The title of trumpeter Valery Ponomarev’s tribute to the late drummer/bandleader is perfect. Blakey was indeed a father of sorts to nearly all who joined his ensemble, the Jazz Messengers—including Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, and Wynton Marsalis. Ponomarev should know; he earned his stripes as a Messenger, joining the group only a few years after moving to the U.S. from his native Russia. He played with Blakey from 1976 to 1980, and although he’s become a prominent leader and a sideman since then, his roots are forever tied to Blakey’s legacy—a truth he acknowledges with this big-band homage to his mentor, who would have turned 100 last year.
Ponomarev’s first big-band release in 2016, which bore the same title as this album minus the centennial part, included Messenger staples “Moanin’,” “Blues March,” and “Crisis.” This live followup is loaded with more hard-bop gems composed by Messenger alums, plus a few standards by Duke Ellington and Bud Powell. On Benny Golson’s “Are You Real?” Ponomarev cleverly layers the brass section with blazing solos by alto saxophonist Chris Hemingway and tenor saxophonist Peter Brainin. “Tell It Like It Is” opens the album and includes an inspired Ponomarev solo, as does the Gypsy-inspired “Caravan,” which also features refreshing work by altoist Todd Bashore.
In some respects, Ponomarev’s instincts for leading a band are comparable to Blakey’s; like his former employer, he knows when to let his band shine, and they certainly do not disappoint. On “Quick Silver,” for instance, pianist Mamiko Watanabe slides up and down the piano keys at a cheetah-like pace. Drummer Victor Jones’ energy is notable too, particularly on “Webb City” and “Hammer Head,” which both open with explosive drum breaks in true Blakey fashion. It’s hard not to bop your head to every track and that, I’m sure, is the vibe Ponomarev was aiming for. Bu would have been proud.