Following on the heels of our spirited Jazz Messenger release Hard Bop is one of our absolute favorite Art Blakey discs: Drum Suite. Whether he intended to or not, Blakey (along with drummer “Papa” Jo Jones, percussionists Sabu and Candido, pianist Ray Bryant, percussionist Charles Wright, and bassist Oscar Pettiford) invented Afrobeat jazz, spearheading a movement that would bring us Herb Alpert, Joabim Giberto, and many others.
Recorded on first take, the three movement suite on side one is a rousing display of drums, congas, piano and bass, with some great shout-chanting thrown in for good measure. The feeling is joyful and assertive, while the incredible musicianship of Blakey and his men tie it all down. Interspersed with the tribal drumming is Bryant bringing the hard be-bop stylings, both throwing off and digging in to the groove simultaneously. Somehow this melange of vastly differing styles works perfectly, creating a work that Steve Leggett of All Music Guide to rave: “groundbreaking for it’s time, and still sounding vital, powerful and visionary. Drum Suite is sort of a lost masterpiece that deserves a fresh audience.”
We couldn’t agree more, so we made some for 2,500 of our closest friends (you know who you are!). Our 180-gram LP was cut by Kevin Gray and Robert Pincus with original analog mono master tapes and without any processing that would keep you from the energy of this rarified experience. Side two contains some outstanding Messengers jams with Blakey’s usual cohorts at the time (Bill Hardman, Jackie McLean, Spanky DeBrest, and Sam Dockery) played with typical fiery abandon. As Blakey told Hardman, “don’t worry about a thing: just wail.” Indeed.
Art Blakey’s first release for Columbia Records is essentially two records. Side one is a percussion ensemble playing what would, ten years later, be called Afro-Cuban drumming. Side two is the mid-fifties version of the Jazz Messengers featuring Jackie McLean on saxophone. Side one features Blakey, Jo Jones and Charles Wright on drums, Candido and Sabu on bongos, and Oscar Pettiford and bass and cello. The group plays three compositions, one by Blakey, one by Pettiford and one by Ray Bryant, fusing African, Cuban, and calypso percussion into a well-integrated suite.
The group recorded a run through and it was so perfectly executed that they used the practice run for the release, unedited except to add some Swahili chants by the percussionists during a few passages. One cannot help but think of Olantunji’s Drums of Passion, another Afro drumming landmark, here. Blakey’s drum suite was recorded at Columbia’s 30th Street studios in New York in 1957 and is in mono. The almost stereoscopic image is truly remarkable. Mastered by Kevin Gray and pressed at RTI, Drum Suite is a valuable record of one of the most important figures in jazz history. Recording: 9/10. Music 9/10.
WAYNE GARCIA, THE ABSOLUTE SOUND, SEPTEMBER, 2014
Initially released in 1957, Drum Suite actually showcases two different ensembles. Side One’s Drum Suite features Blakey, “Papa” Jo Jones with bongos, tympani, and gong, with Ray Bryant on piano and Oscar Pettiford on bass and cello. Side Two features Jazz Messengers’ Bill Hardman (trumpet), Jackie McLean (alto), Sam Dockery (piano), and Spanky DeBrest (bass) on three tracks recorded the previous year for Blakey’s Columbia debut Hard Bop (reviewed in Issue 241). As such, the overall record lacks cohesion but each side is complete, and completely compelling unto itself. The three-part suite was laid down in one take with no arrangements, and begins with a few tympani thwacks followed by an African chant. Soon the ensemble kicks in and the group takes off an a sweaty Afro-Cuban-bop journey that will leave you breathless, as the thing crackles with terrific energy. Side Two is more conventional hard bop, but given this group’s mastery of if not invention of the style, these tracks are extremely satisfying. Kevin Gray’s remastering is detailed and immediate, with plenty of bit and air, if not the widest dynamic range. For anyone interested in percussion of this genre, this is not to be missed.