Blakey's Afrobeat-inspiring excursion: Thrilling percussion meets irresistible hard bop. And that's just the beginning.
"Afrobeat", as a term and a musical style, didn't exist when the Art Blakey Percussion Ensemble recorded Drum Suite in 1957. But the infectious meeting of African, Latin, and Western styles that's on display here has all the ingredients that Fela Kuti would put together in the following decade. Drum Suite was Blakey's first full-on percussion experiment, and it's arguably his best, intertwining ethnic sounds with his traditional hard bop in a way that drum aficionados and jazz purists can thoroughly enjoy. Add some stellar but lesser-known hard bop sessions from Blakey's Jazz Messengers and you have a definitive, essential Blakey collection.
The highlight, of course, is still the three-part Drum Suite. Recorded, remarkably, in one take without overdubs or written arrangements, it's a thrill from beginning to end. "The Sacrifice" opens with Specs Wright's thundering tympani and a traditional African chant by the musicians themselves. The African percussion swells and then dies out as the chanting comes back before a descending, bluesy yet tense Ray Bryant piano part kicks in. And, finally, Blakey jumpstarts the track with his big, heavy sound. Bryant's festive "Cubano Chant" features catchy call-and-response between piano and Spanish-language vocals. Cellist/bassist Oscar Pettiford's "Oscalypso" closes the suite in grand fashion. With Bryant's sultry piano, Candido Camero's funky bass, and Sabu Martinez' rolling congas as a foundation, Pettiford plays an amazing fingered solo on a cello that's been fed through a guitar amp and consequently distorted. This, combined with his use of the instrument's high end, produces a sound like a modern flanged-out bass. Then the carefully-layered percussion solos take over, with Blakey getting in some killer fills of his own while Wright's tympani holds everything together. Gradually the piano and bass come back, and Pettiford gets off one last cello solo as the track fades into the moonlight.
Despite all the percussion, Drum Suite never descends into cacophony. On the contrary, all the elements work together to form something so carefully interlocking that it can only be natural. And the Afro-Latin percussion never completely takes over the jazz, as it sometimes does on subsequent Blakey recordings like Night in Tunisia (1960) and The African Beat (1962). There are few better ways than this to get your blood flowing.
As with the original issue, Drum Suite is complemented by three 1956 takes from one of the many Jazz Messengers lineups. More traditional hard bop arrangements and soloists feature, but the music is only slightly less thrilling. Each tune is punctuated by Blakey's machine-gun fills, which propel but never overwhelm the composition. No, that's not a woodpecker stuck in your speakers; it's Blakey's unique, tribal-inspired technique, which often uses series of quick rimshots. Often overlooked trumpet player Bill Hardman and saxophonist Jackie McLean lay down some nice solos, too.
This reissue would be well worth owning if it stopped right there. But Legacy has also included the only headlining cuts ever recorded by yet another Jazz Messengers permutation. Both written by trumpet player Donald Byrd, who would shortly go on to establish himself as a bandleader, "L'il T" and "The New Message" are a little rough (they were never intended for release) but excellent, uptempo hard bop nonetheless. In particular, "The New Message" features some irresistible trumpet sparring between Byrd and Ira Sullivan, who doubles on tenor sax. The real revelation here is bassist Wilbur Ware, who dive-bombs into, out of, and around the beat, doing his own groovy thing in a way that fits with the rest of the composition. These cuts aren't mere barrel-scraping. They're a revelation.
Legacy has done Blakey et al proud with first-rate sound and thoughtful packaging including lovingly-rendered liner notes by Blakey protégé Kenny Washington. In the end, jazz is about conjuring up feelings. Drum Suite conjures many of them, and they're all good.