JJ 05/81: Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers + Joe Lee Wilson at Camden Jazz Week

Forty years ago, Peter Vacher spotted 'an important modern jazz star in the making' in Blakey's ensemble. First published in Jazz Journal May 1981

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Wynton Marsalis at Knebworth festival the following summer, 1982. Photo © Brian O'Connor

Blakey’s bands are his lifetime roadshow. While he remains steadfast at their centre, a stream of talented sidemen comes and goes, most moving on to even greater heights. Thus, this latest sextet version of the Messengers came with new men in tenorist Bill Pierce, Charles Fambrough (bass) and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, each on this evidence highly capable and properly attuned to the Blakey hard bop song book.

From their first selection, a blues line with a typically nifty theme, Blakey’s men played with enthusiasm and offered a flow of bright and brisk solos that held a packed audience enthralled right through to Blues March, the band’s climactic piece.

Marsalis, from New Orleans, clearly is an important modern jazz star in the making. Possessed of a full tone, he has technique enough to accomplish everything he sets out to do, his tip-toe flexibility shown at its best as he sizzles through the harmonies on uptempo material. He has also a flair for the lyrical, although never saccharine, his feature How Deep Is The Ocean calling Clifford Brown to mind at times.

His co-horns, Pierce and altoist Bobby Watson are neatly contrasted: The tenorist a sober and convincingly fluent player in the post-bop idiom with Watson as the crowd-pleaser, strutting expressively on the blues.

Blakey, as ever, pushes, prods, and explodes with canny instinct and barefaced understanding, always compounding the ensemble momentum. A great man.

No such plaudits for the concert’s first half. Joe Lee Wilson is a singer whose voice is truly a noble instrument yet save for his guest pianist, Bobby Few, his musical cohorts could claim little distinction. Repertoire and execution made their set a dreary experience.