First Appeared in The Music Box, August 2005, Volume 12, #8
Written by John Metzger
During the 1940s, Billy Eckstine’s big band was the proving ground for up-and-coming jazz talent. In fact, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Dexter Gordon are just a few of those who passed through its ranks. Drummer Art Blakey also spent time in Eckstine’s ensemble, but from the 1950s until the time of his death in 1990, it was Blakey’s own outfit the Jazz Messengers that became the crucible in which future stars — such as Wayne Shorter, Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Lee Morgan, Keith Jarrett, and Freddie Hubbard, among them — were born.
Nevertheless, getting the Jazz Messengers off the ground wasn’t an easy task. Although it initially formed in 1947 under the moniker of 17 Messengers, it wasn’t until Blakey teamed with pianist Horace Silver in 1954 that the group truly began to coalesce. By the time that Silver departed the following year, the Jazz Messengers had earned enough of a reputation to land a deal with Columbia Records, and in 1956, a dramatically different incarnation of the collective issued the aptly titled Hard Bop. In crafting his sophomore effort for the label, however, Blakey took an entirely different tact. Instead of recording with the Jazz Messengers, he assembled an all-star percussion ensemble to concoct the three tracks that give Drum Suite its title. At the time, his idea was remarkably unique, and its reverberations would be felt throughout the jazz, Latin, world music, and rock communities for decades to come. Underpinned by pianist Ray Bryant and bass player Oscar Pettiford, the grooves laid down by Blakey, Jo Jones, Specs Wright, Candido Camero, and Sabu Martinez fully explored the Afro-Cuban rhythms with which the bandleader long had been fascinated. Of particular note is the deep, hypnotic swing of Oscalypso, which finds spiritual enlightenment within its heady, swirling cadence.
As for the latter half of Drum Suite, it was composed of a trio of leftovers from the same sessions by the Jazz Messengers that yielded Hard Bop. Not surprisingly, the group’s performance is equally solid. The transition is seamless, too, as an extended drum solo by Blakey provides the introduction to an impressive romp through Nica’s Tempo. The collective, which featured trumpeter Bill Hardman, saxophonist Jackie McLean, pianist Sam Dockery, and bass player Spanky DeBrest, also cuts loose on the driving Just for Marty, but it’s the cool, easy-going refrains of D’s Dilemma that serves as the album’s true highlight.
Augmenting the CD debut of Drum Suite are three selections from the incarnation of the Jazz Messengers that briefly existed between the time that Horace Silver departed and the line-up featured on Hard Bop was formed. With Donald Byrd on trumpet, Ira Sullivan on saxophone and trumpet, Kenny Drew on piano, and Wilbur Ware on bass, the group fired its way through Lil’ T and a pair of renditions of The New Message. It’s the first version of this latter song that is of particular interest both for the manner in which Byrd and Sullivan spar and for the tightly interlocked propulsion supplied by Blakey and Ware. Indeed, although the Jazz Messengers recorded better outings, few were quite as groundbreaking as Drum Suite, and the extra material provides a valuable glimpse of an oft-forgotten slice of jazz history.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2005 The Music Box