Ping-Pong and Other Jazz Games with Jean Toussaint


Jean Toussaint’s Roots and Herbs – ‘The Art Blakey Project’: Jean Toussaint (tenor saxophone), Byron Wallen (trumpet), Dennis Rollins (trombone), Jason Rebello (piano), Daniel Casimir (bass), Shane Forbes (drums), Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 4.6.2016. (LJ)

With pink and blue lights, Milt Jackson’s vibraphone bebopping in the background jazz was in the air. On Saturday night Jean Toussaint and his all-star band – Byron Wallen (trumpet), Dennis Rollins (trombone), Jason Rebello (piano), Daniel Casimir (bass), and Shane Forbes (drums) – stopped off in Cardiff to perform two fresh and catchy sets of Blakey-inspired jazz.

Toussaint’s “Roots and herbs ‘The Blakey Project’” (named after Art Blakey’s 1961 recording) celebrates the music of the great drummer Art Blakey, who died 25 years ago. At the mention of Blakey one may hear the catchy rhythms of Moanin’ or see Blakey and his Messengers erupt into a percussive extravaganza at the beginning of the 1958 performance of A Night in Tunisia. Explosive, inventive and ‘modern’, Blakey’s sound is ageless. With Toussaint’s sextet, Blakey’s legacy – and more importantly, his vitality – was kept alive. All musicians held onto the integrity of each piece (mainly written by Wayne Shorter during his 1960s burst of creativity) and kept a contemporary audience interested with their intelligent improvisations.

Toussaint, who was born in 1960, played with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers from 1982-1986. Last night’s concert was an opportunity to pay tribute to the great jazz innovator. For Blakey jazz was “the highest level of musical execution on an instrument.” Toussaint’s melodious tone, timing, modesty and flashiness (in perfect balance) certainly demonstrated mastery over his instrument. In a concert with so many highlights, it is difficult for me to resist waxing lyrical about the high levels of musicianship displayed in each piece. Instead, I will devote the rest of this review to an overview of what I consider to be the ‘top three’ moments of the show.

Ping Pong began with a show stopping drum solo by Shane Forbes. Any comparisons to be made between Forbes and Blakey seem trite in a concert designed to pay tribute to the great. Suffice it to say that Forbes is a formidable drummer who brought energy, drive and swing to the stage. This hard bop piece was played with order and precision. This structure did not restrain the instrumentalists, but kept them on their toes. Each solo was intelligent and thanks to Toussaint’s structuring and Forbes’s beat, never over-indulgent. To hear this piece with Blakey and the Messengers, you can find it on the 1961-2 recording Live Messengers.

Moanin’, the classic Blakey signature piece everyone was waiting for, ended the first set. To keep this piece booming for today’s listeners, Jason Rebello and Dennis Rollins performed inventive and impressive solos on piano and trombone, respectively. Jean Toussaint can be heard performing Moanin’ with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers (with Bernie Senensky on piano) in a fantastic 1983 live recording.

Rebello stole the show (along with bassist Daniel Casimir) in Benny Golson’s Blues March. Nothing seemed out of range for Rebello: Peterson-like runs were met with his own spaciousness and elasticity. Moreover, this piece had a Duke Ellington big-band feel. This comment is not intended to date their performance, but to acknowledge Toussaint’s skill in discreetly arranging each piece to give it a well-rounded, and often far-reaching, sound. Listeners could gather a sense of the arc of each piece, reminiscent of the more traditional style of jazz Blakey played whilst being surprised by the inventiveness of each musician’s individual inventiveness when playing their solos.

Camaraderie between band members was natural and unforced. The musicians were genuinely enjoying themselves when on stage, sharing quips with each other (and even the audience on occasion). This springiness and intimacy could be felt in the music which kept feet tapping and hands clapping throughout the evening.

As Blakey and Toussaint fans will be well aware of, there is a great video recording of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers performing at the Umbria Jazz Festival in 1983. For those keen to add to their jazz CD collection, I highly recommend The New York Scene (Concord Jazz CJ-256) which features Toussaint and Mulgrew Miller (piano) with Blakey and the Jazz Messengers recorded live at Mikell’s at NYC in May 1984.

Finally, it leaves me with trumpeter Byron Wallen to close this review. His well-travelled and eclectic style gave Toussaint’s sextet panache and razzmatazz. His sound is his own, often daring and always intriguing – comments that can be attributed to last night’s music at large.

Lucy Jeffery


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