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Art Blakey: Holiday For Skins

Chris May By

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An unpleasant odour of Eurocentric condescension has hung over Art Blakey's drum choir projects ever since they were recorded in the late 1950s. Orgy In Rhythm (1957) and Holiday For Skins (1958)—both originally released as two LPs and both now packaged on single CDs, the latter newly available in this Connoisseur edition—have been viewed by some in the critical fraternity as no more than a bit of inconsequential and unchallenging fun in which Blakey crashes around, more at less at random, with a posse of unschooled, non-jazz musicians.

But Blakey was serious about these projects. He was a drummer, and he believed drums were the bedrock of jazz. And of course he was right. He also had first-hand knowledge of Latin and West African drum and percussion music, obtained by hanging with Cuban and Puerto Rican musicians since the mid-1940s and travelling in Africa for about a year in 1948-49, studying and jamming with tribal musicians. Blakey was no dilettante, and—despite its jokey title and sleeve art—Holiday For Skins is a serious disc.

Supported by two other traps drummers, Philly Joe Jones (most often heard on tympani) and Art Taylor, Blakey approaches the music much as an Ashanti or Yoruba master drummer would—dropping interjections, goads, counterpoints and cross-rhythms into the grooves laid down by the ensemble, signalling changes in rhythm or tempo, and bringing individual soloists forward. In general, he sounds more like an African musician than an American one.

The grooves themselves are a collection of Latin and West African rhythm patterns, from highlife and sakara to mambo and bolero, creatively orchestrated, cross-pollinated, shaken and stirred, with plenty of dynamic light and shade. Most of the material, including the choral chants which introduce some of the tunes, was collectively composed in the studio (all the music was recorded during a single all-night session in November, 1958).

Only three tracks make overt gestures towards the American (as it then was) jazz tradition, and hard bop in particular: "Otinde" and the two originals written by Ray Bryant, "Swingin' Kilts" and "Reflection." Donald Byrd steps forward on these tunes only.

The sound is surprisingly good for its time—and, curiously, much better than engineer Rudy Van Gelder would achieve six years later on Solomon Ilori's African High Life, featuring a similar instrumental ensemble.

Don't believe the ignoramuses. Holiday For Skins is a great album and contains some culturally adventurous, top-dollar Blakey.

Track Listing: The Feast; Aghano; Lamento Africano; Mirage; O'Tinde; Swingin' Kilts; Dinga; Reflection.

Personnel: Art Blakey: drums; Philly Joe Jones: drums, tympani; Art Taylor: drums, gong; Sabu Martinez: bongos, congas; Ray Barretto, Chonguito Vicente: congas; Victor Gonzalez: bongos; Andy Delannoy: maracas, cencerro; Julio Martinez: congas, tree log; Fred Pagan Jr: timbales; Donald Byrd: trumpet; Ray Bryant: piano; Wendell Marshall: bass; Blakey, Jones, Martinez, Austin Cromer, Hal Rasheed: chants.

Title: Holiday For Skins | Year Released: 2006 | Record Label: Blue Note Records

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