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Tony Allen: A Tribute to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers

Mark Sullivan By

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Legendary Nigerian drummer Tony Allen is an Afrobeat pioneer best known for his tenure as musical director for Fela Kuti. American jazz was an early influence, and he pays tribute to hard bop icon drummer Art Blakey and his band The Jazz Messengers here. In a way this is full circle, as Blakey was greatly influenced by African music. In the late 1940s he visited West Africa, and recorded several albums reflecting that experience, including Orgy in Rhythm (Blue Note, 1957), Holiday for Skins (Blue Note, 1958), and The African Beat (Blue Note, 1962). The instrumentation—a septet with four horns—is slightly larger than the average Jazz Messengers lineup, which was most often a quintet with two horns, sometimes a sextet with three horns.

The EP kicks off with what is arguably the Messengers' "greatest hit." Pianist Bobby Timmons' "Moanin'" made such an impression that the album it first appeared on—Art Blakey And The Jazz Messengers (Blue Note, 1959)—is often referred to as Moanin' (the cover image of this album is also a homage to it). Allen has said that these sessions were jazz, but "jazz my way." The arrangements make this and the other hard bop tunes work with a more Afrobeat-style groove by fitting them into a vamp (for the most part) and then simplifying and altering the rhythm of the melody to fit. So familiar tunes are easily identifiable, but they are different from the usual jazz treatment. "Moanin'" begins with an infectious groove for the head, then slips into a more conventional swing feel for the bridge (just when you may be wondering how that part of the tune will work).

The next track has almost as strong an association with the band. Dizzy Gillespie wrote "A Night in Tunisia," but Blakey really made it his own. Two early Messengers albums used it as the title tune: one for RCA Victor's Vik label (1957) with trumpeter Bill Hardman and saxophonists Jackie McLean and Johnny Griffin; the other for Blue Note (1960) with trumpeter Lee Morgan and saxophonist Wayne Shorter. This arrangement skips the Interlude, no doubt in service of the groove. Hardman's "Politely" is a more obscure choice. The piece was actually first recorded on saxophonist Lou Donaldson's Sunny Side Up (Blue Note, 1960) before appearing on Art Blakey' The Big Beat (Blue Note, 1960) after Hardman had left the band. "The Drum Thunder Suite" closes the set, another selection from the same album as "Moanin'"—and a great showcase for the leader's drumming. Allen's solo has his stylistic thumbprint, and no stock jazz drumming licks.

Allen's fellow rhythm section members deserve special mention. Bassist Mathias Allamane and pianist Jean-Philippe Dary consistently lock in with the drummer to make these infectious jazz/Afrobeat grooves happen. It's a fascinating project, easily recommended to fans of either Art Blakey or Afrobeat music.

Track Listing: Moanin'; Night In Tunisia; Politely; The Drum Thunder Suite.

Personnel: Tony Allen: drums; Mathias Allamane: bass; Jean-Philippe Dary: piano; Nicolas Giraud: trumpet; Daniel Zimmermann: trombone; Yann Jankielewicz: tenor saxophone; Rémi Sciuto: baritone saxophone, alto saxophone, sopranino saxophone; Jean-Jacques Elangué: tenor saxophone.

Title: A Tribute to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers | Year Released: 2017 | Record Label: Blue Note Records

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