Ken Burns JAZZ Collection: Art Blakey
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Nine Blue Note, Atlantic and MCA tracks from the greatest hard-bop drummer of 'em all! Includes Moanin'; Confirmation; Doodlin' (with Horace Silver); Evidence (with Thelonious Monk); Blues March , and more.
Very few drummers or bandleaders have had the impact on jazz that Art Blakey did, using his explosive playing to drive the whole hard-bop movement and his extraordinary series of bands called the Jazz Messengers. Throughout his career, Blakey was a tireless advocate of the enduring values of bop, and he created a forum in which younger talents could flourish. There are some classic versions of bop standards here, like Dizzy Gillespie's "A Night in Tunisia," heard in a brilliant 1960 version, and Thelonious Monk's "Evidence," with Monk at the piano on a 1957 recording. There are also tunes by Blakey sidemen that would become standards themselves: pianist Bobby Timmons's "Moanin'" and Benny Golson's "Blues March," among them. In its peak years--the late 1950s and early '60s--the Messengers were a launching pad for brilliant players like trumpeters Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard and saxophonist Wayne Shorter. In its later versions, the Messengers even spurred the careers of younger traditionalists, including Wynton Marsalis. --Stuart Broomer
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Initially, it was Horace Silver who contributed what, in retrospect, would be some of his most ambitious, even brilliant, compositions to the Blakey book. "Ecarole" and "Nica's Dream" necessarily rank at the top of the list of Silver achievements, and both were recorded on Art's eponymous "desert island" disc for Columbia: The Jazz Messengers. Besides the compositions, Silver was vital as a pianist in Blakey's first "hard bop" ensembles: his prodding and rapidly repeated thick chord clusters seemed a perfect match for Art's unequaled drive and thunder. Every Jazz Messengers "re-union" band has proven a disappointment because, say what you will about Art's imperfect "rudiments" and "technique," there simply wasn't or isn't any drummer capable of rising to the sheer power and mighty force- of-nature that was Art Blakey the drummer-leader. Art's two-disc set (represented by the first selection, "Confirmation") with a vibrant Clifford Brown, recorded live for Blue Note, is notable for capturing some of this spirit (in many recordings, Art's drums are inexcusably muted in the final mix) as well as the contributions of Horace both as composer and player: A Night at Birdland, Vol. 1.
Curiously, the 2nd number, "Doodlin'," is from a landmark hard bop album identified with Horace Silver. It's a worthier tune than the later "Song for My Father," but the producer seems to have lost his focus on Blakey as the featured musician of this set. In any case, the inclusion of Kenny Dorham and Hank Mobley adds incalculable depth to the program.
Through much of the sixties, Art would go to a sextet along with more "open," or modal, forms, with the melodic load largely carried by Freddie Hubbard and Wayne Shorter. Many musicians were inspired by the playing of this Blakey edition, perhaps best represented on the 6th tune, "Free for All." In retrospect, much of this music substitutes "energy" for genuine inventiveness and soul (listen carefully to the repeated motifs of Shorter; now try doing so again.)
It was probably inevitable that Silver would, especially after a date like the Columbia album referred to in the 2nd paragraph above, leave the Messengers to form his own group. Yet Silver's departure from the Messengers' line-up made a major difference--one that would eventually prove the least flattering to the Silver Quintet. When I heard the two groups perform at a Carnegie Hall concert in the mid-'70s, the contrast could not have been more striking. Silver's Quintet, which occupied the first half of the program, sounded stiff, formulaic, programmed--a group of musicians employed to execute a series of Silver Quintet "hits," with even the improvised solo of a Michael Brecker delegated to a specific number of measures. By contrast, Blakey's Messengers, which couldn't find a single domestic company to record them in the '70s, were fresh and alive, burning with fire and desire, and ultimately igniting the greatest explosion I've ever witnessed in those once-sacred halls of musical propriety.
Getting a sense of the hungry and eager playing of the '70s Messengers requires hunting down some of their LPs recorded in Europe and Japan. There's also a video that, at the very least, represents the inventive, progressive, extraordinary composing of former Messengers' pianist, Walter Davis, Jr. for Art's quintet of this decade: Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers.
