Listening to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers: The Sesjun Radio Shows, we hear a mix of tradition, and an urge to stay relevant in new times. Blakey is the essence of tradition, a drummer who sat behind some of the most iconic front-men who ever graced a jazz stage. The concept of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers was about showcasing new talent, all the way back to the days of Clifford Brown and Hank Mobley. New talent in the late '70s included some enduring talent like Bobby Watson (alto sax) and minor players like Valery Ponomarev (trumpet) that remained minor. Later, Blakey added Terrence Blanchard and Donald Harrison to the band and built a front line that feels more akin to some of his classic groups. The musicianship across all these recordings is solid, and Blakey's playing is a standout even on songs that are otherwise unexceptional. Between the two disks that make up this compilation of the Dutch Sesjun Radio Shows there are few great moments, but more than a few solos hint of the sold talent that Blakey was attempting to nurture in these young players.
A staple of the Jazz Messengers was its mix of original tunes and standards. The Sesjun Radio Shows collection doesn't disappoint, with several originals from Bobby Watson, James Williams (piano), Charles Fambrough (bass) and Blakey. The standards that round out the live recordings include old chestnuts like "My One and Only Love," "Polka Dots and Moonbeams," and "Moanin." What you notice about the originals is the influence of funk and soul on the band's younger members, especially in tunes like Williams' "1977 A.D." Not that there's anything wrong with this, but those looking for a more traditional acoustic set may find the tone of a few songs here jarring. If you can appreciate the context and recognize Blakey's commitment to fostering young talent, you'll get more out of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers: The Sesjun Radio Shows. It's a flawed record in many ways, a collection of strong players that sound a bit throttled by the format. Considering the advances that bands like Weather Report and Herbie Hancock were making in the same period, you might think that Blakey was just resisting the inevitable. The truth is a bit more subtle.
Blakey saw himself as an educator and a mentor for new generations of young musicians, who often used their time with the band to propel themselves into independent careers as performers or teachers in their own right. The fact that Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers: The Sesjun Radio Shows seems a bit like it's in a bubble is a function of trying to develop basic jazz musicianship. Learning the tradition no doubt helped the young players Bakey surrounded himself with build something unique for themselves after leaving the band. It was a formula that worked for the better part of 80 years, and these two disks capture a moment at the tail end where Blakey's relevance as an innovator was fading, but where he continued to leverage his fame to showcase young artists.