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The Music of Art Blakey: 90th Birthday Celebration at the Iridium, NYC

Dave Kaufman By

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Golden Boy: The Music of Art Blakey—90th Birthday Celebration
David Weiss and 11 Musicians
The Iridium Jazz Club
New York, New York
December 5, 2009


The great drummer and long-standing band leader Art Blakey would have celebrated his 90th birthday this past October. In honor of that event, trumpeter, composer and arranger David Weiss assembled a cast of excellent young and not so young musicians to pay tribute to the great master. Blakey and The Jazz Messengers, the quintessential hard bop group, were known for their hard swinging blues and funk as well as the relentless drive supplied by Blakey himself. In 1963 or 1964 (the date is in dispute), the group supplemented its regular sessions recorded for Blue Note Records with a largely unheralded album, Theme from Golden Boy, on the Colpix label. Golden Boy was a contemporaneous Broadway play featuring Sammy Davis, Jr., who was nominated for a Tony Award for his performance as a prize fighter who rises from his humble Harlem origins.


Although the Jazz Messengers were at the peak of their artistic powers in the early 1960s (with bands that included Wayne Shorter, Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard, the Blakey album never garnered much attention and has not even been released on CD. In all likelihood, few in the audience had even heard of the recording prior to the tribute performance at The Iridium.

For the occasion, trumpeter David Weiss assembled an 11-piece band that mirrored the instrumentation of the original Blakey recording, including tuba (Howard Johnson) and French horn (Mark Taylor). On this night, they were joined by former Messenger 74-year-old trombonist Curtis Fuller, who had played on the original recording some 45 years ago. Nate Chinen reviewed the present show on opening night (Thursday) for the New York Times. His review was rather lukewarm, noting problems with missed cues, intonation issues and a muddy sound mix—problems that were not apparent to this reviewer during Saturday night's show. However, it was hard not to sense some dissonance listening to show tunes in a repertory band devoted to the music of Art Blakey, especially for anyone familiar with the band's Blue Note recordings.

Such reservations were quickly replaced by the musical artistry of this spirited band and its wonderful soloists. At times, the arrangements (done by Wayne Shorter, Cedar Walton and Curtis Fuller) seemed a little mannered, but at other times they revealed a nice array of tonal colors juxtaposing the brassy sounds of the trumpet with the deeper lower pitched sounds of the tuba and baritone sax played by Jason W. Marshall. Each of the 12 musicians was liberally featured, soloing at least once. The ensemble played the Golden Boy album (five songs) in its entirety. They also performed the Curtis Fuller composition "Arabia," first recorded on the distinguished Jazz Messenger album Mosaic (Blue Note, 1961).



Fuller was one of the featured soloists on the second song, "Lorna's Here," a lovely ballad. Although he may not have the agile facility of 45 years ago, he still has a big warm sound. Moreover, it was clear that he relished every solo opportunity, his joy spreading throughout the audience. Especially noteworthy were the musical statements of Jason Marshall, a young and enormously agile baritone saxophonist, who demonstrated remarkable mastery over the potentially cumbersome reed instrument. "The Theme from Golden Boy," an appealing melody played at a mid-tempo pace, featured a brilliant solo by Jeremy Pelt on trumpet. As Chinen noted in his review, Pelt was perhaps the outstanding soloist and "easy to picture in Blakey's finishing school." Indeed he was an audible presence throughout the performance, even when serving as counterpoint to another soloist. Howard Johnson also played an engaging and very musical solo on tuba. Johnson has always been able to coax beautiful sounds from this unwieldy beast of an instrument, exploring its full dynamic range (OK, there is not really all that much range). The Wayne Shorter-arranged "There is a Party" (on the Blakey album, but not on the Broadway soundtrack) had a funkier sound and swung a little harder than the other pieces. "I Want to be With You" had a more orchestrated sound and would not sound out of place on a Gil Evans/Miles Davis collaboration.

The last two songs were easily the highlights of the evening. "Arabia" proved a hard-driving up-tempo tune more typical of the Jazz Messengers. It was played with real fire and served to energize the audience. The featured soloists included Marshall on the baritone, a surprisingly funky and full-bodied Curtis Fuller on trombone solo, and a very soulful Javon Jackson on tenor. The final number, "Yes I Can," was a vehicle for brilliant alto work by Donald Harrison. He was the only featured soloist and played a breath-taking solo that was as impressive for its stylistic diversity, from bop to funk, as it was for its fluidity and coherence. Harrison began his career as a member of one of the latter-day editions of the Jazz Messengers in the early 1980s. Harrison, who has explored music that stretches beyond jazz into somewhat more commercial realms, left no question about whether he still has major jazz chops, delivering a solo that was definitely the most memorable moment of the evening.

In the review, Chinen was somewhat critical of the rhythm section—more of sound mix than performance. However, Saturday's was a different unit, with Peter Washington replacing Stephen Scott stepping in for Mulgrew Miller. The pair proved a tight and sympathetic supporting crew in addition to serving up creative solos individually (though only Scott was given the opportunity to really stretch out). Veteran Louis Hayes was a steady rhythmic presence on drums. He is not the hard-driving or volcanic soloist that Blakey was in his day. But at 72 years of age (and looking no older than 50), he plays like he did in his salad days with {{Cannonball Adderley = 3270}.

I was seated next to a lady from Los Angeles who was accompanied by her 16-year-old son, a budding jazz guitarist. He was simply awestruck by the talent on the stage, having never experienced anything like this in his life. His enthusiasm was irrepressible—much like the impact of hearing the original Messengers in person.

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