If you're going to record a tribute to drummer and hard-bop boss Art Blakey, you'd better come to burn. Alto saxophonist Ron Aprea and the band he assembled do just that on Remembering Blakey (Early Autumn)—one of the strongest small group albums of the year. Instead of miming songs recorded by Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Aprea wisely lined up 12 tracks that have almost nothing to do with the legendary bandleader.
For example, six of the songs are by Paul Brusger, a self-taught bassist who is a shrewd jazz composer. Two of the tracks are by Aprea, who arranged all of the material on the album. There are standards, of course—My Foolish Heart, Goodbye, Cherokee and Lover Man. And there's Oliver Nelson's Latino.
The Ron Aprea Sextet features Joe Magnarelli (tp) [pictured above], Ron Aprea (as), Jerry Weldon (ts), Cecilia Coleman (p), Tim Givens (b) and Vince Cherico (d)—with George Hooks on percussion on two tracks and Jerry Sokolov on trumpet on one.
So why does this album work so well? For one, the individual playing is ferocious and swinging. Aprea is a lyrical alto saxophonist with a Gene Quill-like timbre who plays like he wants the job. Magnarelli knows how to fire-up the horn and tenor saxophonist Weldon can dig in and groove. You even get hooked on Givens' insistent bass work. For another, this sextet is compact and well-rehearsed—like six laborers working furiously on a coal pile in tight quarters without ever hitting each other with a shovel. [Photo above of Art Blakey by Herman Leonard/CTSImages.com]
But the true surprise here is Aprea's arranging skills. His ear for what made Blakey's Jazz Messengers special—tearing across songs like jets in formation only to have individual soloists break off and roll—never lets up. Drummer Cherico [pictured above] could have mimed Blakey but instead does his own thing, adding just enough Blakey thunder to remind us of the album's namesake.
Each track is a joyous surprise. In a Minor Funk feels like Bobby Timmons' Dat Dere but never goes there completely. Or the fierce Andrea's Delight, which is like listening to alligators wrestle. Or Cherokee, which is pure fireworks thanks to Aprea's novel arrangement. Nothing is as it seems here and everything is remarkably as it should be, including the stunning quality of the CD's fidelity.
Remembering Blakey is a perfect tribute album in every way—precisely because Aprea [pictured above] and his band never make the fatal mistake of trying to be the Jazz Messengers. Instead, they created a singular personality and seasoned all of their tunes with the muscular feel and harmony that made Blakey and the Jazz Messengers stand out. Best of all, there isn't a flat track on the entire album. This CD is like opening a fresh pack of matches—every stick ignites.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find the Ron Aprea Sextet's Remembering Blakey (Early Autumn) here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Andrea's Delight. And yes, everything on the album has this sensibility, even the ballads...
Wall Street Journal alert: In today's paper, I profile Ron Isley of the Isley Brothers. As I write in my article: "Mr. Isley and the Isley Brothers hold a special place in the evolution of rock and soul with one of the longest continuous careers of any group in the rock era—and Billboard hits in every decade since 1959, including 40 on the Hot 100 chart and 79 on the R&B chart. Unlike most top artists who recorded for established labels, the Isleys started their own—T-Neck—in 1964."
Please pick up the paper or go here.