The Indianapolis Jazz Collective pays sizzling tribute to the master drummer/bandleader Art Blakey

Art Blakey said many good things, but among them was not "Music washes away the dust of everyday life."
Yet a concert in centennial tribute to the drummer-bandleader Friday night at the Jazz Kitchen accomplished
The Indianapolis Jazz Collective played an Art Blakey tribute show to a packed house.
such a cleansing for me and the capacity audience, swelled by supporters of the sponsoring Indianapolis Jazz Foundation.

The misattribution of the original thought of Berthold Auerbach, a 19th-century German writer, sometimes sticks "from the soul" in the middle of that quotation, as usually translated. Blakey would have endorsed the complete version, too, and the band led by Rob Dixon put substance behind it in a generously proportioned first set.

(The Auerbach quote has great legs, having been attributed to Pablo Picasso as well — and even, thanks to appropriation of the writer's last name, to the immortal Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach. Can't you just hear him coming up with this in pure cigar-chomping Brooklynese: "Like I was saying to Cousy the other day...."?)

In any case, after a week weighed down, for me and many others, by the sometimes depressing, sometimes inspiring, House Intelligence Committee impeachment hearings, the soul-washing power of good jazz was balm with a beat, doing business as the Indianapolis Jazz Collective.

Kenny Phelps was on drums and, true to his virtuosity, he tweaked his style toward signature Blakey elements —  bass-drum bombs, spine-tingling tom or rim accents, and flurries of snare-drum patterning. He channeled the master especially well in Wayne Shorter's "Free for All" and Benny Golson's "Blues March." As Blakey always managed to be while asserting himself behind the kit, Phelps was predictably supportive of his bandmates.

Besides tenor saxophonist Dixon, they included Steve Allee, piano; Nick Tucker, bass; Freddie Mendoza, trombone, and — a special treat in returning to his hometown from his base in Chicago — Pharez Whitted, trumpet.

The trumpeter got a showcase in a standard well-known outside the Blakey orbit, as the rest of the front line sat out. "I Thought About You" brought out a characteristic Whitted feature in ballads: the ability to sound centered on the material while tucking in all manner of florid ornamentation of the melody. Heart and brain were clearly working in sync.

I also admired the trumpeter's forcefulness in such a piece as "Blues March," where he projected power through his horn without directing the bell right into the microphone. Most trumpeters in jazz history have had such strength as part of their brand, and Whitted, by avoiding overamplification, amazingly capitalized on his grasp of the instrument's legacy since the days when Buddy Bolden's trumpet was said to have been audible on waves of natural air for many Crescent City blocks around.

Allee's solo in "I Thought About You" had an expansiveness to match Whitted's. Though he has for many years spoken with his own voice at the keyboard, I detected in his beautiful solo aspects of his mentor, Claude Sifferlen, as well as of the deft filigree of Erroll Garner, who happens to have been a Pittsburgh friend and contemporary of Blakey's.

As a soloist, Dixon never seems to hold back, though he knows when to wow the crowd and when to build toward wowing the crowd.  Like the classic Abstract Expressionist artists, he often paints edge to edge in his solos, as in Bobby Watson's "In Case You Missed It." Mendoza displayed golden tints in his soloing, and balanced staccato stabs and smooth phrases expertly. The ever-reliable Tucker never seemed overshadowed by his normally last position in the solo order; he put a cap on that with the evening's final solo in the band's excellent series of them. The vehicle was the stompin' evergreen "Moanin'."

The ensemble sound was generally firm, sometimes jelling a little more definitively after the solos in the fast numbers, especially in Wayne Shorter's difficult "This Is for Albert." But the commitment to the Blakeyan energy was unfailing. Besides, here's something Art Blakey did say: "Jazz is not clinical. It's not like that. Jazz is born by somebody goofin'. So if you feel that band hasn't got that looseness, they're not creating."

This was some good goofin', but it was so much more than that. It had  something to do with washing away that dust.

[Photo by Mark Sheldon]


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