Art Blakey is spoken about a lot in our little 'berg on the internet, and like most other admirers of his Jazz Messengers body of work, we tend to focus more on the late 50s-mid 60s era that included so many future jazz icons like Freddie Hubbard, Johnny Griffin, Lee Morgan, Bobby Timmons, Benny Golson, Wayne Shorter, Curtis Fuller, Cedar Walton, etc., etc. What's sometimes overlooked is the fact that Blakey had never stopped mentoring future jazz stars. As Nick so accurately states in his sizing up of Art Collection, a posthumously discovered collection of revealing live performances from Blakey's post-classic period, ..."Blakey's group was bested only by Davis' in producing successive generations of important jazz musicians."
Nearly twenty-one years after Blakey's death, alumni of later Messengers lineups are either major or outright dominant figures in jazz today: Terence Blanchard, Bobby Watson, Charles Fambrough (until his untimely death at the start of this year), Donald Harrison, and of course, Wynton and Branford Marsalis. It's interesting to hear how these cats sounded in their formative years under the tutelage of one of the music form's greatest mentors. That's part of the real draw of yet another one of those late-period recordings found years after Blakey passed away, the double-CD set The Sesjun Radio Shows.
Culled from four radio broadcast concerts in The Netherlands between 1978 and 1983, Sesjun just misses by months the Marsalis brothers' stints in the band from around the same time period, but Watson, Blanchard, Harrison, Fambrough, trumpeter Valery Ponomarev and the late pianist James Williams are all heard prominently on these selections.
The first six of the fourteen tracks come from a December, 1978 set, notable for the smooth groovin' originals from Watson ("Time Will Tell," E.T.A.") and Williams ("Dr. J."). Tenor man David Schnitter honks it like a cross between George Coleman and Dexter Gordon on the first tune. It's here we find what an elegant, underrated pianist Williams was, too. E.T.A.," another one of Watson's wonderful bop compositions, features the power and fury of Blakey at the beginning of the song: his signature press rolls, African rhythms, and that ever-present high-hat. Within this impressive 1978 line-up, though, the Soviet defector shone more brightly on this day. He articulates like Clifford Brown on Time Will Tell," puts on a muted horn clinic for My One And Only Love," and gets sweet 'n' sassy for Dr. J." Watson, who also served as the musical director for the band during his tenure there, gets in a few good licks himself, hitting those difficult notes during his solo turn on Blakey's Evaline."
The next four selections, spanning over both discs, are taken from a May, 1980 performance. Billy Pierce replaces David Schnitter, and Fambrough takes over bassist Dennis Irwin's spot by this time. Ponomarev, Watson and Williams are still with the band. Watson by this time was getting more solo space: Stairway To The Stars" is a showcase for him and he pours his heart into Shorter's fiery Free For All." It wasn't always about the solos with the Messengers, though, as Golson's Blues March" will always be remembered by its highly interactive, elaborate but instantly recognizable horn chart in the chorus, and it's played here intact. Ponomarev, who would soon be replaced by Wynton, makes another well versed improvisational delivery. Williams' 1977 A.D." is a smokin,' rapid blowing session by the composer and all three brass players.
The last four cuts fast forward to a date in January, 1983. Jean Toussaint performs both tenor and soprano saxophones, the overlooked Johnny O'Neal has taken over for Williams on piano, Fambrough is carried over on bass, and the trumpet and alto sax chairs are occupied by the future dynamic duo Blanchard and Harrison. But for the first song, Fambrough's Little Man," Toussaint's tenor gets the starring role as the initial soloist, and he plays with a funky, Eddie Harris vigor. Harrison follows with more carefully chosen notes, a nice contrast, as Blakey bolsters him with perfectly placed accents and bombs. Blanchard, years before he exploded into the most popular and recognized mainstream jazz trumpet player of his generation behind Wynton, already has mastered his horn technically by this time and also serving as the band's musical director. Just as Pomoarev got a muted solo spotlight on My One And Only Love," so did Blanchard get the featured presentation for another durable ballad, Polka Dots And Moonbeams." Note-for-note, it's flawless and direct and derivative of Miles (something he addressed head-on with his 1991 Davis tribute, Simply Stated), though there's little of the flair or grit of his signature works starting in the next decade. Fambrough proves to be a more notable presence than Irwin before him, and his bass solo on Timmons' Moanin'" brings to light his lyrical bent.
The performances aren't note-perfect everywhere; once in a while, someone will take a chance and fall flat; a note is missed here and there; even Blakey himself was sharper on some songs more than others. Put in the context of the hard drinkin,' heavy travelin' group full of young pups, though, Blakey got them in line more times than not. He pushed them to find their own voice, that's evident from these tapes. How far these players wanted to go was entirely up to them after their taskmaster behind the drum kit got done with them. The radio show recordings aren't going to rank among the essential Jazz Messengers purchases, but not because they aren't enjoyable...indeed, they are very enjoyable. There's just so many great Blakey recordings to choose from that are more important historically. From the perspective of hearing live performances by many of today's big names in jazz when they were anonymous but talented and eager to learn, however, this stuff is pretty intriguing.
Typical of European radio broadcasts of jazz performances, these recordings are of great, sometimes excellent quality.The Sesjun Radio Shows was released April 12 by Naxos of American, Inc. and T2 Entertainment.