Art Blakey’s Hardest Hits

By Carl Glatzel, Editor
Photograph by Francis Wolff © Mosaic Images.

This isn’t jazz, it’s war. On February 10, 1964 Art Blakey enlisted the aid of a special ops unit for his trailblazing mission — Free For All. This edition of the Jazz Messengers was the quintessential hard bop lineup and the perfect team for the job. The frontline was a heavily-armed triple threat consisting of Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Wayne Shorter on tenor sax and Curtis Fuller on trombone. Cedar Walton on piano, Reggie Workman on bass and Art Blakey on drums brought up the rear and had the near impossible task of grounding this tour de force. Blakey was a well-known beast on the skins — infamously destroying drum kits on stage — and was relentless on the Shorter-penned title track, which opens the album. There’s no slow build here, it’s an all-out assault from the word go. Blakey pounds away with everything at his disposal while the frontline crashes through the gate as if charging a bunker amid heavy shelling. With Blakey’s detonations blasting all around, each horn takes an extended solo while weaving through their fearless leader’s tumult. After a glorious 11-minute show of bravado from all parties the finale ends with a classic example of Blakey’s pure adrenal rush on the kit — a thunderous roar followed by a single hit on the hi-hat and then peaceful silence. An outright classic and well worth the price of admission.

Free For All, 1964. For all its bravado and firepower there is an overarching sense of control and forward motion on this Jazz Messengers album.

By this outing, Shorter was at the very top of his creative game and shortly after he would be on his way to joining the fabled Miles Davis Quintet as its principal composer. On this album we have two great works by Shorter — displaying his versatile style in all its glory. The second track, “Hammer Head”, another Shorter original, is cooler than the bombastic opener and moves with a well-defined swagger. This is classic Blakey material where his famous press rolls and shouts introduce soloists who take the floor with commanding flair.

Wayne Shorter, tenor saxophone. A follower of Coltrane, Shorter’s tenor is still one of the most distinguishable in modern jazz. Photograph by Francis Wolff © Mosaic Images.

The third track, “The Core”, is a Hubbard original and another cooker. This piece is a great example of Hubbard’s writing ability and another great showcase for the raw power behind this seamless unit. I’ve always been of mind that Hubbard played to his full creative potential as a sideman at Blue Note rather than session leader. His outings on both the Atlantic and CTI labels in the late-60s and early-70s have always been go-to listening to these ears.

I’ve always been of mind that Hubbard played to his full creative potential as a sideman at Blue Note rather than session leader.

Freddie Hubbard, trumpet. A bright, muscular tone and chops to match, Hubbard’s performance on this session sizzles. Photograph by Francis Wolff © Mosaic Images.

The last track, a Clare Fischer composition, will throw you for a loop. Suddenly, and most dramatically, a truce is called and “Pensativa” is the white flag. This laid-back bossa tune would be right at home on a Hank Mobley album of the same period. It clocks in at just under 8-and-a-half minutes and is a sheer joy to listen to. We finally hear the bright, clarion call of Hubbard’s pristine trumpet and Blakey’s effortless timekeeping. “Pensativa” balances out this amazing album to create a truly unique recording — one which rewards fans with new insights upon repeat listenings.

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