Malachi Thompson & Africa Brass: Blue Jazz (2003)
Malachi Thompson’s eleventh recording as leader shamelessly dwells in the blues, drinking deeply from that source of inspiration. Blue Jazz keeps the free-bop band alive within the larger Africa Brass. The four trumpet/four trombone combination gives the blue swing the jukebox appeal of early ‘60s Blue Note records. Thompson’s eloquent lead on trumpet brings out the best in two of the best: Billy Harper on tenor, and Gary Bartz on alto. The leader arranges the music into two thematic suites, but each track stands on its own.
The “Black Metropolis Suite” opens the recording with the appealing, intricately layered “Black Metropolis.” When the Brass sits out, Thompson and company channel Lee Morgan. When the Brass returns, Thompson dances over the top of them. Drummer Leon Joyce, Jr. skips on the snare, nearly keeping a shuffle beat with a boogaloo undertow. Bartz contentedly rides the bus the first time through, then plays with meter sounding too cool to hurry. His unique tone can suggest Lou Donaldson at times. Of course, Harper’s not in a hurry, but he plays fast anyway.
“The Panther” uses bold Brass strokes to create a groove similar to Sonny Rollins' “Alfie.” Thompson boosts the excitement into the high register, and Bartz keeps it bluesy with slurred phrases and a taste of Coltrane. “Jazz Revelations” unfolds breezy and urbane, with Thompson slicing through the tenacious Brass. Its hard bop swing puts Harper right where he belongs and he plays with taste and power. Kirk Brown steps out on piano and the rhythm section boils.
On “Blues for a Saint Called Louie Suite,” Thompson and company turn the clock farther back. A portentous opening gets “Po Little Louie” going, with Dee Alexander adding wailing vocals to the wailing horns. “Get on the Train” has Thompson utilizing vocal techniques on horn, but as the tempo rises like a runaway train, he plays it open; Ari Brown keeps the train running in his bass clarinet keys. “Blues for a Saint Called Louis” plays it old time, with Brown back on clarinet this time. Alexander adds vocals to the Prohibition era swing, singing, “There’s a Saint/His name is Louis/He plays a heavenly horn/Now jazz is born.” Thompson works muted against the wah-wah plunger mutes of the Brass.
The title track casts Thompson’s trumpet as straight blues vocalist, preceding Alexander’s voice. Suddenly the band breaks out into the 21st century with Harper leading the way. Harrison Bankhead seems intent on keeping up with him, before the band gears down to the original blues riff and Alexander takes it out. As the disc winds up, Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints” gets an unexpected helping of Latin spice.
Quite simply, Blue Jazz is a slab of steaming soul.
Track Listing: Black Metropolis Suite-Black Metropolis; the Panther; Jazz Revelations; Genesis/Rebirth???; Blues for a Saint Called Louis Suite-Po
Personnel: Malachi Thompson, trumpet, flugelhorn; Gary Bartz, alto and soprano sax; Billy Harper, tenor sax; David Spencer, Kenny Anderson, Micah Frazier, Elmer Brown, trumpet; Tracy Kirk, Steve Berry, Bill McFarland, Omar Jefferson, trombone; Kirk Brown, piano, organ; Harrison Bankhead, bass; Leon Joyce, jr., drums; Dee Alexander, vocals; Ari Brown, tenor sax, clarinet; Gene