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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Donald Byrd’s Transitional Period

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

In the wake of jazz great Donald Byrd’s passing, there has been a revived interest in his critically-acclaimed Hard Bop period as well as his later involvement with funk and disco. There is a time between years 1969 and 1972 that is oftentimes overlooked — I like to call this Byrd’s transitional period. It was during these explorative years that electric instruments as well as a much more relaxed compositional style were introduced.

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Fancy Free, 1970

Byrd’s 1970 release, Fancy Free, offers a larger ensemble than previous recordings including key creative partner Duke Pearson on electric piano. Some call this abrupt end to hard bop stylings a knee-jerk reaction to the sparks that came from Miles Davis’ release In a Silent Way just a few months prior. Although not earth shattering as Davis’ effort, Fancy Free marks a significant change in direction for the hard bop trumpeter. The title track itself proved to be a favorite cover to such contemporaries as Elvin Jones and Grant Green, both on the Blue Note label.

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Electric Byrd, 1970

Davis’ 1970 release, Bitches Brew, opened a Pandora’s Box with regard to shifting the jazz paradigm and the dawn of jazz fusion. This powerful influence was felt in Byrd’s 1970 release Electric Byrd. Here we find Byrd in full experimental mode complete with post production studio effects. The material leaned to a floating, cerebral compositional style with less focus on groove and backbeat. Decidedly a brave outing by an even larger band consisting of 11 members. Davis sideman, Airto Moreira, keeps a tight bond to the Dark Prince as he lays down complex percussion over Brazilian themes. Collaborator Duke Pearson is back on electric piano adding to a very stylized and dreamy soundscape. Reedmen Frank Foster and Lew Tabackin are also in tow. After much free-form improvisation and Davis leanings we do get a taste of plain funk with final track “The Dude”. It shores up the album as if to put listeners at ease after the storm of pioneering uncertainty.

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Kofi, 1971

Along comes 1971 and Byrd releases yet another stellar session, Kofi. Regulars, Tabackin and Foster are heard here along with legendary bassist Ron Carter and percussionist Airto Moreira. The title tune nears 8 minutes and is a burner, it easily earns its Blue Note Rare Groove monicker. The rest of the album covers more adventurous territory. Most tracks hark back to the heady sound of Electric Byrd with its use of space and percussion supplied by magician Airto. Heavy electric piano dominates arrangements with Byrd’s airy trumpet gliding on top like a hawk riding a thermal. The album ends on Foster’s composition “The Loud Minority” which rings like a dark interval from the Buddy Rich Big Band songbook.

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Ethiopian Knights, 1972

Many critics will end Byrd’s transitional sessions here but I like to include the excellent 1972 release Ethiopian Knights. On this album we find Byrd delving into a dark jazz-laden funk. This is not the vocal-tinged upbeat funk of Black Byrd and definitely not the polarizing disco from down the road. This recording still owes indebtedness to Miles Davis and his experiments with funk elements at the time. There are still lengthy solos here along with a lot of electric bass and a barrage of drums. With only three tracks this album blows away many straight-up funk contemporaries with its hard-driving beats and surgical precision. All three Byrd-penned pieces are more singularly focused than their free-wheeling predecessors. Two long tracks, “The Emperor” and “The Little Rasti”, sandwich the 3-1/2 minute “Jamie” — an interlude piece which offers to cleanse the palette in between double helpings of multilayered funk.

After sitting back with these four excellent outings one can appreciate Byrd’s intent to experiment and reach. He still maintains a firm footing in hard bop interplay and virtuosity, added is his uncanny ability to mix electronics and funk elements to great effect. With so many artists indebted to him for his creative genius, pioneering spirit and focus on education Donald Byrd will be sorely missed.

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Big Band Horsepower: Buddy Rich and Maynard Ferguson

By Carl Glatzel, Editor

Fuel-injected and testosterone-drenched are not descriptions usually associated with big band music. Enter Buddy Rich and Maynard Ferguson. These prominent big bands of the late-60s and 70s throw convention and easy listening out the window. Each band had a fearless leader who was a virtuoso on his respective instrument.

