The night started a bit rocky. The room at Sweet Rhythm felt ominous with only a few tables occupied and half the band missing when the downbeat fell at 8:10 this past Monday night. Then everyone but Tatum missed the horn entrance to the opening tune, "Bitter Dose". I was not surprised, the chorus of written bass line out front is deceptive- beat 3 feels like 1 so unless you're counting, you're gonna miss your entrance. My stomach dropped as I felt sympathetic anxiety for being in front of a band that is completely falling apart and resisting the urge to cut everyone off and start again. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Joseph's horn snap to his mouth as he jumped into the horn line from the side line and got everyone back in place. Phew - that was close. And it only got better from there.
As the tables filled, the energy of the players rose and I began to realize I was witnessing something magical. For the second time this month, at coincidentally the same venue, I was truly enjoying the music I was hearing and did not suffer my usual listener's ADD, and did not want the set to end. (The first time this month I had the same feeling, the first in a while, was also at Sweet Rhythm when I heard Jason Marshall's Tribute to the Ray Charles's Hornline, an absolutely soul lifting experience, back on March 13.) The songs were all extended, allowing everyone who wanted to solo (a practice I'm typically not fond of but really worked here), and while the expertise of each player was varied, the simultaneous energy of the band coupled with a chill but respectful attitude toward the night kept my interest throughout the set.
Much of the entertaining aspect of the night I credit to Valery Ponomarev (from whom I stole this blog's title). A former Messenger back in the 1970s, Valery provides a direct link to Art Blakey and his music. Besides still having great trumpet chops, Valery has an incredible stage presence and is simply a lot of fun to watch on stage. He runs his own Art Blakey Tribute Big Band that plays regularly at the Garage and Iridium and carries the same high energy that Valery brought to the night. Check him out talking about playing with Blakey in this unedited video:
The rest of the band was made up of current New School students and alumni. I was really impressed with the trio of students that made up the rhythm section and successfully carried the bulk of the load that night. Pianist Glenn Zaleski played some great solos that managed to keep the current modern aesthetic without disrespecting the artistry of Blakey's hard bop language. With bassist Garrett Lang and drummer Dustin Kaufman the trio really maintained the battery for the night and when guest drummers Carmen Intorre and E.J. Strickland stepped up, Zaleski and Lang were able to keep up and meet the noticeable energy that the pros brought to the ensemble.
In addition to Ponomarev, who was featured on "A Night in Tunisia," the horn line was made of New School student Chelsea Baratz who enriched the ensemble with a nice, strong tenor sound, Jason Marshall on baritone sax and Stafford Hunter on trombone filled out the bottom end of the group and treated the audience to some killin' solos, and doubling Ponomarev on the trumpet part was Tatum Greenblatt, who brought some tasty high notes and 8vas to the music. Organizer Joseph Perez jumped in at times with his tenor to lead backgrounds and took a few solos himself including a ballad feature on "I Waited for You." Keeping with the spirit of the music, the group welcomed many musicians to sit in with them including New School Alum and pianist Ben Healy, the great trumpet player Fabio Morgera, and the aforementioned Carmen Intorre on "Blues March."
The highlight of the first set was with out a doubt the closing tune which featured brothers E.J. and Marcus Strickland on Blakey's "The Core." This tune absolutely burned! E.J. brought so much energy and volume to the group, it almost felt like the place was just going to explode! It was really a shame the two couldn't stick around for the second set because they definitely brought something to the ensemble that took the whole evening to a new level.
The second set was a bit more chill, starting with "Moanin'" and continuing through tunes including "Nica's Dream" and "Thermo" before closing the night as Blakey so often did with "The Theme." Unfortunately the audience was a bit thinner for the second set and the energy of the players definitely dropped a notch or two. But overall, the evening provided an incredible two hours of music.
Art Blakey passed back in 1990 and so I never had the opportunity to hear the Jazz Messengers live. But I really feel that the spirit of the music was fully embodied in last Monday's show. It was shame that Charles Tolliver, who the evening was dedicated to, could not be there. I think he would have been proud of his former students who proved themselves to modern messengers of the legacy of Art Blakey.