By: Jim Hynes, Glide Magazine
Occasionally this writer will return to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers classics: 1964’s Free for All or 1961’s A Night in Tunisia, marvel at the joy and passion of the playing while thinking that we don’t often hear those kinds of fiery performances much anymore. Along comes Ralph Peterson’s Messenger Legacy with this double-CD live set celebrating Blakey’s centennial and all that explosiveness that’s been missing returns, and then some. Peterson is eminently qualified to honor Blakey, being the last drummer chosen to play by Blakey’s side in the Jazz Messengers Two Drummer Big Band. Peterson leads a sextet of equally undisputed authorities and alumni of the Blakey tradition. The Legacy Messenger band includes tenor saxophonist Bill Pierce, alto saxophonist Bobby Watson, trumpeter Brian Lynch, bassist Essiet Essiet, and pianist Geoffrey Keezer. The album was recorded live over two nights in October 2018 at the Side Door Jazz Club in Old Lyme, Connecticut.
We need not delve into a complete history of the iconic Art Blakey and Jazz Messengers but it is noteworthy to pass on some information. Blakey drew plenty of attention with his 1953 recording of classic bebop, A Night in Birdland, with Clifford Brown, Lou Donaldson, Horace Silver and Curley Russell. At that time Blakey said, “When these guys get too old, I’ll get some young ones.” That became a blueprint of sorts for an historic thirty-five year run that began with Donald Byrd, Hank Mobley, Silver and Doug Watkins and went on to include countless names, among them Kenny Dorham, Benny Golson, Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter, Bobby Timmons, Freddie Hubbard, Curtis Fuller, Cedar Walton, Reggie Workman, Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison and on and on. It reads almost like Blue Note’s roster in the ‘60s.
That’s quite a legacy to uphold. Of the group, Watson dates back the longest, joining Blakey’s Messengers in 1977. Pierce joined in 1980. The other members were all part of the final edition of the band, playing with Blakey until he passed at age 71, on October 16, 1990. The inside jacket has statements from each of them on what they learned during their time with the band. The liners also include information from Russ Musto of the Jazz Record Mart to whom we are indebted for much of what follows. The music on these two discs represent only the second and third nights this group had played collectively as a unit. These eleven selections are culled from the Blakey and Jazz Messengers discography of over 100 albums and are faithful to the canon of high energy soloing while Peterson drives the band with every aspect of his drum kit, from rim shots, to tom-tom patterns, cymbal crashes and bass drumbeats.
They begin with the grooving Curtis Fuller piece “A La Mode,” that first appeared on the Impulse album Jazz Messengers!!! on which Fuller, the trombonist, made his debut with a transitional unit that included Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter, Bobby Timmons, and Jymie Merritt. That marked the beginning of a sextet, which we have here, albeit different instrumentation. Bobby Watson’s “Wheel Within a Wheel” follows, building to a higher intensity level. Freddie Hubbard’s “The Core,” a dedication to the Congress of Racial Equality civil rights action group., has long been regarded as one of the most powerful pieces that the original group ever recorded. Proving that they can do justice to ballads as well, Pierce especially delivers a remarkable solo on “My One and Only Love.” They follow with Curtis Fuller’s arrangement of the nursery rhyme “Three Blind Mice” with “3 Blind Mice” which was also the title track for an album from the original band. Disc One ends with “Blues March,” the Benny Golson classic that first appeared on the Moanin’ album and stayed in Blakey’s sets until the band’s final days, making it very familiar to this present cast.
Disc Two begins with another Watson tune, “In Case You Missed It,” that plays off the theme of Ronnie Laws disco era hit “Always There.” Then another Golson classic from the Moanin’ album follows, “Along Came Betty,” that, like “Blues March,” remained a long term staple for live performance. Wayne Shorter’s “Children of the Night” hails originally from the Mosaic album. “That Ole Feeling” is a Broadway hit that appeared on the 3 Blind Mice Vol .1 album, a vehicle for Cedar Walton. Keezer takes the honor here, dialoguing with Essiet, giving the horns a chance to lay out. Blakey originally introduced the final piece, Duke Ellington and Juan Tizol’s “Caravan” as featuring “no one in particular,” meaning each gets a turn. Fittingly, it’s as explosive as any track on the two discs, as Lynch, Watson, Pierce, and finally Peterson blaze away. Your player may be steaming after running through these two discs.
You may be curious about the “Volume 6” in the title because this is the first recording of this unit. Peterson has been especially prolific lately, so this represents his sixth in a series of live recordings, and third in the past six months. I Remember Bu: Alive Volume 4 at Scullers features the GenNext Big Band and Inward Venture: Alive Vol.5 at the Side Door is done with his quintet, Aggregate Prime. Seek out these and the previous volumes for more incendiary live performances. Oh, and keep in mind that the Legacy Messenger Band will be playing Newport this summer.