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Art Blakey- Free For All (1965)

Art Blakey- Free For All

Blue Note Records

Recorded February 10, 1964

Released July 1965

Introducing Art Blakey

Art Blakey was one of, if not the hardest-swinging drummer ever. His often aggressive, polyphonic drum solos and an incredible sense of groove made him one of jazz's most sought-after and celebrated drummers. He was simply unbelievable. Beyond his virtuosic talent as a drummer, he was also a fantastic bandleader and a style innovator who was widely responsible for helping to develop and popularize a style known as hard bop, which fused jazz bebop with other African American-based styles like blues, gospel, and R&B. As a leader he helped introduce some of the biggest stars in jazz like Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, Benny Golson, Cedar Walton, Wynton and Branford Marsalis and many others. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Art Blakey, toured with legendary pianist Mary Lou Williams and the famed Fletcher Henderson Orchestra. While with the Henderson group, he was severely beaten by a police officer. The attack was supposedly unprovoked. The incident left Blakey with a steel plate in his head, making him unfit for service during World War II. While other drummers were forced to join the war effort, he remained in the States and became a first-call drummer.

From 1944-1947, Blakey worked with the smooth-voiced singer Billy Eckstine’s band and befriended bandmates like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon, Fats Navarro, Sarah Vaughan, and others. All the names mentioned, along with Art Blakey, would go on to represent the next wave of jazz stars looking to further the possibilities of the repertoire by performing in the radically more advanced bebop style, which called for a further focus on virtuosic improvisation, faster tempos, more exploratory harmonic elements along with an emphasis on individualistic self-expression.

When Eckstine dismantled his band in 1947, Blakey traveled to Africa for the first time. An experience that deeply inspired him as a drummer and a spiritual being. During this trip, he converted to Islam and adopted the name Abdullah Ibn Buhaina. He stopped practicing the Muslim religion in 1950. That same year, he began working in small group ensembles with many of his Eckstine bandmates like Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and other newcomers to the scene like Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell.

Early Life

Arthur Blakey was born in Pittsburgh on October 11, 1919, and is one of many legends born in the Iron City. His birth mother was believed to be a single mother who died shortly after he was born. The drummer was mainly raised with his siblings by a family friend. As a youth, it is believed that he received some piano lessons but mostly was self-taught. It has been reported that by the seventh grade, he worked full-time as a pianist. In the early 1930s, Blakey switched to drums, and according to folklore, he was forced to switch to make room for pianist Erroll Garner by a club owner who threatened him with a gun to give up the piano bench for a drum stool. Blakey patterned much of his drum style after hard-hitting swing drummers like Chick Webb and Sid Catlett.

Blakey the Bandleader

Blakey made his first recording as a leader for Blue Note Records with a group he called Art Blakey’s Messengers. He then focused on leading a big band called the Seventeen Messengers. Still, big bands were falling out of favor at this time, and the group could not be sustained. He then hooked up with pianist/composer Horace Silver. The two jazz giants first recorded together in 1952. Some of their early recordings listed Art Blakey as a leader, and some listed Horace Silver as the leader, using the name “The Jazz Messengers” by 1954. Soon after, Horace Silver split from sharing leadership duties with Art Blakey, went his own way and had incredible success. Silver left because he was concerned with the heavy usage of heroin within the group. Blakey continued using the Jazz Messengers name and performed with an ever-changing lineup of mostly younger up-and-coming jazz stars. The Messenger's playing style mainly includes tightly arranged melodies and often hard-driving tunes followed by extended solos with a return to the main melody. Several Jazz Messengers recordings found crossover success and were featured on jukeboxes in predominantly African-American inhabited areas. Blakey kept the Jazz Messengers together till 1990, the same year he passed. The band represented over 50 years of greatness, making Blakey and the Jazz Messengers one of the most impactful jazz groups of the second half of the 20th century.

Free For All

Free For All was recorded in 1964 and represented one of Blakey’s most celebrated lineups in their final year. The group included Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Wayne Shorter on tenor sax, Curtis Fuller on trombone, Cedar Walton on piano, and Reggie Workman on bass. Each would continue to have incredible success after leaving the Jazz Messengers. The album includes only four tracks, two written by Wayne Shorter, one by Freddie Hubbard, and one by pianist-composer Clare Fischer. The album was intended to have featured three more tunes. These were attempted, but no valid takes were recorded. Additionally, the musicians tried a second take of the song "Free for All," which was stopped because Blakey’s drums “broke.”

