Albums I Love: “The Jazz Messengers – The Legacy of Art Blakey: Live At The Iridium”

I’ll start by saying that The Legacy of Art Blakey is my favorite album ever. Why do I love it? There are plenty of musical reasons, which I’ll cover below, but also some sentimental reasons:

  • It’s the first jazz album I bought for myself
  • It introduced me to my favorite pianist, Geoffrey Keezer
  • It introduced me to my favorite jazz band, Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers
  • It marks the day I decided I wanted to pursue jazz piano as a career
  • The performers on the album represent several generations of jazz history, all working together to honor the music and the mentor that they loved

I bought this album at the age of 15, immediately after a lecture on Art Blakey at the Stanford Jazz Workshop during which I sat wide-eyed and open-mouthed, gawking at the sheer power of the mental connection that the faculty band members seemed to be sharing as they played on stage. It seemed as if the performers, led by bassist Gregory Ryan and pianist Victor Lin, existed within a localized telepathic field; I could see that energy field pulsing and breathing with every drum cue instantly responded to, every sudden drop in dynamics perfectly executed, every horn background line casually and effortlessly improvised on the spot. I wanted that energy, and I wanted it now. In fact, I knew right then that I wanted to spend the rest of my life in pursuit of that energy in performance.

I left the Workshop that day and went straight to the record store, convincing my mom to drop everything to take me there. I located the meager jazz section, skimmed until I found the even more paltry selection of Art Blakey albums, and thumbed through hoping to find one or two of the songs I had heard at lecture. Miraculously, a single copy of The Legacy of Art Blakey, with a cover featuring 6 friendly musicians of varying ages smiling and laughing at the camera, presented itself–and “One By One,” which I specifically remembered Ryan mentioning as one of the tunes the faculty had played, was the first track. I immediately snatched it up from the shelves, as if afraid that another shopper might want that exact album and take it first.

My heart quickly fell, however, when I realized that Art Blakey, leader and founding member of Jazz Messengers, was not on the album. In fact, he had died in 1990, 7 years before the album was recorded and 8 years before its release. A drummer named Lewis Nash was playing in his place. This was in fact a tribute album. Not wanting to miss out on a chance to hear the very subject of the lecture that inspired me, I grabbed another Messengers album with Blakey at the helm. It was the first album, however, that would have the more profound effect on me.

Group Dynamics

How do I explain why I love The Legacy of Art Blakey so much? I put that album in my CD player that day and heard story after story, recounted by six master storytellers, and yet no one said a word. But they were speaking, through their instruments. I again got the sense that they were operating in a personal telepathic field—not only were they telling stories, they were maintaining a steady flow of conversation, bantering and bouncing thoughts off of one another and more than occasionally coming into agreement with rhythmic figures or harmonic phrases that surely had been planned in advance. The ideas were so fleeting, however, that I knew they could only have been improvised, and therefore these musicians had mastered the seemingly impossible skill of improvising the same idea together, of somehow anticipating their bandmates’ next moves and locking in with one another to produce wondrous moments. There were, of course, planned moments during the solos, in the form of background lines and rhythmic hits, and these the musicians executed flawlessly. It’s the spontaneous moments that I fell in love with, though, like pianist Geoff Keezer and Nash linking up during the final few triplet chords of Keezer’s solo on “One By One,” or linking up again to superimpose the rhythm of Thelonious Monk’s “Evidence” during a “B” section of bassist Peter Washington’s solo on the same track.

