This two-CD tribute to Art Blakey, recorded live over two nights in 2018 at the Side Door Jazz Club in Old Lyme, Connecticut, does justice to its honoree’s high standards. Ralph Peterson, the last drummer to perform side-by-side with his mentor, united five alums of Blakey’s Jazz Messengers: tenor saxophonist Billy Pierce, alto saxophonist Bobby Watson, trumpeter Brian Lynch, pianist Geoffrey Keezer and bassist Essiet Essiet. (Watson and Pierce recorded on several Blakey albums in 1980 and ’81; Keezer, Lynch and Essiet were among the last Messengers and recorded on the drummer’s final album, One for All, in 1990.) Their individual and collective adoration for their former leader clearly inspired these dynamic performances.
The album opens with the Curtis Fuller classic “A La Mode,” as Peterson invokes the incendiary nature of Blakey while retaining his own artistic identity. From there, the group launches into 10 other tunes associated with the Messengers, including Watson’s “Wheel Within a Wheel”; the title tune from 3 Blind Mice (1962); and Benny Golson’s militaristic yet swingin’ “Blues March.” Pierce sounds best on the set’s only slow ballad, “My One and Only Love,” while Keezer illuminates the possibilities of the standard “That Old Feeling” with an intriguing, almost Cubistic introduction. Lynch’s solos are the most consistently dazzling in terms of ferocity, melodic invention and sculpted phrasing, but everyone burns bright on Wayne Shorter’s “Children of the Night.”
Peterson deserves much of the credit for the album’s success. He can be torrential as a soloist (as on the Disc 2 closer, “Caravan”) or quietly supportive. He knows when to infuse a passage with lively fillers and when to simply propel the infectious groove. It’s a fitting testament to Blakey, who would have turned 100 in October.