Ralph Peterson & the Messenger Legacy ‘Legacy: Alive Vol. 6 at the Side Door’ CD (Onyx Productions) 4/5

Had he still been among us Art Blakey would have celebrated his 100th birthday this year. One of Jazz’s greatest ever drummers, Blakey and his group, the Jazz Messengers, left us not only a sizeable discography including classic albums like “Moanin’” and “Mosaic”, but also nurtured generations of top jazz players.

It’s these twin legacies that Ralph Peterson’s group celebrates. A young Peterson played the drums alongside Blakey in his later years and his mentor left a lifelong impression on him. Much of his subsequent career as musician and music educator has been spent passing on the lessons that Blakey taught him as well as honouring his memory. “Every time I play the drums it is in tribute to Art, but I wanted to do something that goes beyond me, beyond any individual. I wanted to pay tribute in a way that was authentic, genuine, and meaningful not just to a few, but to every person he touched through his music.”

This isn’t the first tribute to Blakey led by his acolyte. On this date, the group comprises only of Messenger graduates – Bill Pierce on tenor sax, Bobby Watson on alto, Essiet Essiet on double bass, Geoffrey Keezer on piano and Brian Lynch on trumpet. Playing in the Messengers was a character building apprenticeship, through which young musicians could find their own voice all the while respecting the history and tradition of the group. This sense of individuality meant that Brian Lynch wasn’t expected to be the next Lee Morgan, nor Bill Pierce the new Wayne Shorter. For these later Messengers, awareness of those that had gone before them must have been intimidating nonetheless.

The music on “Legacy Alive” spans the entire life of the Messengers from the heady Blue Note years in the ‘50s and 60s right through to the ‘80s when the outlook for Jazz was less sure. Whilst none of the arrangements are radically different from the originals they are not carbon copies either. The solos, in particular, evince the accumulated wisdom and intuitiveness of experienced players re-engaging with music they are instinctively at home with. The instrumental lineup remains fixed so there’s no trombone on “The Core” or “Children of the Night” for example. Most of the tunes are longer than the original recordings. Jazz of the ‘50s and ‘60s was more concise in form, no great liberties have been taken though.

The album bursts forth with “A La Mode”. You’re there in the room before you know it and it’s swinging, I mean it’s swinging hard. It’s not just all breakneck tempo and no craft though, each solo is rich in colour and detail. None more so than Lynch’s trumpet that skips, fades and lands like a hyperactive flyweight toying with an inadequate opponent. Jazz used to be dance music and it’s easy to understand why.

Bobby Watson had a number of writing credits during his tenure with the Messengers so it’s not surprising that two of his compositions feature. To my ears, the arrangement of the waltz, “Wheel within a Wheel”, is quite distinct to the original. The trumpet solo has been dispensed with and do I hear a touch of Nature Boy at half way? “In Case You Missed It” AKA Fuller Love opens with a bouncy intro cum drum solo before giving way to powerful harmonies.
The searching rise and fall of “Children of the Night” and the declamatory Wayne Shorter tune “The Core” show us a moodier side to the Messenger’s repertoire. It’s not wall to wall explosive energy though as Bill Pierce shows on albums only ballad, “My One and Only Love”.

The Legacy recording is not a one-off show. The band played at this year’s Winter Jazzfest in New York and are touring the US and worldwide to support the album.

Two dates stand out, a celebration of Art Blakey’s Centennial at the 2019 Newport Jazz Festival on Saturday, August 3rd and a gig on Saturday, 23 November 2019 at Cadogan Hall in London as part of this year’s London Jazz Festival. I know where I’m going to be on Saturday the 23rd!

Andy Hazell