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Big Swing Face, 1967

Buddy Rich, known the world over as the best drummer of all time, heads up his band from the rear with fireworks and showmanship. On several live sessions you can hear Rich shouting orders like a gunnery sergeant. He was notoriously hard on his players and it paid off in spades — leaving behind numerous recordings, most on the Pacific Jazz label, teaming with hard-driving, turn-on-a-dime tracks. Rich usually supplied a mix of compositions, both contemporary and jazz standards, on his albums. Some tracks dipped in to the WWI-era swing bag. However, it’s Rich’s contemporary tracks that really offer his band’s full pyrotechnic potential. A favorite of mine is the album Big Swing Face from 1967 on Pacific Jazz. On this release we can hear some true modern gems like “Mexicali Nose” and “Willowcrest”. The band roars in focused unison while Rich lays down superhuman drum solos. On 1969’s Keep The Customer Satisfied Rich pays tribute to the score from the film Midnight Cowboy with a lengthy medley that just about brings down the house. To have seen this band live would have been an opportunity to witness perfection.

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M.F. Horn 3, 1973

Maynard Ferguson, oppositely, lead from the front on both trumpet and trombone. He was best known for his “stratospheric” playing on trumpet having had the ability to hit a triple C in his trademark upper register. Ferguson was also known to dance on stage — achieving his usual euphoria by his band’s infectious swing. By 1970 he honed his players into a contemporary sound machine with the uncanny ability to play anything and everything. He sometimes covered pop themes such as the title track from 1974’s Chameleon or “Gonna Fly Now (Theme from Rocky)” on 1977’s Conquistador without reservation. He made the “Theme from Shaft” on 1972’s M.F. Horn Two swing like nobody’s business. Some of his staples have aged very well including the moody “Eli’s Comin'” and the 10-minute epic “Macarthur Park” both from the excellent 1970 release M.F. Horn. Ferguson proved to be a genius at arranging — making familiar tunes wholly original and relevant. If anything, Ferguson breathed new life into big band orchestrations with his unabashed enthusiasm, bold strokes and crowd-pleasing material.

If anything, Ferguson breathed new life into big band orchestrations with his unabashed enthusiasm, bold strokes and crowd-pleasing material.

Next time you need a soundtrack to a formula one grand prix or a jumpstart to your day try spinning some Rich or Ferguson — seat belts are optional.

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The Curious Case of Baby Face

By Carl Glatzel, Editor

Roosevelt Willette, aka “Baby Face”, was somewhat of a mystery man. Even his birthplace is disputed — it might have been Little Rock or possibly New Orleans. One thing is for certain, however, his appearance on the jazz scene couldn’t have been more serendipitous. In the late 50s he met soon-to-be labelmates, Lou Donaldson and Grant Green, in New York after a move from Chicago. Donaldson, acting as unofficial scout for Blue Note Records, was a catalyst in signing both Willette and Green to the label. Willette’s soulful touch on the Hammond B3 reflected his gospel background and would later become a high-water mark, if not a significant footnote, in Blue Note’s storied past.

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Face To Face, 1961

Armed with a big, bluesy sound and brimming with raw emotion, Willette would go on to lead his own groups on two outings in 1961 — both excellent sessions: Face to Face and Stop and Listen. Each group featured Grant Green on guitar and Ben Dixon on drums. Willette’s first session, Face to Face, added the earthy, southern swagger of Fred Jackson on tenor — duck calls, squawks and all.

By the time of his debut as a leader Willette had an original sound pinned down — easily giving similar units such as Smith/Burrell and Turrentine/Scott a run for their money. Although it was early in the recording careers of each member, his group played like weathered professionals — effortlessly belting out greasy, gospel-tinged lines in flawless Blue Note fashion. Even Willette’s sideman contributions on Lou Donaldson’s Here ‘Tis and Grant Green’s Grant’s First Stand are standout examples of Soul Jazz at its finest. There was no doubting it, the man had the golden touch. It was a crying shame he didn’t get to record more for the label. With regular creative partners such as Grant Green, Lou Donaldson and Ben Dixon, Willette could have gone on to record several more albums in the same vein, perhaps even exploring larger group settings or varied instrumentation. Instead, he mysteriously left Blue Note and resurfaced a few years later on the Argo label cutting two more sessions as leader in 1964 — neither hitting the heights of his earlier efforts.

