Art Blakey: Free For All (1964) Blue Note

Selection: Hammer Head (Shorter)

. . .


Freddie Hubbard (trumpet) Curtis Fuller (trombone) Wayne Shorter (tenor sax) Cedar Walton (piano) Reggie Workman (bass) Art Blakey (drums) recorded Rudy Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, February 10, 1964

Hubbard’s last recording with The Messengers, and nearing the end of  Shorter’s long apprenticeship, the  changing face over a decade documented here, I think it bears repetition:


Through the addition of Curtis Fuller in 1961, the sextet format remained  Blakey’s most enduring  powerhouse, and in the title track Free for All, The Messengers make full use of the three horn frontline, no-one gets to sleep.  With the soloist of the moment blazing away, the other horns joust in unison, harmony or counterpoint seeking to capture the flag, then exchange places to continue the battle, it is exhausting but thrilling as each soloists fights to stay in command. Underneath the front-line, Blakey is on fire, incendiary,  thunderous, relentless, leaving  Cedar Walton to assert the rhythmic drive with his percussive staccato attack on the keys, while Reggie Workman holds the supporting terrain together. Phew!

For the selection, Hammer Head, I’ve opted for something a little less fierce, as the 11 minute title track isn’t well suited to listening on a phone or PC, you need something with matching force, like several hundred watts of moving air, slap you in the face. You simply don’t mess with Shorter-Hubbard-Fuller, soon to go their separate ways, but formidable together in the Blakey line-up, something never again repeated.

Blue Note Spotlite picks up the common “blazing” theme :

Free for All is a transcendent four-track album that gets its name from the raucous Shorter original that energetically opens the show. It’s literally an extended musical free-for-all that takes its visceral cue from the otherworldly, ecstatic Shorter solo that commands almost half of the song’s 11-minute surge. Fuller follows Shorter with fire, with Hubbard grasping the flaming baton and being cheered on to fly toward the blazing sun. Blakey, who throughout bashes with incendiary beauty, goes ballistic on his exclamatory solo that climaxes the outing before the band returns to the horn-fuelled theme.

Bring out the fire extinguisher! It is not “free jazz” but a raucous free-for-all within a structure, treading the boundary between inside and out. It is not easy listening due to its multi-instrument intensity, but it is exhilarating, especially played loud (as long as the neighbours are out) . The mono really stretches the cones, I swear I saw smoke rising from the speakers.

Vinyl: BLP 4170

NY labels, Plastylite ear,  mono VAN GELDER, DG Side 1.

Cover a little grubby, but basically sound, apart for one owners  name and date of purchase: 1967, though this was released in 1965, and needed to make its way across the Atlantic.

There is such a lot happening, Van Gelder must have had his hands full in the studio with all the dials touching red. This is not delicate intellectual chamber jazz, this is dense big-band complex and urgent cacophony with instruments of varying dynamic force.

I like the mono because in this context I want simultaneous intensity, not simulated spatial information. Blakey should be underneath everything, not parked on one side. The instruments should be layered  not isolated. I really don’t want to know if Curtis Fuller on the left or right channel, I want him in the mix vertically,  I think the mono achieves this a the way stereo does not, however each to his own.

Collector’s Corner

I have lots of Blakey albums already, and you always ask: do I need another? A Stereo Liberty graced my shelves for some years, but rarely played. However the chance to upgrade to Plastylite mono  was too good to pass up. A good decision, feeling the plaster falling from the ceiling.

I noted with interest that legendary Nigerian Afrobeat drummer, 76 year old Tony Allen,  is appearing at the Nice Jazz Festival in France shortly, under the title “Tribute to Art Blakey“. Small world just got smaller, Allen has released a mini- album for…of all people…Blue Note.