The Musicians

Wayne Shorter

In 1959, Wayne Shorter joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and eventually served as his musical director. At the time of the Free For All session, he was the longest-tenured group member. In addition to recording Free For All in 1964, he recorded his own classic albums on Blue Note, like Night Dreamer, Ju Ju, and Speak No Evil. Later In 1964, he also left the Messengers and accepted a position with Miles Davis’s Quintet. He remained with the trumpet legend till around 1970, during a period when Miles Davis began to present fusion music that blended jazz and rock and roll, a tradition that Shorter would later continue as the co-leader of Weather Report. Wayne Shorter represented one of the music's finest voices, and although he never lost his skills or creativity, this mid 1960s period represented his finest work.

Freddie Hubbard

As with Shorter, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard was on an absolute career tear in 1964, working as a first-call sideman and leader. His playing represented an extension of the technical innovations of trumpeters like Fats Navarro, Dizzy Gillespie, and Clifford Brown with a new raw energy and creativity. He was an absolute monster on the instrument and ranks amongst the most impactful trumpeters in jazz. So far already, we have talked about Hubbard’s playing on Herbie Hancock’s Empyrean Isles, Maiden Voyage, and Eric Dolphy’s Out To Lunch. These are just a few examples of his work. Hubbard worked as Jazz Messenger from 1961-1965. After working with the Messengers, he recorded albums as a leader and sideman.

Curtis Fuller

Trombonist Curtis Fuller is from Detroit, another hub developing significant jazz talents. He was amongst the most famous jazz trombonists beginning in the late 1950s. As with Shorter and Hubbard, Curtis Fuller had a long resume of albums as a leader and sideman. Some notables Fuller has recorded include John Coltrane, Count Basie, Bud Powell, Machito, Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, and Cedar Walton. Fuller was a Jazz Messenger from 1961-1965.

Cedar Walton

Walton was one of the most respected and utilized jazz pianists to emerge in the 1960s, and his playing became deeply connected with the Hard Bop style. Before joining the Messengers, he worked with trumpeter Kenny Dorham and as a member of the Jazztet band led by Benny Golson and Art Farmer. He also recorded with John Coltrane. Walton joined the Blakey in 1961 on the same day as Freddie Hubbard and remained with the group until 1964. After his departure, he worked steadily as a leader and sideman till he passed away in 2013.

Reggie Workman

Reggie Workman is a gifted bassist from Philadelphia, and at 86, he is the only surviving member of the group.. He played with John Coltrane, Gigi Gryce, Donald Byrd, Duke Jordan, and Booker Little early in his career. In 1962, Workman replaced Blakey’s bassist, Jymie Merritt, making him the newest Messenger on the Free For All album. He remained with the group till 1964 and continued to work steadily as a bassist and then as an educator at the New School Of Jazz. He has already been discussed on the program for his work on Wayne Shorter’s Night Dreamer, and his name will come up again when we look at the Wayne Shorter album Ju-Ju.

Side 1

(+ means "recommended track" and * means released as a single)

Track 1- “Free For All” was written by Wayne Shorter. The song begins with Walton, Workman, and Blakey providing an introduction before the three horns of Hubbard, Shorter, and Fuller present the tightly arranged melody. Then, we are off to the races with what I believe to be one of Shorter's most expressive solos. Behind it all, Blakey and the rhythm section play with urgency and tension, as if they were a volcano waiting to explode. Shorter is explosive throughout, so much so that one of his bandmates shouts out at around 2:52 seconds and again at 4:00. It is a solo that defines technicality; it is unworldly, spiritual, and primal. At 4:36, trombonist Curtis Fuller takes center stage, and he does his best to try to match Shorter. It's a solid presentation, and the energy of the rhythm section, particularly Blakey’s playing, keeps the spirit of Shorter’s sermon alive. At 6:30, Freddie Hubbard approaches the plate and plays like a man possessed. His sound, tone, musical ideas, range, and control are fully displayed. Just when the excitement couldn't build anymore, the volcano exploded. Blakey unleashed a powerful drum solo in which you can certainly hear a connection to the primitivism and purity of the African drum tradition. He plays with such power and energy that it seems impossible to stand upright after such a display. After his complete assault of his drum set, the band comes back in and returns to the main melody against some serious accents and breaks by Blakey. Before the end of the piece, the ensemble gathers together for one last scream before bringing this “Free For All” to a final rest. (+)

