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Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers

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Rare and Rewarding

This concert date by Blakey, filmed during the summer of 1976 in Umbria, Italy, is visually stunning. The setting is a make-shift stage in the street, nestled among stucco houses in a space so confined as to suggest an intimate night club. The crowd is attentive and receptive, though not especially enthusiastic. Some listeners are simply peering out from open casa windows. Sartorially, this edition of the Messengers fits in particularly well. They look less like jazz musicians than a band of gypsies or street performers— dressed as much for slumming as concertizing (what a contrast to the formal Marsalises, who in 5 years would be putting in their time with Blakey).

More importantly, the TDK crew manages to put the viewer right in the center of the ensemble, a privileged position compared to any in attendance that day. The shots are sharp and revealing, the cutting is judicious and completely in synch with the music, camera placement is varied, providing long shots as well as close-ups but never losing primary focus on the music. The audio engineering isn't up to this level, as the ensemble balance occasionally suffers, and the toning down of Blakey's usually dominant percussion seems overdone. Fortunately, the soloists are captured with sterling sonic clarity.

Apart from the quality of the production, a primary reason to own this disc is the personnel, largely overlooked and unheralded—but not forgotten by some of us. The veteran Bill Hardman may be the one trumpet player in Blakey's groups (which included Donald Byrd, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Wynton Marsalis) who rivals another former Messenger star, Clifford Brown. Yet it's becoming ever harder to locate recordings by him. Same with the diminutive but high-powered Dave Schnitter, none of whose four LP's has ever been issued on CD. Notwithstanding some sloppy execution on a few especially knotty ensemble passages, the bigness of his sound and daring, passionate fire of his playing are simply unmatched by any other Blakey tenor player, from Mobley and Golson to Shorter and Branford Marsalis. He showed up out of the blue, traveled with Blakey for five years, then suddenly and mysteriously evaporated.

The same fate appears to have happened to the brilliant musical creations of Walter Davis, Jr., represented on this program by three strikingly original pieces that combine challenging rhythms and harmonies with operatic, aria-like melodies. Sadly, there are no other recordings, to my knowledge, of the Messengers with this frontline, let alone with masterpieces like "Backgammon," "Uranus," and "Gypsy Folk Tales." No doubt this one, too, will soon fall by the wayside. I'm just happy to have picked up a copy.

Track Listing: 1. Backgammon, 2. Along Came Betty, 3. Uranus, 4. Blues March, 5. All The Things You Are and 6. Gypsy Folk Tales.

Personnel: Art Blakey, drums; Dave Schnitter, ts; Bill Hardman, trpt; Mickey Tucker, piano; Cameron Brown, bass.

Encoding: Region 1 (U.S. and Canada only.)
Format: Color, Dolby
Rated: NR
Studio: Naxos of America
DVD Release Date: November 19, 2002

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