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Here ‘Tis, 1961

After Argo, Willette left recording altogether and made his way back to the live jazz scene in Chicago where he played from 1966 till his untimely death in 1971. How on Earth could such a natural talent fade away into utter obscurity? Willette’s chops were, arguably, on par with the likes of Jimmy Smith and Jack McDuff. And yet, he wholly owned an original and identifiable sound — something quite difficult to achieve in a climate dominated by the innovators of his instrument of choice. Was there a falling out with his collaborators or label chiefs? Or did he pose a threat to more established artists on the roster? Unanswered questions and a handful of excellent tracks are all that’s left of “Baby Face” Willette’s checkered and mysterious recording career.

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David Sylvian and ECM

By Carl Glatzel, Editor

David Sylvian, former frontman for the highly influential post-punk band Japan (1977-1983), surprisingly held certain jazz artists in high regard. Upon starting his solo career, Sylvian brought with him his unique vocal talents, strong songwriting abilities and his unrelenting interest in experimentation. His new solo direction offered textures and moods strikingly different from those of his former band.

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Brilliant Trees, 1984

On his first few albums he tapped the virtuosity of some well-known musicians from the ECM label. Sylvian’s output displayed some similarities to the subdued ECM aesthetic. It was oftentimes quiet, dark and very personal. His tastes in composition and arranging also displayed many similarities to the Munich-based label. Mixed use of acoustic and electronic instruments to create a unique soundscape was standard at ECM. It was Sylvian’s own velvety voice which kept his music instantly recognizable and undeniably his own. His use of brass in some of his early albums helped to establish and reinforce his maturity as a composer and major artist in his own right.

Mixed use of acoustic and electronic instruments to create a unique soundscape was standard at ECM.

In 1984’s Brilliant Trees Sylvian begins the process by adding the distinguished trumpets of Jon Hassell and Kenny Wheeler to the mix. From the buoyant opener “Pulling Punches” with its slap bass fills, there is a concerted effort to use brass for coloring. The moodier “Ink in the Well” uses trumpet to an even greater effect, allowing a freer interplay with the leader.

On “Weathered Wall” we hear trumpet played with effects. Along with a mix of drums, keyboard, tape and the leader’s vocals this track displays a hallmark — a truly unique sound to Sylvian. Effects-laden trumpet is again heard on the heavy-synth “Backwaters” and the longer title track.

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Alchemy – An Index of Possibilities, 1985

By 1985 Sylvian had already changed his colors, reaching for something totally different. His album Alchemy – An Index of Possibilities again employed the trumpet talents of Jon Hassell and Kenny Wheeler. Comprised of three long tracks we hear Sylvian laying down a clear foundation for Eno-esque atmospherics, something he would return to in later years.

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Gone To Earth, 1986

On 1986’s double album Gone to Earth we hear vintage ECM-style musings of Kenny Wheeler on the second track “Laughter and Forgetting”. A trumpet solo on “Wave” is played competently with effects in what has already become a Sylvian staple. Ten of the 17 tracks are dedicated to instrumentals where long compositions take on an ambient air.

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Secrets of the Beehive, 1987

1987 produced what is sometimes referred to as Sylvian’s greatest and most personal achievement, Secrets of the Beehive. On this mostly acoustic album we hear the trumpet of Mark Isham. His horn sounds like a rising phoenix on the excellent track “Orpheus”. Although we hear Isham’s solo trumpet only briefly on this album it’s effect is lasting and adds to the well-rounded arrangements supplied by the critically-acclaimed composer Ryuichi Sakamoto. There is a muted appearance by Isham on the lazy “Let the Happiness In”. His trumpet meanders slowly down a path with the leader’s vocals creating a relaxed environment.

Sylvian’s early sound displayed an uncanny similarity to the ECM aesthetic.

Although Kenny Wheeler appears on 1999’s Dead Bees on a Cake, the 80s witnessed most of Sylvian’s arrangements for brass. His most recent albums explore a more minimalistic and clinical approach, quite opposite of his earlier recordings. Sylvian’s early sound displayed an uncanny similarity to the ECM aesthetic. The addition of brass in these pioneering, early-career sessions cement Sylvian’s compositions in this world — one distinctly made by human endeavor.

