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Jazz Messenger, Jazz Mentor: A Take Five Tribute to the Timeless Art Blakey

David Redferns

It’s never a bad time to celebrate Art Blakey, the indefatigable drummer, towering bandleader and peerless mentor.

But the occasion of a new release by Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, just out on Blue Note, is reason enough to hijack this edition of Take Five with a Blakey beat. This hardly begins to scratch the surface of his monumental recorded legacy — but it gives some picture of what he was about. Beginning with a cut from the newly unearthed album, it goes on to cover some of his work as a sideman, and later as a guardian of tradition.

Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, “Hipsippy Blues”

The opening track of the new archival Jazz Messengers album, Just Coolin’, is this tune by Hank Mobley, who held the tenor saxophone chair in the band at the time — in between two better-documented editions that respectively featured Benny Golson and Wayne Shorter. Mobley was in fact a charter member of the Jazz Messengers, and he knew how to make the band cook: he wrote this tune as a shuffle, and it brings out the best not only from him and Blakey but also trumpeter Lee Morgan, pianist Bobby Timmons and bassist Jymie Merritt.

Hank Mobley, “This I Dig of You”

Speaking of Hank Mobley: I’ve always loved his album Soul Station, which was recorded for Blue Note almost exactly a year after Just Coolin’, with Blakey on drums, Wynton Kelly on piano and Paul Chambers on bass. And no tune on the album better captures the lift that Blakey could bring to a band than “This I Dig of You,” with a head that toggles between an annunciatory quasi-Latin mode and full-tilt swing. Listen to how deep Blakey gets with a simple cross-stick pattern during Kelly’s piano solo — and how he gradually opens up the throttle behind Mobley.

Thelonious Monk, “Nutty”

No Blakey salute would be complete without some Thelonious Monk. They were crucial early collaborators — that’s Blakey all over Genius of Modern Music, Vol. 1 and 2 — and they continued a deep musical kinship over many successive eras. This terrifically swinging version of “Nutty” was originally released in 1954 on the 10-inch LP Thelonious Monk Plays (with Percy Heath and Art Blakey). It was remastered and reissued last year by Craft Recordings, for the delectable boxed set Thelonious Monk: The Complete Prestige 10-Inch LP Collection.

Art Blakey and the Afro-Drum Ensemble, “Ayiko Ayiko”

African rhythm is always present in Art Blakey’s playing, whether he’s leaning into a press roll or thundering across his toms. On a 1962 album called The African Beat, he had the chance to close the circle and work with musicians from West Africa, like the Nigerian percussionists Solomon Ilori and James Ola Folami. Also present on the album are interested jazz parties like bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik and multi-reedist Yusef Lateef, whose bounding tenor saxophone solo on “Ayiko Ayiko (Welcome, Welcome, My Darling)” underscores some affinities with Sonny Rollins.

Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, “Little Man”

Finally, it’s only fitting to acknowledge the role that Blakey filled as a mentor and one-man academy to several generations of jazz talent. The video above comes from a 1982 performance at The Smithsonian, featuring an edition of the Jazz Messengers that became famous for the two brothers in its frontline: Wynton Marsalis on trumpet and Branford Marsalis on alto saxophone. Rounding out the band are tenor saxophonist Bill Pierce, pianist Donald Brown, and bassist Charles Fambrough, who wrote the tune, a mid-tempo cruiser called “Little Man.”

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, Nate Chinen is editorial director at WBGO and a regular contributor to NPR Music.