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Malachi Thompson and Africa Brass: Blue Jazz

Although this was recorded between 2001 and 2003, it sounds like a 1960s date. The repertoire is made up of one-to-three-chord pieces, and the brass band has an older Blue Note sound as it accompanies highly refined hard-bop soloists. The piano, bass and drums of Kirk Brown, Harrison Bankhead and Leon Joyce Jr., respectively, generate much of this band’s attractive spirit.

Trumpeter Thompson solos at length throughout Blue Jazz. He’s a fanciful player, a master of the lyrical side of ’50s late-bop players such as the early, less-stylized Miles Davis and early Clifford Brown followers. But he cares less about hard bop’s flair and great formal sophistication-instead, his lines are diffuse, so inspired passages often jostle uninspired ideas. By contrast, altoist Gary Bartz’s three solos are especially fine examples of how to shape diverse material into organic wholes, and he plays the hell out of the blues. The other main soloists also create structured improvisations: the charged-up Billy Harper and Ari Brown on tenor (like Bartz, they too began in the ’60s) and melodic trombonists Bill McFarland and Steve Berry.

There’s pleasure in Thompson’s soulful compositions and arrangements. Like his friend Lester Bowie, he presents a variety of settings for his five trumpets and four trombones, with plenty of blues and backbeats. Half of his “Black Metropolis Suite” features boppish themes, though the slow conclusion (“Genesis/Rebirth”) fails to achieve the intended monumentality. There’s a light-hearted “Blues for a Saint Called Louis Suite” that has an old-timey slow-to-fast train piece (“Get on the Train”). The one nonoriginal is Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints.” Singer Dee Alexander adds some color, though she mainly just repeats brief lyrics (“Who put the blues inside my jazz? Who put the jazz inside my blues?”), as does a hoarse Big Doowopper in “Mud Hole.”

Originally Published