Friday night, members of several graduating classes of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers celebrated their boss. Tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson assembled the intergenerational all-star band only for their concert at the Portland Jazz Festival.
Jackson, alto saxophonist Bobby Watson, trombonist Curtis Fuller, trumpeter Eddie Henderson, pianist George Cables and bassist Buster Williams all spent time in various editions of Blakey’s combo. Drummer Lewis Nash subbed for Blakey (1919-1990), whose small bands nurtured so many future stars that it is frequently referred to as the university of Art Blakey. From the first phrases of “Are You Real?” through “Along Came Betty,” “One By One,” “Moanin’” and other pieces from the Blakey book, it was evident that the idea was a good one. The combination clicked.
Watson’s phrasing, dynamics, tonal variety and joyful demeanor stood out in a group populated by some of the music’s most interesting players. In a ballad medley, his “These Foolish Things” was marinated in blues character and in humor that included a deftly placed allusion to Johnny Hodges. Forty-three years following his death, Hodges’ spirit hovers over this festival and jazz at large. His tunes are in the repertoires of several artists. Soloists frequently refer to him in their improvisations. Cables’ medley choice was “Body and Soul.” He couldn’t resist inserting eight bars of “Prisoner of Love,” as pianists have since Nat Cole did it on a famous recording in the 1940s. Cables, Williams and Nash constituted a powerhouse rhythm section. Henderson followed Cables with an abstract creation he did not disclose as “You Don’t Know What Love Is” until near the end of his solo. He long ago fashioned his Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan influences into a personal approach. He occasionally makes judicious use of half-valve effects, as he did during “One by One.” Henderson opened his “Moanin’” solo with a direct quote of Morgan’s opening phrase on a famous 1957 recording.
Six-and-a-half feet tall, Jackson is reminiscent of Dexter Gordon in more than height. The roominess of his sound and the gliding assurance of his conception recall Gordon and, often, laconic elements in the style of Wayne Shorter during his Blakey period. The senior member of the tribute group, in his 79th year Fuller’s trombone tone has a slightly muffled quality that contrasts with his quickness of execution and the wit of his ideas. Following impressive solos by Watson and Henderson, Fuller quoted “Everything Happens to Me.” A master of conciseness who speaks his piece and gets out, his solos were short stories, not novels, as in Benny Golson’s classic “Blues March.”
A striking aspect of the band was the close attention each member paid to what the others played. There were nods, grins and sometimes “Yeah,” the jazz musician’s seal of approval. The audience’s own endorsement was a standing ovation. Their reward was an encore, “A Night in Tunisia.” Each of the Blakey all-stars played one solo chorus. When the concert ended, they strolled offstage into the wings chatting and laughing. The concert was a one-shot get-together, but the Blakeyites and the audience had such a good time, it would be surprising if the band didn’t do it again.