Tony Allen plays nuanced homage to Art Blakey on new tribute album

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Tony Allen’s “A Tribute to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers” crafts hard bop in the style of the original masters. Standout tracks include, “Moanin’” and “The Drum Thunder Suite.”

In brief: Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers

For almost four decades, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers were one of the foremost innovators in the world of hard bop. The group was started by drummer, Art Blakey, and their take on jazz would serve to influence a host of musicians for decades to come. Starting in the mid-1950s, the group was active until Blakey’s death in 1990.

Introducing Tony Allen and “A Tribute to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers”

While Tony Allen’s latest work pays homage to Art Blakey and his ensemble, it should not be forgotten that Allen has his own impressive musical history. Allen, as some jazz, and perhaps world music fans will remember, is responsible for the genre of music called “Afrobeat.” He pioneered the genre while participating in his seminal band, Africa 70, from the late 1960s until 1979.

Nigerian-born Allen is based in Paris. His tribute to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers is a four-song EP. The release seems to incorporate elements of Afrobeat and jazz. Afrobeat itself is based in part on jazz, in addition to American funk and different types of Nigerian music.

Tony Allen, “Moanin’”

Never judge a song by its title. I was sure that a song called “Moanin,’” would be, well, sad. Instead, at least in the hands of Allen and his ensemble, the song is groovy and rich with brass and drum elements that encourage both listening and dancing.

The song opens with a bass line that sounds familiar to listeners of soul and R&B. The brass takes over, and the verve with which the section swings and grooves holds audiences over easily until the bass line comes back. Underneath it all, the drums clack and crash, making their own groove. The saxophone solo incorporates the grooves of previous sections. It also creates variations that add texture to the song.

As well-structured as it is, “Moanin’” never becomes predictable. Of the three or so variations that are used, audiences are not quite sure which one will be played after the tiny breaks that can be measured in fractions of a second.

“The Drum Thunder Suite” by Tony Allen

Perhaps I have been listening to rock music too long, and when I think of “drum thunder” I have a more ominous sound in mind. However, Allen’s take on this Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers’ classic, is swinging and the drums are thunderous enough in a way to warrant the title.

To be clear, the song is not all drums, and I didn’t expect it to be, either. The brass section plays light and pliable over drums that do “crack” more than crash and shimmer as jazz drums tend to do. Even when the drums lighten up, it is only relative. They play a terse tattoo during horn solos. The drums are persistent; they refuse to sit in the background of the soundscape. And toward the end, there is the kind of drumming that some listeners associate with rock music, including crashing cymbals. The drums get their moment in the spotlight, too, before the jazzy motif comes back in featuring the horns.

Allen’s tribute to Blakey is a fresh reminder of jazz’s history, and its worldwide appeal. The nuanced, sophisticated jazz presented on the EP is a must-have for jazz collectors everywhere.

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