Track 2- “Hammer Head” is another driving swing by Shorter with a creative melodic sequence carried out by The Messenger’s signature sound and a magical mix of trumpet, tenor sax, and trombone. Shorter handles the first improvisation, and while it is not as fiery as his “Free Fall All” solo, it's pretty brilliant and daring at times. Hubbard solos next, and he plays some remarkably connected phrases, and at a point, he ventures the higher register, displaying complete control of the instrument. Curtis Fuller solos next, and as he often does, he plays shorter stab-like phrases. Cedar Walton plays the subsequent solo and perfectly blends creative single-note runs with blues inflections and more subtle left-hand punches. Although he is not featured except for some breaks in the melody, Art Blakey does not hang in the background; his presence is always felt, and his drumming is so active at times that it can be isolated almost as a composition itself. While he was a “busy” player, the propulsion of the beat was always moving to create an energetic swing feel. The man who does somewhat fade is bassist Reggie Workman. With so much going on, he has the great sense to hold a foundational bass line without getting in the way. (+)

Side 2

Track 1- “The Core” is an uptempo piece by Freddie Hubbard dedicated to the CORE (Congress of Racial Equality). The liner notes explain, "Hubbard's admiration of that organization's persistence and resourcefulness in its work for total, meaningful equality." "They're getting," he explains, "at the core, at the center of the kinds of change that have to take place before this society is really open to everyone. And more than any other group, CORE is getting to youth, and that's where the center of change is." The piece was called that way also because Hubbard thought that the musicians "got at some of the core of jazz – the basic feelings and rhythms that are at the foundation of music." The piece begins with Reggie Workman playing an unaccompanied bass intro, and then Walton drops in a few piano chords before the rest of the group enters. Hubbard takes the lead while Shorter and Fuller provide background hits and sometimes join Hubbard on the main melody. Shorter unleashes the first solo and plays like a complete madman, as does Blakey and Walton, and holding it all together is Workman. Freddie Hubbard re-enters with a series of precise phrases, and at times, he jumps into the stratosphere of the high register. Fuller joins next as a soloist and floats against the controlled chaos of Blakey’s drumming and Walton and Workman’s interactions within the drummer's highly caffeinated playing. Walton then gets his turn and unleashes a flurry of runs and chorded accents, showcasing his brilliance as an improviser. The main melody returns and the storm settles as Workman is left alone to close the work. (+)

Track 2- “Pensativa” comes from pianist/composer Clare Fischer. Fischer first recorded it in 1962 as part of the album Bossa Nova Jazz Samba by Bud Shank and Clare Fischer. The liner notes reveal that “Pensativa” were arranged by Hubbard for the occasion: "I was playing a gig in Long Island," he recalls, "and the pianist started playing it. The mood got me this feeling of a pensive woman. And the melody was so beautiful that I couldn't get it out of my mind after I'd gotten home." This clever bossa-nova is the most mellow song on the record and the only track considered a jazz standard. Hubbard provides the first solo. Take notice of the various auxiliary percussion instruments being played by Shorter, Hubbard, and Fuller when they are not playing solo. Shorter takes the second improvisation, and like Hubbard, he is more subdued than on the earlier tracks. Next, Cedar Walton's solo perfectly matches the spirit of Hubbard and Shorter’s statements. Throughout, you can hear chatter and encouragement from the bandmates. The perfectly arranged main melody returns after the solo before an outro vamp concludes the piece and the album. (+)

In Conclusion

Free For All showcases the absolute mastery and fire that Blakey and his Jazz Messengers were capable of in 1964. The first three tracks reveal energy and connectivity that could have only been achieved by the individuals within the group and a developed group concept that germinated after a few years as a working group. The final album track, “Pensativa,” is a reminder that the group could be somewhat sedated and could enhance any standard they chose to feature. Managing and ranking The Messenger’s incredible catalog is difficult. Still, Free For All has to rank amongst his most extraordinary presentations as an artistic endeavor that seemed more geared towards making a creative statement than appeasing the casual listener.

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