John Lewis review , The Guardian, May 18, 2017

Blue Note

“The four track EP was recorded live in Allen’s current hometown of Paris and features a fiery 7-piece band interpreting the Jazz Messengers classics “Moanin’,” “A Night In Tunisia,” “Politely” and “Drum Thunder Suite” through an Afrobeat prism. The EP was produced by Vincent Taurelle”.

I might just have to give this a listen. But oh dear…….what’s this I see…not even The Evil Silver Disc™, but the devil’s spawn, Downloads:


That’s more like it.  Proper music belongs on vinyl.

LJC Opinion: Oddly, Journalists looking to file 500 words on “Art Blakey and African music” cite Blakey albums which are in my view his least impressive , including Orgy in Rhythm, Vols. 1-2 , which features five percussionsts, the lacklustre Herbie Mann on flute and one track on which on which Blakey sings, described euphemistically by All Music as “mostly for specialized tastes“. Of the others,  two volumes, Holiday for Skins, which is little better, and Solomon Ilori And His Afro-Drum Ensemble. Drumming albums aside there are the twenty or so great Blue Note Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers titles, which go unmentioned. Blakey was not only a great drummer, he was also a great band leader, which is something more, and an incubator of extraordinary talent. Some examples:

Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers: Freedom Rider

Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers: Indestructible

Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers: Mosaic

Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers: Night in Tunisia

Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers: At The Jazz Corner of the World Vol 2

Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers:  Buhaina’s Delight

Just a few to mention, in passing. Thank you for reading and commenting, that’s what it’s all about. LJC now approaching three million page views. You see, there’s no interest in mouldy old vinyl or modern jazz, apparently.




17 thoughts on “Art Blakey: Free For All (1964) Blue Note

  1. actually I meant I (me alone) was bored after listening to those records I wanted to listen to again this afternoon before commenting, and sorry for my English: I didn’t mean that “RHYTHM” was lacking, of course, but TIME. when two drummers go soloing one after the other, on the same complex percussion path, I would expect the second one to stay IN time and not OUT of time. as I wrote I’m an amateur drummer (have been playing the drums for decades) and rhythm and time are my rules. when we spoke of different drummers in the past, I talked about a concert I attended where Elvin Jones, Max Roach, Art Blakey and Sunny Murray performed on the same night but not together. a video of this concert is on YouTube. my opinion was that Elvin, drunk, had to be escorted to his kit, was the greatest delusion (played badly in trio), Max was astonishing (solo), Art was nothing more than simple routine, and Sunny totally out of time. while I love Free Jazz and its freedom, I don’t like this same freedom on drums alone. it doesn’t kill me. drums are difficult to move out of the natural rhythmic role. Max did it, he let his drums “sing”. Sunny was pure cacophony but he was the right man for Ayler as Elvin was perfect one for Trane. so that concert left these impressions on me but didn’t change my appreciation for most of their records. it’s my impression you put the emphasis on the difference between Orgy in Rhythm and the rest of Blakey’s output defined conventional. I do not have all Blakey’s records but I listened to all of them. the real gems are few but in these gems there are standards always, as in the repertoire of most of our heroes. it’s the interpretation that strikes, no matter how many times that song has been played over the decades. a beautiful standard played badly is a shame. an abused standard played greatly is exciting. lastly I cited two records in my collection that could represent the meeting of Jazz and Africa. that’s all.

    • Sunny should have been playing with his own working group, not the Messengers (though I might’ve liked to have heard him with Garrison and Farrell or Harper). His solo spot is good, though. I’m not so into the idea of a drum battle unless the drummers are really playing together and expanding on what any one of them alone could accomplish.

