Homage to Art
Sunnyside SSC 1105

Two ways exist to do a memorial album. One is to play a collection of tunes associated with the artist in as similar a style to his as possible — witness the many bloodless Miles Davis tributes. The other — and more difficult — path is to recast a few of the honoree’s unfamiliar compositions in a new way so that the personality of the musician organizing the memorial is as obvious as the dedicatee’s.

Veteran percussionist Ray Barretto has opted for the later course, reordering pieces associated with drummer Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers in his own distinctive Afro-Cuban jazz style. More meaningfully, unlike younger wannabes, Barretto is someone who actually played with the Blakey, and was featured on late drummer’s HOLIDAY FOR SKINS LP. Music director for the Fania All Stars, Barretto was a leader of the 1950s Cubop movement, adding his distinctive rhythms to discs by pianist Red Garland, flutist Herbie Mann and saxophonist Gene Ammons among many others.

Although alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon is from Puerto Rico and pianist Luis Perdomo, who did half of the arrangements, is from Venezuela, this band isn’t a charanga either. It plays Afro-Cuban, hard bop jazz the way Barretto originated it and the way Blakey would have appreciated.

“Buh’s Bossa”, composed by the Messengers’ trumpet star Lee Morgan —and arranged by bassist Hans Glawisching — is given a little extra oomph by Barretto’s conga drums and the underlying clave beat. On it, trumpeter John Bailey uses brassy, repetitive trills interrupted by sudden sharp squeaks to build up a solo reminiscent of the work of Morgan and Kenny Dorham with Blakey’s band. Zenon’s slurred, growling, sharp saxophone forays actually seem to be indebted to the playing of tenor saxist Hank Mobley, another early Jazz Messenger, while Perdomo’s superfast piano arpeggios maintain the Latin mood when partnered with a conga drum sound on every backbeat. The bassist’s feature is all straightahead jazz, with the piece ending with a theme reprise then some characteristic Barretto percussion accents.

Four of the other compositions were written by Wayne Shorter, bringing to mind the Messengers 1960s heyday. One of the exceptions is Bailey’s “Ballade for Buhaina” titled with Blakey’s Muslim name. Directed by the uninterrupted flow of Barretto’s percussion, it, like other tunes here is helped along by the rhythm and press rolls of Vince Cherico, who has the unenviable task of sitting behind the drum kit. Featuring unison horn work and the pianist reaching high up for treble flourishes and turnarounds, it emphasizes that the young musicians are bringing all they can to the tribute.

Although obviously not the pioneering trendsetters Blakey first employed, the sidemen certainly bear comparison with his later Messengers. That because even Salsa-ized, the material is very familiar with the rote circular-solo-order followed on nearly every track. However, Bailey’s triplet runs are really no match for Morgan’s or Freddie Hubbard’s and Zenon’s sweeping smoothness is not what was produced by Lou Donaldson or Jackie McLean. Someone who has worked with bassist John Patitucci and saxophonist Ravi Coltrane — who knows something about tributes — Perdomo’s Latinesque asides work in their own way, but in this music at least, he’s not someone who bears down on improvs and gives them his own stamp, the way earlier Messenger pianists like Cedar Walton or Bobby Timmons did. Thus it’s left to the cowbells, congas and other percussion magic from Barretto to bend the bar lines and give them individuality, whether it’s trading fours with the sidemen or embarking on a solo bit.

The conga drummer has produced a heart-felt tribute to another master percussionist. He also shows, with his encouragement of these young players, that he could be, like Blakey, a bandleader who breeds future bandleaders.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Close Your Eyes 2. United 3. Sleeping Dancer Sleep On 4. Noise in the Attic 5. Ballade for Buhaina 6. Frère Jacques 7. Buh’s Bossa 8. Lester Left Town

Personnel: John Bailey (trumpet); Miguel Zenon (alto saxophone); Luis Perdomo (piano); Hans Glawisching (bass); Vince Cherico (drums); Ray Barretto (congas and percussion)