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Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers

Ugetsu

(Concord; US: 15 Mar 2011; UK: 4 Apr 2011)

“In this tune, we feature no one in particular.”


So says Art Blakey at the start of “At the Ginza”, the track that ended Ugetsu on the original release. He’s right, of course, but he’s also wrong. Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, in all their various line-ups and iterations, were always about the collective. As influential as he was as a percussionist—with elements of African beats and his intricate, muted techniques—Blakey was also something of a conduit for jazz greats. Players destined for greatness often passed through Blakey’s band on their way, so that his eye for talent was as respected as his playing.


The line-up on Ugetsu, though, may very well be the best he assembled. In 1963, when the band recorded this landmark album at Birdland in New York City, Freddie Hubbard has just replaced the excellent Lee Morgan on trumpet, and now with Hubbard trading solos with Wayne Shorter on tenor sax, Curtis Fuller on the trombone, Cedar Walton on the piano, Reggie Workman on bass, and Blakey behind the kit, the Jazz Messengers unleashed a series of classic jazz recordings. Caravan  and Free for All, among other records, were both jazz benchmarks recorded with these players, highlighting a hard-bop sound that spread out into wandering but energetic compositions, tunes more expansive and tough to pin down than Blakey was turning out in the ‘50s, but with the same vital swing.


Their playing belies the shrugging humility in Blakey’s claim before “At the Ginza”, because it isn’t that this performance doesn’t feature anyone in particular, it’s that it features all of the players at the top of their game. The title track, the longest number here, shows their dynamic interplay perfectly. Walton’s piano may seem unassuming, but the high-note cascades he sneaks into the mix, as if tying a tight knot around Workman’s rolling bass, keeps the tension elevated as Shorter and Fuller deal in similarly muted solos. It isn’t until we get to the last third of the track that we see Hubbard wail, breaking the smooth ripple of the track, and Blakey brilliantly clapping out fills that seem to weave in between Hubbard’s notes. Solos run into solos, layers overlap and tangle, but they never lose the sweating groove of the track.


After that long and winding track, the band doesn’t bother slowing down. On “Time Off”, the band sounds on fire, the song as fast as it is restrained. That leads into the more syncopated shuffle of “Ping-Pong”, and even as they slip into the balladry of their reworking of Rodgers and Hart’s “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was”, Shorter’s vamping and Walton’s resonant keys keep the sound pushing forward with a spacious vitality.


Blakey himself never takes an out-and-out drum solo on the record, and in fact takes a backseat to his other players throughout, not just on the stage but really as band leader. Wayne Shorter, who composed three of the six original tracks on the album, steps out and shines as leader here. In 1963, Shorter is on the verge of being one of the hardest working and most ubiquitous players in jazz. He’s about to record a string of his own great records in 1964—including Speak No Evil—as well as join up with Miles Davis’s second quintet, and you can see similarities in his playing and composition here. There’s nothing quite as brooding or shadowy as those mid-‘60s Davis records, but Shorter’s tracks bring an unpredictability to these tunes that leaves each of the brilliant players room to show off their chops without crowding each other. His influence might come out a little more directly on the wide-open sound of Free for All, but Shorter’s eye for open space and Blakey’s intricate foundations make for a volatile combination on the Birdland stage.


The bonus tracks on this reissue have mostly been released before, and the one new track here—“Conception”—is solid but not revelatory. Instead, the extra songs simply keep this brilliant performance going, so that we get to see the band continue to feature “no one in particular” for 17 more buzzing minutes. Blakey has plenty of essential jazz records under his belt, too many to list really, but Ugetsu may be the best representation of his skill as a drummer, as a band lynchpin, and as a cultivator of young talent. It’s rare to see this much promise on a record, such a clear vision of greatness to come, even as the sounds the players crank out are so immediately brilliant. In short, if you don’t have this one already, go get it. Now.

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Matthew Fiander is a music critic for PopMatters and Prefix Magazine. He also writes fiction and his work has appeared in The Yalobusha Review. He received his M.F.A. in Creative Writing from UNC-Greensboro and currently teaches writing and literature at High Point University in High Point, NC. You can follow him on Twitter at @mattfiander.


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