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Dan Ouellette

Dan Ouellette

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August 23 2013

Studios have a tendency to stifle and muffle creativity while an on-fire live outing oftentimes opens a window onto the true essence of a band. That’s why it’s hard to believe that drummer Art Blakey’s Free for All, arguably his most dynamic album, was recorded in the intimate confines of engineer Rudy Van Gelder’s humble studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. With all the yells and yelps, the whoops and wowing going on in the backdrop, and the leader’s shell-shocking drumming, this radiant 1964 session comes off sounding like an exhilarating late-night show at the Village Vanguard.

The celebrated recording captures a magic: an intense and joyful moment of serendipity for this 1961-64 edition of Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, the band officially co-founded with Horace Silver in 1954. Playing on acoustic instruments with an intense hard bop drive, the sextet conjures electricity with the fertile frontline horn section of tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter (soon to launch into Miles Davis’s classic ‘60s quintet), trumpeter Freddie Hubbard (ready to take flight on his own solo career) and trombonist Curtis Fuller. Reggie Workman on bass holds down the proceedings that threaten to soar throughout, and pianist Cedar Walton provides the tasteful melodic swing.

Free for All is a transcendent four-track album that gets its name from the raucous Shorter original that energetically opens the show. It’s literally an extended musical free-for-all that takes its visceral cue from the otherworldly, ecstatic Shorter solo that commands almost half of the song’s 11-minute surge. Fuller follows Shorter with fire, with Hubbard grasping the flaming baton and being cheered on to fly toward the blazing sun. Blakey, who throughout bashes with incendiary beauty, goes ballistic on his exclamatory solo that climaxes the outing before the band returns to the horn-fueled theme.

Blakey’s machine gun drumming opens the second track, the swinging “Hammer Head,” another Shorter piece that again features his kaleidoscopic tenor saxing followed by Hubbard’s loose and grooved trumpeting, Fuller’s soulful tromboning and Walton’s graceful dance on the keys. Excited by what he’s hearing, Blakey shouts encouraging commentary in the background throughout that spurs the players on.

Hubbard’s contribution to the album, the hard-driving “The Code.” It’s a forceful and emotive jaunt that certainly displays the improvisational brio and collective alchemy of a group of turned-on artists who dig deep and fly high with Blakey’s thundering support.

And for the finale, something different: a sublime rendering of Clare Fisher’s “Pensativa” that Hubbard discovered while playing a backwater gig on Long Island. His lyricism on the percussion-spiced tune is splendid. Even though the tempo is slowed and swinging, there’s the drumming maestro in the background passionately shouting out to Shorter, “Blow your horn!” With the studio date settling into a sweet sunset, “Pensativa” serves as dessert for a fine dining experience that is indeed rare.

On Free for All, in the midst of his soon-to-be-stars sidemen, Blakey is at once the center of the universe and the gatekeeper to the jazz lifeblood of freedom