The Jazz Messengers were the most reliable thing in jazz for several decades, a band of clear purpose and driving swing. With a fire stoked by Art Blakey, a drummer with a preference for tight arrangements and muscular drama, the Messengers were the elite finishing school for young mainstream jazz talent.
Blakey and his band were so good for so long (from the mid-1950s until Blakey’s death in 1990) that the brief periods of transition or rebuilding are often ignored entirely. What can you do? When your best bands featured the likes of Lee Morgan and Wayne Shorter or Wynton Marsalis and Bobby Watson, the lesser years might seem like mere footnotes.
But no incarnation of the Jazz Messengers was without spark.
This new release features three live recordings from the Netherlands in 1978, 1980, and 1983 that were broadcast as part of the “Sesjun Series” on Dutch radio. Never released to the public before, these 14 tracks of classic Blakey should serve to bolster the reputation of one of the drummer’s lesser-loved bands just as it was heading into a golden period.
The anchor on all of these recordings is the alto saxophonist and, ultimately, music director for the band, Bobby Watson. Watson, who studied at the University of Miami with Jaco Pastorius and Pat Metheny, but who has always reflected a ton of jazz history in his sound, was the most charismatic soloist and original composer to join the Messengers after Wayne Shorter’s early ‘60s tenure.
So, to start with, the incarnations of the band featured in these concerts are the beneficiary of playing Watson tunes like “E.T.A.” and featuring Watson solos that effortlessly merge a traditional Kansas City sound with sophisticated post-bop trickery. Every Watson solo seems to have a distinct architecture that proceeds from foundation (a solid phrase or idea, worked into variations but very clearly stated) to height (Watson’s rising sense of drama as he builds his solo, moving into double-time or syncopated excitement) to imagination (as he reaches outside traditional harmony like he is speaking in musical tongues). Sesjun provides healthy dollops of Watson on nearly every tune. Yum.
The trumpeter on most of these dates is Valery Ponomarev, the native Russian who held down the Messenger trumpet chair for four years. Ponomarev has a crackling, expressive tone on these dates, showing excellent harmonic knowledge and invention. It’s hardly Ponomarev’s fault that his predecessors included Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, and Woody Shaw, and his successors include Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, and Wallace Roney. This incarnation of the Messengers has been overlooked somewhat because Ponomarev was not a “star” lead player or wholly distinctive soloist, but his role as perhaps the third-best player behind Watson and pianist James Williams is no insult.
Williams swings these rhythm sections with full-bodied gospel groove. In the same way that Bobby Timmons brought his Messengers band a certain down-home feeling (and the band plays his “Moanin’” here), Williams two-hands the band into submission in plenty of places. His “1977 A.D.” from the May 1980 date is a precise and dynamic head, and when Williams’ solo turns come, he spins and punches and whirls, building his solo into a bluesy frenzy.
The 1980 date brings the arrival of Bill Pierce on tenor sax in place of David Schnitter and Charles Fambrough on bass for Dennis Irwin. The changes seem to have invigorated the band and brought it more precision. This version of the band plays with more dynamic variation and a clearer sense of focus. Its version of Golson’s “Blues March” is tight and bouncing, and Pierce leads the way with a solo that is sophisticated but still soulful, polished but not pre-fab.
The Marsalis version of the Messengers would come along after this (not represented here), and it would sound even more polished. Blakey was working with a three-horn front line during most of this period, and the possibilities for complex harmonies and slick and dynamic playing were there. However, these bands (with Ponomarev and Schnitter particularly) sound more ragged and loose than what was to come with the two Marsalises playing trumpet and alto. The fur flies during these recordings, but the dynamic snap of the band is not at its height.
The 1983 band heard here is in transition again. Trumpet and alto have been handed over to the very young Terence Blanchard and Donald Harrison, who sound somewhat tentative here. Jean Toussaint is on tenor and soprano, and Johnny O’Neal is the pianist. There is a heap of creativity in the soloing—particularly Blanchard’s muted ballad feature on “Polka Dots and Moonbeams”—but Blakey was rebuilding at this point. “Moanin’” is almost gentle in these hands, which is a cool approach, but maybe not quite the best approach.
But these quibbles and questions don’t change the essence of the Jazz Messengers, a brilliant band led by one of jazz’s finest teachers and drummers. As the band’s fates rise and fall, the performances are still in the upper echelon of swing and pleasure. And they always exhibit that special thing that makes jazz unique: genuine creation in the moment. To have fresh wax from Blakey and company is a reason for a picnic, no matter what.