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Grant Green and Idris Muhammad

By Carl Glatzel, Editor

Deemed as the original funky drummer, Muhammad played a pivotal role on several Blue Note sides throughout the late 60s and early 70s. His unique and immediately recognizable sound propelled Blue Note Records into the world of jazz funk and inspired legions of followers along the way. The drummer usually found himself teamed up with the label’s heavy hitters of the day, Lou Donaldson and Grant Green were among his esteemed recording partners.

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Idris Muhammad, drums. Photograph by Francis Wolff © Mosaic Images.

The year 1969 marked a rebirth of sorts for the jazz guitarist and the beginning of a fertile partnership with Muhammad firmly planted behind the drum kit — a match made in heaven.

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Grant Green, guitar. Photograph by Francis Wolff © Mosaic Images.

His infectious backbeat graced one certain standout 1969 Grant Green recording, Carryin’ On. Muhammad laid down a solid foundation for Green’s airy, explorative lines which focused on the lighter side of the guitarist’s funk repertoire. This was a standout session for Green because it marked the beginning of a new direction in his recording career. He intentionally moved into a more economically-viable vein within the label, for obvious reasons. However, unlike some of his peers, he excelled at this new sub-genre and went on to record several inspired studio and live sessions, including the excellent Live at Club Mozambique in 1971. The year 1969 marked a rebirth of sorts for the jazz guitarist and the beginning of a fertile partnership with Muhammad firmly planted behind the drum kit — a match made in heaven.

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1958 Album of the Year: Porgy and Bess

By Justin Scoville, Guest Contributor

Wow, I have had a tough time with this one. Although 1959 was certainly a watershed year for Jazz, 1958 wasn’t too shabby either. A Great Day in Harlem, the famous photo taken by Art Kane, was captured in 1958. (And yes, this photo is hanging in my living room). Many pivotal albums were released in 1958, including these personal favorites:

  • Deeds, Not Words Max Roach’s innovative piano-less group that featured Ray Draper on tuba and a stunning, 20 year old Booker Little on trumpet. My mom bought this for me when I was a teenager and that was the start of my fascination with Booker.
  • Somethin’ Else Miles Davis’, er, Cannonball Adderley’s sublime Blue Note album which offers the definitive, most swinging-est versions of “Autumn Leaves” and “Love For Sale”.
  • Moanin’ If you had to choose one Jazz Messenger’s album that encapsulated all of Art Blakey’s mission as a musician, this wouldn’t be a bad choice.
  • Cool Struttin’ Man, Sonny Clark swung hard. Love that guy. He was out of the Bud Powell school with a lighter touch and infused his solos with blues and wit.
  • Looking Ahead One of Cecil Taylor’s first forays into the New Thing.
  • Milestones An absolute classic. Trane, Miles, and Cannonball as a front line… Wow. The title track foreshadows Modal Miles.
  • Everybody Digs Bill Evans: Keepnews Collection Recorded in 1958 but released in early 1959, this album saw Evans conceptualizing his modal approach in the hypnotic Peace Piece.

Anyways, my choice for 1958 is Porgy & Bess, Miles Davis’s second of three collaborations with Gil Evans in a large ensemble setting. (I’m cheating on this one… Porgy and Bess was actually released in 1959 but recorded in 1958. The field for 1959 is too crowded).

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Miles Davis at the Porgy & Bess sessions, 1958

Miles Ahead (1957) augmented the Birth of the Cool’s nonet into a full-blown big band, allowing Miles to pontificate against an obtuse instrumental backdrop. 

Sketches of Spain (1960) was, at the time of its release, a radical departure from jazz convention and stirred up controversy about what was and wasn’t jazz.

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Miles Ahead, 1957

Porgy and Bess falls in the middle of Miles Ahead and Sketches of Spain chronologically and musically. Gershwin’s conglomeration of the American Folk tradition and European Classical harmony made a perfect musical playground for Evans. His complex yet melodic voicings, brought to life by a top-notch group, laid the foundation for Miles to advance his pioneering style away from Bebop and into the Unknown. Evans also captures the drama of the opera in his adaptation, along with Miles as the lead soloist. Both Evans and Davis were fascinated with the nascent modal innovations of George Russell, and although Milestones captured some of what was to come in Kind of Blue, I feel like Porgy and Bess is the first full realization of the modal approach in Jazz.