Some of that urgency is apparent on the 3rd tune of the present disc, Monk's "Evidence" (sometimes titled "Justice" since the chords are from "Just You, Just Me" --get it? speak the 2 titles). It's a bit of an offbeat session on Atlantic with Monk's appearance clearly altering the playing and sound of Blakey's group. But it's a rare chance to hear the crackly, intricate solo trumpet of Bill Hardman (who was with Blakey in 3 decades and who never met a challenge he could refuse, much to the consternation of Hubbard and other players who chose to take him on--how well I remember Bill's vanquishing Freddie during the A alt chord preceding the final tonic of "NIght in Tunisia."
The 4th tune on the album is the most predictable--"Moanin'"--the Bobby Timmons' tune that provided the title number for Blakey's best-selling (but hardly best) album. It a chance to hear a puckish Lee Morgan and an overly-busy Benny Golson, which for this listener has long since worn out its attention-holding power. Still, you couldn't ask for a better example of the basic forms preferred by hard bop or of Art's big back-beat (I can hear Sinatra groovin' especially hard to this feel). "Blues March," the 5th tune, is a Golson composition that Art went to frequently throughout the 60s, 70s, and occasionally in the 80s.
Of course, no anthology of Messengers' recordings can afford to pass up groups that included some of Art's most storied and/or capable players: saxophonists like Hank Mobley, Clifford Jordan and David Schnitter (who stayed with Art longer than any other tenor player); trumpeters like Kenny Dorham, Donald Byrd, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, and Bill Hardman (who could hold his own with, if not dominate, any of the aforementioned players--small wonder Art went to him in 3 different decades).
Beginning in the '80s Art's groups began to sound a bit tighter and more polished, but some of the inner flame wasn't there. Witnessing the Messengers during this time, I had a sense that Art was still the ultimate power percussionist but that the music's cohesion and direction were coming from another, "outside" influence. It was well-played music employing the most current, even state-of-the-art, composing and playing technique, but even today it fails to move and inspire. Instead, I find it all to tempting to return to Art's live sessions, dates that never seem to age or to wear out their welcome: each invites the listener into a world of timeless, honest, non-pretentious art that's as challenging as it is soulful. Look for a few of the following Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers' "two-fer" albums: "Live at Birdland," "At the Cafe Bohemia," "At the Jazz Corner of the World," "Meet You at the Jazz Corner of the World." If your preference is melodic, soulful, ceaselessly inventive playing, stick with the '50s Messengers; if you prefer aggressively adventurous, even "futuristic" Messengers, look to the exciting, and excitable, '70s "vagabonds" (and never assume that 6 is better than 1: Art's quintets always held more interest for me than his sextets--the latter merely restricted the solo time and diminished the creativity of his major front-liners).
As for this anthology, and the other Ken Burns' discs: all of these albums purporting to be representations of individual artists would be more useful if some effort were made to tell the story behind each of the recorded tracks or even the reason for selecting a particular track. It's as if the producers assumed that the albums would appeal only to an "inner circle," or a small cadre of record collectors and hipsters for whom nothing mattered beyond dates and names! (And we continue to wonder why there's a diminishing audience for America's most important indigenous art form -- or why books explaining the references in Prince's music to his 7th Day Adventist and, later, Jehovah's Witnesses beliefs are best sellers!)
As a public radio announcer, I know all too well that "drop the needle" is no longer sufficient to entertain or educate--even "Pawn Stars" pretends to educate us. If Chumley can do it, why can't the producers of these "historic" albums?
I wouldn't say much Jazz is truly `accessible' which may be part of it's allure, we enjoy being made to work for our pleasure. But, `Moanin' is the most well known track on offer and the one I found the most listenable first time round. It is gentler and less frantic and whilst I have learned to love other tracks on offer here, this is still probably my favourite. You hardcore Jazz heads out there can call me a lightweight, I don't mind!
Some Jazz soothes you, some Jazz confuses you and some Jazz fires you up and what I like about this collection is there are all aspects on show here. That is rare enough and reason to give this a whirl, you may just pleasantly surprise yourself.
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Blakey was the greatest hard bop drummer of all time, and "A Night in Tunisia" proves it. One cannot believe that a single man is producing so much rhythm simultaneously. Blakey always chose the best pickings from the pool of musicians who were on the scene, and I think he rivals Miles in his band leadership. The tightness is sometimes frightening.
But see for yourself, because you wont believe it.