Art Blakey may never have strayed far from the music that captured his spirit in his youth, namely the more soulful and simple-themed variation on bebop called hard bop, but throughout the course of his fifty-plus year career, he was a constant, most notably with his Jazz Messengers band, starting in '53 and continuing until literally months before his death in '90. Blakey's Beat is part of Concord Jazz's reissue series that releases two like-minded CDs as a budget-priced two-CD set, in this case '78's In This Korner and '81's Straight Ahead , both live sets recorded at San Francisco's Keystone Korner. Both performances exemplify what Blakey was all about: superb musicianship, fine writing and, above all, an overriding sense of swing.
Blakey introduced seemingly countless players to the jazz world through the Messengers, including Wayne Shorter, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Jackie McLean and Keith Jarrett, and these two incarnations are no different, with pianist James Williams, alto saxophonist Bobby Watson and trumpeters Valery Ponomarev and, in particular, a young Wynton Marsalis, whose precocious and already prodigious talents are heard on the second of the two discs. Blakey also made the Messengers a vehicle for the writing of his young talents, and disc one features material by Williams, Watson and Ponomarev, with disc two, while leaning more towards standards, featuring one piece by Watson.
Of the two discs the second is marginally better, if only for it being the first major label release by the teenaged Marsalis. His technique is already frighteningly developed, as evidenced by his work on the closing piece, Miles Davis' "The Theme," where he executes rapid-fire staccato runs that Miles could never (or, to be fair, would never) aspire to. And, according to the liner notes, Marsalis was already heavily into controlling his environment, getting involved with the recording, the house sound and more. But the proof is in the pudding, and Marsalis' playing demonstrates a surprisingly mature player, with a clear knowledge of tradition that is uncanny for one so young.
Marsalis' presence on the second disc should not, however, overshadow the other fine performances. Bassist Dennis Irwin, on disc one, is the solid anchor that he would ultimately be for so many other artists, including John Scofield and Scott Hamilton; Charles Fambrough has become a similarly ubiquitous player, appearing on dozens of sessions including those with Marsalis, Roy Hargrove and McCoy Tyner. Watson's galvanizing style has contributed to many great records, including his own recently reformed group, Horizon, while Williams has gone on to work with Tom Harrell and Harold Mabern.
And what of Art Blakey? His spirited playing has been an inspiration to generations of drummers, including Ralph Peterson and Marvin "Smitty" Smith. But as much as his performances sparkle, it is his legacy as a bandleader and developer of new talent that assure his place in history. Blakey's Beat provides ample evidence that, even in his later years, he was as exciting yet supportive as he ever was.
Track Listing: Disk One: Art Blakey Intro; Pamela; Unlimited; In This Korner; The Song is You; Dark Side, Light Side; 1978 (1977 A.D.); Blues for Two Disk Two: Falling in Love With Love; My Romance; Webb City; How Deep is the Ocean; E.T.A.; The Theme
Personnel: Art Blakey (drums), Robert Watson (alto saxophone), James Williams (piano), Dave Schnitter (tenor saxophone, disk one), Valery Ponomarev (trumpet, disk one), Dennis Irwin (bass, disk one), Bill Pierce (tenor saxophone, disk two), Wynton Marsalis (trumpet, disk two), Charles Fambrough (bass, disk two)