What’s in a name? The Black Art Jazz Collective welcomes the question. The bristling hard-bop swagger of this all-black sextet of bandleaders and first-call sidemen sends a message as palpable as the Langston Hughes quote (about the “duty of the younger negro artist”) that’s set beside Cheryl Pelt’s breakdown of jazz as a historical tool for emotional relief and rebellion in the liner notes to Armor of Pride.
Because it features a phalanx of horns (trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, tenor Wayne Escoffery, trombonist James Burton III) and is powered by the sharp accents and brilliant fills of drummer Johnathan Blake, the BAJC is easily likened to Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Since all six members were established, respected musicians before joining the group (pianist Xavier Davis and bassist Vicente Archer complete the lineup) and nearly everyone contributes to the all-original song list, the Cookers are another kindred spirit.
Just as the moniker of this five-year-old band helps explain its attitude, so Armor of Pride is an apt title for the purposeful authority found in the eight tunes of its second release. Blake’s relaxed yet brisk “Miller Time” works equally well in celebrating either the blue-collar brew or the late pianist Mulgrew Miller, one of Blake’s inspirations. Escoffery’s two numbers, the title song and the closing “Black Art,” distinctively twine staccato passages into deceptively knotty time signatures and then erupt in successions of blazing solos. You can feel the restless exasperation in Davis’ “When Will We Learn.”
Meanwhile, Pelt’s trio of compositions buffer the prevailing flow with romantic relief and a different shade of mature artistry and earned gratification. This is a band that means business—and mixes it with a pleasure that’s easily shared.