Great Performances

As cohesive as the six Jazz Messengers function as an ensemble, every musician on The Legacy of Art Blakey also demonstrates individual performance at the highest level. Trumpeter Terence Blanchard plays his lines with a fire and a flourish; his solo on “Whisper Not” reaches soaring heights, both tonally and emotionally, and potentially causes an audience member to break his drink glass in excitement (you can hear it during one of the highest notes). Trombonist Curtis Fuller plays with a subtle touch but holds nothing back, even inspiring someone to shout out “Oh, yeah!” in rhythm with the band after his solo on “One By One.” Saxophonist Benny Golson plays with a raw emotional tone, and makes use of the full range of his instrument with fluttering lines that zig-zag in and around the harmony with precision. Peter Washington holds down the foundation on the bass throughout but doesn’t shy away from challenging his bandmates with rhythmic kicks; his solo on “One By One” stands out as particularly adventurous and soulful. Lewis Nash pays homage to Art Blakey’s leadership from the drum chair without going overboard and trying to emulate Blakey’s volcanic style exactly. He takes only three solos: an explosive exhibition on “Plexus,” with Keezer and Washington outlining the form behind him early on and then dropping out later; and two marching-band style features on “Blues March,” for the intro and to reintroduce the head out.

Standout Star

All five of the artists mentioned above are heavyweights on the jazz scene, and they play like it. To me, however, even among this group of amazing, legendary musicians, pianist Geoffrey Keezer stands out. Keezer’s comping is responsive and his chord voicings hip and varied. Not content just to play chords, he creates harmonic atmospheres, arpeggiating and crafting little melodies all over the keyboard, none of which overstep his role as accompanist even as they shine through in brief flashes. And for every chorus of comping, there’s a different rhythmic/harmonic motif that he develops, somehow perfectly complementing the soloist and inspiring Washington and Nash to join him for the ride. And then Keezer starts to solo, and I forget everyone else in the band. His solos are like listening to the finest radio dramas, but without any words to clutter the experience. He takes a theme and slowly crafts a narrative with it, creating tension and anticipation and continuing to the point that you’re on the edge of your seat, and then when he finally delivers a release the result is supremely satisfying. His left hand is an equal participant in the storytelling, not merely a responsive and subordinate element to the right hand, and at multiple points Keezer sets up a repetitive pattern in one hand while sculpting a melody with the other. I’d single out a tune or two to listen to, but to be honest all six of his solos are superlative. Here are some highlights:

  • “One By One”: Try listening to Keezer’s solo on this track and singing the melody in your head behind it, and you’ll hear that his concept of narrative extends way beyond the boundaries of the song form. It rocks my world. Plus the story he tells during this solo is everything that’s soulful and cool.
  • “Ala Mode”: A bouncy and intensely rhythmic solo, with some really interesting figures that span across bar lines. There’s a wildly creative call-and-response segment around the 9-minute mark that gets me drumming along every time.
  • “Whisper Not”: an poignant drama, reminiscent of a modern orchestra at work. I always hear different sections of musicians interacting when I listen to this solo. Check out the 7-minute mark.
  • “Oh, By The Way”: Keezer transports me to an epic noir mystery, set somewhere like New York or Chicago with dark alleys and bustling thoroughfares and the occasional tender moment. At around eight minutes and 34 seconds he does something that sounds like muting one of the strings but may be something else; regardless, he works the effect into the narrative like it were a normal element of the piano, repeatedly stepping away from it to make a comment elsewhere on the keyboard and then returning to it right afterwards to reemphasize the point.
  • “Plexus”: Keezer takes the listener on a manic, sinister roller coaster ride, sounding at times like a drummer; like a horror-movie string section playing tremolos; and like two pianists at once.
  • On “Blues March,” Keezer starts with space, a regular accompaniment pattern and brief melodic lines, then graduates to a ridiculously difficult-sounding ostinatto right-hand pattern that continues in the background for multiple choruses while the left hand develops its own mini-solo. Next, his hands spiral upwards together in a dizzying flurry of notes, culminating in several high chords and followed by a dual-hand melodic line that is pure blues and yet also hip and contemporary. He ends his solo soon after with his left hand in an accompaniment role but right in step with his right hand melodies. The trajectory of the solo is perfect.

I could go on, but you really should just listen for yourself. Geoff Keezer is the real deal and one of the main reasons why I’m a professional pianist now. He shines on this album. Read on for some more thoughts on the album format, personnel and liner notes.