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Porgy And Bess, 1959

“Buzzard Song”, “Summertime”, and “It Ain’t Necessarily So” are clear historical favorites from this album. For me, from a strictly musical standpoint, “Gone” and “Prayer” are the standout tracks. “Gone” opens with ragged but spirited ensemble passages sandwiched between brilliant drum fills from Philly Joe Jones. The centerpiece of the song is Miles blowing chorus after chorus over a minor mode with Philly Joe and Paul Chambers. The absence of a chordal instrument doesn’t hinder Miles at all; instead, he sheds his old Bebop skin and emerges a new man. Prayer builds from a mournful blues statement from Miles into a wailing climax. (I always love how Cannonball plays during the crescendo; his levels are so high he must have freaked out the recording engineers). Prayer is a radical departure from the Head-Solo-Head structure of most jazz songs from then and now, with the ensemble building organically together with Miles’s melodic improvisations.

The absence of a chordal instrument doesn’t hinder Miles at all; instead, he sheds his old Bebop skin and emerges a new man.

Porgy and Bess is a beautiful masterpiece and a lasting monument to Gil and Miles, whose musical partnership would span several decades, not to mention genres, of Jazz.

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Justin Scoville is a Denver-based trumpeter and jazz blogger.


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Big John Patton’s “Understanding” Misunderstood

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

I usually use AllMusic.com as a litmus test for unfamiliar recordings. I’m glad I went with my gut when I found a 1995 Blue Note re-issue of Big John Patton’s Understanding at a local, used book store. If I had gone with the AllMusic critic’s opinion I would have avoided it like the plague and tossed it aside. For the uninitiated, Patton is an organist who came to prominence on the Blue Note label in the early-60s. He was known for his economical, modern approach and inspired, bluesy solos. One of the few organists of the era to dodge the Jimmy Smith comparison.

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Understanding, 1968

After outputting a handful of releases with label regulars Grant Green and Lou Donaldson he ventured off into some uncharted territory. The 1968 release Understanding is not truly a dramatic departure but it does house some free playing by saxophonist Harold Alexander and that is what AllMusic took issue with. It’s stated to somehow interrupt the groove and comes across as disjointed and out of place. Perhaps to the untrained ear, or to a listener not familiar with or accustomed to the unorthodox sounds of Pharaoh Sanders or the other artists from the Impulse! New Thing stable. Alexander’s playing is by no means that of Peter Brotzman or a young Gato Barbieri. To these ears, it comes off as more to do with exuberance, where the spirit of the session takes the helm. Understanding still defaults to a soul jazz category and it’s easy to dismiss free (or freer) playing in this arena, but one listen to this vibrant interplay and you’ll fall into the groove and won’t want to leave. Patton is at the top of his game and his bandmates push him to his swinging limit. The trio is rounded off by Hugh Walker on drums who gives his all — keeping a steady, turbulent backbeat under the soulful wailing laid down by Patton and Alexander. This is music to drive to, you’ll want to be moving and moving quickly.

Patton is at the top of his game and his bandmates push him to his swinging limit.

Right from the opener “Ding Dong” you know exactly where you stand – this is some heavy-duty soul and these players aren’t about to let up. That’s what’s so enticing about this particular release, the raw sounds of Alexander’s sax really churns the already boiling pot. Each player builds on one another adding more fuel to the fire, keeping things interesting. This certainly isn’t the Soul Jazz recordings of previous years — dare I say — in some ways it’s even better. Patton proves he’s not afraid to go out on a limb with a loose canon like Alexander. The addition of Walker on drums is a great move, his style adds some necessary backbone to help ground a free range player like Alexander. Patton is spot on, as usual, with soloing and his signature basslines. It’s Patton’s buoyant, almost hypnotic, bass that really adds a sense of forward motion to each track. His lines are deceptively simple, undulating deep down under Walker’s rock-steady drumming — the album’s blood and guts.

This certainly isn’t the Soul Jazz recordings of previous years — dare I say — in some ways it’s even better.

It’s now time to go out and seek this holy grail of groove. And when you do, you’ll want to turn up your hi-fi and tune out the naysayers.

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