Jean Toussaint: Roots & Herbs 'The Blakey Project'
Scarborough Jazz Festival 2015 (Friday evening)
Jean Toussaint has a perfect right to associate his 'Roots & Herbs' group with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers having been a Messenger himself in the 1980s. The 80s were a potentially bleak period for jazz until a crucial rebirth happened, largely originating in Blakey's group. At this time rock and pop had firmly pushed jazz from the mainstream to a niche audience, the only real 'popular' area of jazz being bland smooth jazz by the likes of Kenny G or a few jazzy numbers George Benson could slip in amongst his smoochy pop vocal hits. Jazz fusion, often more concerned with technical virtuosity than anything else, had mostly driven up a dead end street and several jazz superstars such as Herbie Hancock were essentially making pop records.
Blakey had founded the group in the late 1940s and made some landmark recordings in the 50s & 60s. Through the leaner years of the 70s he kept the outfit going mostly through tours of Europe & Japan where there was still an audience hungry for live classic jazz. Throughout its history the band often functioned as a launch pad for the careers of young musicians, especially so by the 1980s with a regular turnover of players only too glad to learn from elder statesman Blakey. This led to the outspoken jazz catalyst, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, joining the ranks, after whom there followed a stream of young jazzers who would go on to be the stars of their era including Wynton's saxophonist brother Branford, trumpeter Terrence Blanchard and tonight's festival headliner, Jean Toussaint.
Whilst these were some of the most technically proficient and certainly the best-educated players to grace the Jazz Messengers ranks, they were also the least likely to wail blues-drenched solos in the style that had originally made the band's reputation. And so it is with the first half of tonight's performance by this line up of the cream of British jazz musicians (Caribbean-born Toussaint now lives in London). However, drummer Shane Forbes aside, the hard-driving style one normally associates with the repertoire isn't especially evident in the first half of the set. It's a Wayne Shorter waltz that actually proves the highlight - the perfect foil for Jason Rebello's considered piano and lyrical solos from Trombonist Dennis Rollins and Byron Wallen on Trumpet using a harmon mute.
The band act as a sort of mutual appreciation society nodding approval of each other's solos but a small steady flow of people leaving between tunes suggest that the mood on stage isn't necessarily carrying to all the audience. There's a sense that these astonishingly good musicians are ably proving they know their stuff, but not exactly lighting the fuse. However, those leaving miss the moment when the famous Jazz Messengers fire is ignited and things begin to burn: Toussaint almost apologetically introduces 'Moanin'' - the most famous recording by the late 50s edition of the Messengers - and Rebello plays a solo introduction. It's a delightfully inventive improvisation but not quite the gospel-infused build up to this tune one might expect. As the band breeze through the first chorus and Toussaint starts to solo I worry that they're about to play a blues piece without actually playing the blues, it's as if that would be just too obvious and that contemporary jazz musicians feel they should prove they're a bit more clever.
Byron Wallen proves that assumption wrong. In the first solo of the evening that really sets free his jumping fiery trumpet style he slurs and hollers out a slew of notes that are all about the equal joy and pain of the blues and the audience respond accordingly. Without resorting to cliches his playing embodies the drive and excitement that the classic Blakey hard bop recordings captured whilst still clearly being the work of a contemporary musician. Possibly inspired by this, bassist Daniel Casimir delivers perhaps the solo of the night, full of the cries and moans the song title suggests. Judging by the applause and shouts this is what the audience really came to hear.
The classic 'Blues March' follows with some gloriously righteous drumming - almost an old fashioned southern baptist sermon on skins. Another series of solos that remember to have a good time as well as be technically excellent follow, the band now firmly in the trademark Blakey groove. I'm left wishing that was just the first of several sets or that we could follow the band to a small club and hear them really cook for another hour, but time is up and they at least leave the stage having found and danced with the spirit of the great jazz drummer.