  2. Well if one is ‘bored’ by rythym based lps… I guess they would be excited by the typical Blakey lp:
    Cover of a standard, cover of a standard, 3 songs by horn players that will be gone within a year bc ‘in Art’s band that poor trumpet player has to blow so hard that his lips bleed’ (Dizzy Gillespie from’Notes and Tones’) finish with…… cover of a standard. You can only do ‘paper moon’ and ‘come rain or come shine’ so many times, using the same ‘swingin horns infront’ bf I’m snoozing more than Dott during Orgy in Riddim. So I find excitement, creativity, and at least a willingness to have a different session, even if it doesn’t sound like ‘Moanin’ 10 different ways in the drum lps. As I strongly stated in my first comment- to each their own… the sound of the drums and trying to identify changes in the percussive instruments, hearing changes in the beats to convey emotion I enjoy that just as much as you do a conventional jazz Blakey lp. And Dott not mentioning ‘Palo Congo’ in that list of percussion lps!? Assurdita’ totale!

    • Hi Donald, you confirm my faith in human nature – I figured if I nailed my colours to the mast, someone would quickly pop up and call me out, and you did. No problem, what you like is what you like. If you can, tell me what the attraction is of these drum-orientated titles, perhaps I’m missing out on something.

      • with maximum respect for everyone’s taste, Orgy in rhythm vol.1 and 2, are a continuous boring percussion orgy. melody and harmony are absent, chanting is elementar, bass, flute and piano parts are negligible. but the worst thing I couldn’t stand is a frequent lack of rhythm when two drummers play along. why worst thing in a rhythm only music? because I’m a drummer myself, but everyone can feel this. it’s not enough the use of African percussions to make an African record. jazz ain’t here, nor Africa. if someone is interested in Afro-American music (and politics), keep Freedom Now Suite rolling or, for more advanced, The Magic of JuJu, first track.

  3. “Free For All” is indeed a fantastic record. My mono copy was one of those great deals – the cover was a mess (water damage, ring wear, you name it), but the vinyl was very clean and the price was low. Sarchi’s Blue Note guide indicates that original copies of 4170 are DG or no-DG, or in the case of your copy, DG on one side only. So was this recording manufactured during a time of transition to non-DG presses? You’ve probably discussed this topic a thousand times in these pages, but these details don’t stick with me.

    • Controversial. The non-DG dies first came into use at Plastylite around 1960-61, after which time pressings appear randomly with DG both sides, no DG both sides, or DG one side or the other, until all the older dies were finally discarded and seen no more around 1965.

      We know from a reader here who worked at Plastylite as a press operator in those years that the selection of dies was of no consequence, and pressing runs were in short bursts, with frequent changes at the half-dozen presses in use at Plastylite.

      Cohen and his collaborators initially defined what type of groove permutation each “first pressing” should be, but some title variations suggest this is less certain, and I’m not sure it really matters during the period of changeover, as long as you have the correct metalwork. However sellers of “original!!!” might disagree.

      • I can confirm that 4170 is known in three different ways: DG both sides, no DG both sides, DG on side one only. until now a DG on side two only hasn’t surfaced but may exist.

  4. You’re absolutely right about the Blakey drumming albums being the least enjoyable of his output – he was a brilliant brilliant drumming bandleader when doing both things at the same time.

  5. I love Tony Allen as a drummer and love the music of Blakey, but that 10″ was a huge disappointment, I was really looking forward to it, Allen, Blakey, Blue Note, surely it had to be good, saw it in my local shop and expressed my enthusiasm to be told by the Jazz loving owner it was very poor, I doubted his opinion, surely it wasn’t bad. I really should know better, he has good Jazz taste, he put it on the shop system and what a let down, the backing musicians sounded like a student band and there was no sign of Allen’s magic, it was like the life has been sucked out of his playing, I left empty handed and feeling very let down, but very glad I didn’t order it blind online.

  6. Hi, and thanks again for your review! I picked this up as a 75th issue, it sounds kind of weak or non-dynamic, was wondering if that was because of the original recording or if the reissue had drained something away from the original tape. What say you, LJC? Also, is it also lacking because it is a stereo issues rather than a mono? Thanks!

  7. “Blakey was not only a great drummer, he was also a great band leader, which is something more.”

    Agree 100%!

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