Sound & Format

Legacy of Art Blakey: Live at the Iridium plays like a single, uninterrupted live set, complete with applause and background noise from the club. It’s not; it was recorded over three days, in the middle of a tour dedicated to Blakey’s life and music. However, the editing is of high enough quality that I am hard-pressed to determine exactly where the seams lie. The sound quality is superb; the instruments themselves are recorded distinctly and beautifully, and every interaction, whether between fellow musicians or between the musicians and the audience, is crystal clear. Listening to this album, I invariably feel transported inside the club. Probably because it’s a tribute album, the musicians don’t do any talking except at the end, when Benny Golson introduces the band over a reprise of “One By One.” I’m fine with that, personally–the album is dedicated to Art Blakey, and as much time as possible should be dedicated to Blakey’s music.

Personnel

The lineup for Legacy of Art Blakey, with the exception of drummer Lewis Nash, includes several generations of Jazz Messengers: Benny Golson (tenor sax) and Curtis Fuller (trombone) from the 1950s and ‘60s; Terence Blanchard (trumpet) and Peter Washington (bass) from the 1980s; and Geoffrey Keezer (piano, known as Geoff Keezer at the time) from the early late ‘80s and early ‘90s. All went on to extended careers as bandleaders in their own rights, which was very common for so-called graduates of the Jazz Messengers school of hard bop.

Benny Golson is one of jazz’s great composers, and wrote the sophisticated standard “Along Came Betty,” as well as “Are You Real,” both of which appear on the classic Messengers album Moanin’. He played in the Jazz Messengers mostly in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, but also reunited with Blakey in later years. He serves as musical director for this album, as he did while he was in Blakey’s band, and two of his compositions, “Whisper Not” and “Blues March,” appear as tracks 3 and 6 on the album.

Terence Blanchard is a prolific composer, multiple Grammy-winning recording artist, and a distinguished film scorer. He recorded with Blakey on several albums throughout the 1980s. He was actually the first jazz bandleader I saw perform live at a club, at the Village Vanguard in New York not long after I purchased Legacy of Art Blakey. His composition, “Oh, By The Way,” is the fourth track on the album.

Geoff Keezer joined the Jazz Messengers in 1988, when he was 17 years old, and played with Blakey until Blakey’s death in 1990. Geoffrey Keezer s one of my all-time favorite pianists, and probably the pianist whose style I most closely identify with.

Liner Notes

The liner notes include several great photos: on the outside front cover, the band members laughing amongst themselves; on the inside front cover (and the back of the album), an aging Blakey performing with his trademark open-mouthed smile; and in the notes themselves, a posed picture of a younger Blakey at his Gretsch kit with the inscription “Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.” Also in the liner notes is a foreword by Donald Elfman that includes history on Blakey, the Jazz Messengers, Hard Bop jazz, and each of the tunes and musicians on the album; a section entitled “Remembering Art Blakey” which includes memories of Blakey from each of the band members; and a brief note from producer Myles Weinstein detailing how the album and reunion tour came about. I would have been blown away by the album had it come with the music alone, but the extensive liner notes are a fantastic complement that absolutely increased my level of engagement with the music and led me to seek out more Blakey albums.

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Artist: The Jazz Messengers
Album: The Legacy of Art Blakey: Live at the Iridium
Year: 1998
Label: Telarc

Personnel:

Geoff Keezer, piano
Terence Blanchard, trumpet
Benny Golson, tenor saxophone, music director
Curtis Fuller, trombone
Lewis Nash, drums
Peter Washington, bass

Tracks:

  1. “One By One” (Wayne Shorter)
  2. “Ala Mode” (Curtis Fuller)
  3. “Whisper Not” (Benny Golson)
  4. “Oh, By The Way” (Terence Blanchard)
  5. “Plexus” (Cedar Walton)
  6. “Blues March” (Benny Golson)