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Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers: In Concert 1962 (SteepleChase)

Review of a previously unreleased Copenhagen live recording, part of an ongoing In Concert series from the Danish label

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Cover of Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers album In Concert
Cover of Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers album In Concert

Recorded in Copenhagen, this set captures one of the most fabled editions of the Messengers—trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, trombonist Curtis Fuller, pianist Cedar Walton, and the now-too-often-forgotten bassist Jymie Merritt, along with their indefatigable leader—in full flight. It’s the usual mix of standards and originals, this time contributed by Shorter (“Contemplation,” “Lester Left Town”) and Fuller (“Arabia”), in the classic hard-swinging Messengers style.

Shorter’s solo on “Moon River” sets the pace: This “river” is closer to a tsunami than the gently rippling dreamscape of Mercer and Arlen’s original vision. Throughout, Hubbard summons both the technical brio of old-school bebop and the gospel fervor of the burgeoning hard-bop style. Fuller likewise melds acuity, imagination, and a timbral sureness that rivals such bop-era progenitors as J.J. Johnson. Walton exploits the percussive, as well as melodic and harmonic, capacities of his instrument, creating shifting textural landscapes that he then negotiates effortlessly. And Blakey, of course, is an unstoppable force of nature.

Hubbard’s muted tenderness as he caresses Monk’s “’Round Midnight” is toughened by his wry humor and the unwavering focus of his extended lines; Shorter’s “Contemplation” lives up to its title, albeit infused with forward-driving impetus devoid of bathos; “It’s Only a Paper Moon” is a flat-out romp, spiced by Walton’s sly insertion of a quote from Monk’s “Rhythm-a-Ning”; Shorter’s solo on Fuller’s “Arabia” is a six-minute-plus marathon that explodes into uncharted realms of power and imaginative intensity.

Such is the heat and virtuosity these artists summon that it can be almost exhausting listening to take them on their own terms and rise to meet the bar they set, but it’s well worth the effort: a bracing flight of inspiration, challenges, and, most importantly (as William Blake would remind us), “wing’d exulting swift delight.” 

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David Whiteis

David Whiteis is a critic, journalist, and author based in Chicago. He is the recipient of the Blues Foundation’s 2001 Keeping the Blues Alive Award for Achievement in Journalism. His books include Southern Soul-Blues (U. of Illinois Press, 2013) and Chicago Blues: Portraits and Stories (U. Of Illinois Press, 2006). He is currently at work completing a book on contemporary Chicago blues and a co-written autobiography of the late soul singer Denise LaSalle.