Music

Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers: The Sesjun Radio Shows

Live hard bop from a fruitful period in the Blakey discography


Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers

The Sesjun Radio Shows

Label: Out of the Blue
US Release Date: 2011-04-26
UK Release Date: 2011-04-18
Amazon
iTunes

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.

6
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Film

Masaki Kobayashi's 'Kwaidan' Horror Films Are Horrifically Beautiful

The four haunting tales of Masaki Kobayashi's Kwaidan are human and relatable, as well as impressive at a formal and a technical level.

Film

The Top 10 Thought-Provoking Science Fiction Films

Serious science fiction often takes a backseat to the more pulpy, crowdpleasing genre entries. Here are 10 titles far better than any "dogfight in space" adventure.

Books

'The Kill Chain': Why America Might Lose Its Next Big War

Christian Brose's defense-nerd position paper, The Kill Chain, inadvertently reveals that the Pentagon's problems (complacency, inertia, arrogance) reflect those of the country at large.

Music

2006's 'Flat-Pack Philosophy' Saw Buzzcocks Determined to Build Something of Quality

With a four-decade career under their belt, on the sixth disc in the new box-set Sell You Everything, it's heartening to see Buzzcocks refusing to settle for an album that didn't try something new.

Books

'Lie With Me': Beauty, Love and Toxic Masculinity in the Gay '80s

How do we write about repression and toxic masculinity without valorizing it? Philippe Besson's Lie With Me is equal parts poignant tribute and glaring warning.

Music

Apparat's 'Soundtrack: Capri-Revolution' Stands Alone As a Great Ambient Experience

Apparat's (aka Sascha Ring) re-imagined score from Mario Martone's 2018 Capri-Revolution works as a fine accompaniment to a meditational flight of fancy.

Music

Chouk Bwa and the Ångströmers Merge Haitian Folk and Electronic Music on 'Vodou Alé'

Haitian roots music meets innovative electronics on Chouk Bwa and the Ångströmers' Vodou Alé.

My Favorite Thing

Weird and Sweet, Riotous and Hushed: The Beatles' 'The White Album'

The Beatles' 'The White Album' is a piece of art that demonstrates how much you can stretch, how far you can bend, how big you really are. The album is deeply weird. It has mass. It has its own weather.

Music

Sarah Jarosz Finds Inspiration in Her Texas Roots on 'World on the Ground'

By turning to her roots in central Texas for inspiration on World on the Ground, Sarah Jarosz has crafted some of her strongest songs yet.

Music

Hinds' 'The Prettiest Curse' Is One of Victory

On The Prettiest Curse, Hinds create messy pop music that captures the vibrancy of youth without being childish.

Music

12 Essential Performances from New Orleans' Piano "Professors"

New Orleans music is renowned for its piano players. Here's a dozen jams from great Crescent City keyboardists, past and present, and a little something extra.

Music

Jess Williamson Reimagines the Occult As Source Power on 'Sorceress'

Folk singer-songwriter, Jess Williamson wants listeners to know magic is not found in tarot cards or mass-produced smudge sticks. Rather, transformative power is deeply personal, thereby locating Sorceress as an indelible conveyor of strength and wisdom.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.