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Music Review: Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers – Ugetsu

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The Concord Music Group has been releasing classic jazz albums via their Original Jazz Classics Remasters series. To celebrate the one year mark of the ongoing series, four more albums are now seeing the light of day. Albums by Thelonious Monk, Cal Tjader/Stan Getz Sextet, Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson, and the subject of this review Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers have been issued with a pristine sound, excellent packaging, and informative notes. They are a must for all jazz aficionados.

Art Blakey (1919-1990) is now recognized as one of the most influential drummers in jazz history. He was one of the originators of the modern bebop sound, along with Max Roach and Kenny Clarke.

His career began during the 1940s with stints in Fletcher Henderson’s and Billy Ecstine’s orchestras. He would go on to play with such jazz superstars as Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis. He first used the Jazz Messengers name during the late 1940s, but did not regularly record under its name until the early 1950s. They would become one of jazz music’s lasting and influential groups.

Blakey would be the constant member of the ever changing Jazz Messengers until his death in 1990. It was the training ground for dozens of musicians, including Donald Byrd, Freddie Hubbard, Keith Jarrett, Chuck Mangione, and Wynton Marsalis.

Ugetsu is one of the legendary jazz albums as it includes one of the Jazz Messengers classic line-ups. Recorded live at Birdland in New York City during June of 1963, it featured trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, trombonist Curtis Fuller, pianist Cedar Walton, bassist Reggie Workman, plus group leader and drummer Blakey.

The Jazz Messengers were not the Art Blakey show. Most of the time he was content to provide the foundation for the songs which allowed the various members room to solo. Still, he always announced his presence with precision and clarity which helped to define the sound.

Live jazz is many times preferable to studio jazz. Surprises lurk behind every corner and each performance is presented with all its delights and all its flaws exposed. The Jazz Messengers got it right on this release and the results continue to satisfy nearly 50 years later.

A number of memorable songs were introduced, which would remain a part of the Jazz Messengers live shows long after the writers had left. Wayne Shorter’s “One By One” and “On The Ginza,” Curtis Fuller’s “Time Off,” and Cedar Walton’s title track made their debuts.

It is an album of highlights. “One By One” is melodic but the brass section gives it a funky feel. It contains one of the nice early solos of Hubbard’s career. The title track, which Blakey explains means fantasy, contains another nice solo by Hubbard. “Time Off” presents Blakey at his best as he directs the song from behind his drum kit. “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” allows sax player Frank Shorter to step forward for the key solo. Another highlight is the previously unreleased “Conception.”

Ugetsu is a nice trip back in time with one of the better jazz groups at the height of their powers. It takes repeated listens to fully appreciate the brilliance of this release.

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