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Music Review: Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers Live At Birdland – Ugetsu

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Birdland, NYC June 16, 1963. What a place to have been for 98 lucky souls. Yes, you read that right. The most famous jazz club in the world has a capacity of just 98. Those fortunate enough to have attended that night were treated to an incredible performance by Art Blakey And The Jazz Messengers. Although it was Blakey who inaugurated the “Live At Birdland” genre of albums (which has grown to over 100 individual titles by now), Ugetsu proved to be his third and final recording there. I must say, they went out in style.

Blakey was one of the finest drummers in jazz, but it was the people he surrounded himself with who were the real story. Blakey’s Jazz Messengers were always the cream of the crop. Much like it was with Miles Davis, a stint with Blakey could be considered something of a graduate course in musicianship.

Right from the top, the band is on fire. The great Cedar Walton’s piano opens up “One By One,” the horns of Curtis Fuller (trombone), Freddie Hubbard (trumpet), and Wayne Shorter (sax) state the theme — then Blakey himself pounds a nice little drum break, opening the song up for a fine Shorter solo. Holding it all together is the rock-solid bass of Reggie Workman.

The eleven-minute title track “Ugetsu” is up next, and is a tour-de-force. Wayne Shorter wrote this one, and structurally it is remarkably similar to the modal form that John Coltrane brought to his version of “My Favorite Things.” The piano of Walton is key. In much the same way that the piano of Bill Evans “led” Miles’ group through the tracks on Kind Of Blue, so does Walton’s here. It is a remarkably subtle display of directorship.

The reinterpretation of standards was all the rage back in those golden New Frontier days of jazz, and some great things came out of it. “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” written by Rodgers and Hart, is an example. Wayne Shorter is afforded ample space to stretch out, and as he does one cannot help but notice the empathy he and Walton enjoy. The only contemporary comparison I can make is to that of Coltrane and McCoy Tyner.

The original Riverside LP closed out with “On The Ginza.” Like “Ugetsu,” “On The Ginza’s” title references Japanese culture. I really have no idea why, while both tracks are phenomenal, I do not hear anything that could be traced to Japan in them. In any case “On The Ginza” provides everyone with excellent solo opportunities and was a great way to cap off the show.

With this remastered reissue of Ugetsu, we are treated to four bonus tracks. Time permitting, they certainly would have made the cut on the original release. “Eva” is a beautiful ballad, and is not anything like the previous six high-energy tracks. It definitely brings a better perspective to the evening’s proceedings.

Curtis Fuller wrote “The High Priest” in honor of Thelonious Monk, and it is nice to hear it here. Again, it adds to a richer understanding of the night with the somewhat angular, dissonant tones utilized to pay tribute.

It is interesting that the original liner notes mention that Blakey rarely took drum solos, and that there is nary a one on Ugetsu. There was at least one recorded that night, however, although it was not released at the time. This came during George Shearing’s “Conception.” Not only does Blakey take an honest to goodness solo turn, but so does stalwart Reggie Workman with his bass. Finally there is a short nod to Miles Davis, with his traditional closing (at the time) tune, “The Theme.”

Art Blakey’s status as a jazz legend was already set in stone when this album was recorded, so it is really no surprise just how good it is. But it truly is a powerhouse performance, from a band who together and individually would continue to shape the course of music for decades to come. Ugetsu is the real deal, folks — seriously cool beatnik-coffeehouse jazz for your pleasure.

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About Greg Barbrick

  • Elvin

    Blakey’s 1954 “Live At Birdland, Vol. 2” has been my all time favorite jazz album for over 45 years. I was lucky enough to have him sign it for me, but I was luckier to hear him play two nights in a row. What an incredible talent.