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Free For All
A few thoughts on Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers' 1964 barn burner
Free For All was the first album I bought by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.
I remember seeing the cover in a book on jazz one day in 1998—about two years after becoming a jazz collector. What caught my attention was the listing on the album cover of the musicians on Free For All: Freddie Hubbard, Curtis Fuller, Wayne Shorter, Cedar Walton and Reggie Workman. These were all names I recognized and had heard on recordings that I had by either Miles Davis or John Coltrane.
Starting a jazz collection is a bit like that. You buy an album by Miles, devour it and then pick up something by Coltrane or Cannonball Adderley, devour it and then buy something by McCoy Tyner or Yusef Lateef and so on and so on until you’ve built a big family tree.
After buying the CD at the flagship Sam the Record Man store right next door to Toronto’s Ryerson University (an admitted factor into why I chose to become a Ryerson student—that the flagship HMV and Tower Records stores were also within easy walking distance didn’t hurt either), I played it and was bowled over.
I was thinking about all this when I gave Free For All a re-listen this past weekend.
Recorded in February 1964, what always immediately jumps out when I hear it is the sheer intensity of Blakey. He was always an active drummer and laid the beat on strong but here, especially on the title track written by Wayne Shorter that starts the recording, his playing is at an another level. Using a fairly traditional structure of tension-and-release throughout each chorus, Blakey keeps pushing harder and harder, often forgoing strictly keeping time for fills and other eruptions, particularly during Shorter’s and Hubbard’s solos.
Having Free For All as my initiation into the universe of Art Blakey was ideal not only because of the music but also due to Nat Hentoff’s liner notes, especially his astute inclusion of a quote from Ralph J. Gleason on how to listen to Blakey.
One of Gleason’s main points on how to appreciate Blakey’s drumming is to hear how he introduces each solo in a piece. One of his signature tricks was three syncopated crashes on the cymbal as one soloist concludes and another begins. ‘Hammer Head,’ another Shorter original, offers a prime example of this. Blakey was especially attuned to how the drums could guide the listener and increase our enjoyment. Being the leader of one of jazz’s premier finishing schools likely had a lot of do with that. ‘Hammer Head’ also showcases that unstoppable force of groove known as the Blakey shuffle—perk your ears up especially for Walton’s solo.
‘The Core,’ written by Freddie Hubbard as an homage to the Congress of Racial Equality is infused with urgency and passion. Everyone is in top shape.
The concluding track, ‘Pensativa,’ a gorgeous line by Claire Fischer, is most fitting. After three tracks of often shattering intensity, it’s time to exhale and dance. The musicians sound like they are having a ball. Blakey is heard, more than once, urging the band on—at one point, he shouts encouragingly to Shorter, “Blow your horn!”
This edition of the Jazz Messengers, which was together from the fall of 1961 (Jymie Merritt was initially on bass until Reggie Workman came on board from John Coltrane’s band) until just after the recording of Free For All, was one of Blakey’s greatest bands. While I have not heard everything they recorded, Mosaic and Ugetsu reach the same rarified level of Free For All as does Indestructible! (Lee Morgan is in the trumpet chair in place of Hubbard).
They are essential listening.
Pet Sounds at 55: May 16 was the 55th anniversary of the release of Pet Sounds and like all good fans of the Beach Boys, I gave it a celebratory spin. What jumped out was confirmation that the bridge of ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ may be one of the best ever written, the sheer beauty of ‘Let’s Go Away for Awhile’ (the section that starts at 1:02 may be the most sensuous thing Brian Wilson has ever written) and ‘Sloop John B.’ most certainly belongs on the album. Music this good never gets old or ages.
A few things I’m looking forward to: I am eagerly anticipating the anniversary edition of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Deja Vu landing on my doorstep (hopefully next week) as well as the new Sony Classical boxset collecting Leonard Bernstein’s Stravinsky recordings on RCA and Columbia Masterworks (here’s a write-up on the set from The New York Times’ Anthony Tommasini) and upcoming volume in Joni Mitchell’s Archives series featuring remixed versions of her albums for Warner/Reprise. I hope to share some thoughts on all three in the coming weeks.
Branford Marsalis on Questlove Supreme: A good music podcast is hard to find and Questlove’s Questlove Supreme is undoubtedly one of the good ones. I recently listened to the episode featuring saxophonist Branford Marsalis and thoroughly recommend it. If you have two hours to spend, give a listen however you like to catch your podcasts.