn’t look far to find them. Look no further than his earliest collaborators, Clifford Brown and Lou Donaldson, or the simpatico Kenny Dorham and Hank Mobley, or his dynamic duo of Wayne Shorter and Lee Morgan, or even those starring Jackie McLean and Bill Hardman (could go on and on), but you would be missing the point: that whoever became a Messenger you could count on Blakey to create and remake a potent, if not excellent, and cohesive working unit to deliver an intensive and visceral music best heard in the jazz alcoves before an adoring audience. That was such the case on these two blistering nights of undiluted Messengers.