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The 2019 centennial birthday of master drummer Art Blakey has inspired a number of tributes, and this album by trumpeter Valery Ponomarev ranks among the best for its ambition. A member of Blakey’s Jazz Messengers from 1977 to 1980, Ponomarev previously recorded a live big-band session with a similar group in 2014. This session, performed in late January 2019 at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, swings even harder.
After a very brief Tonight Show-like introduction, the band digs in more earnestly with “Tell It Like It Is.” One of three Wayne Shorter originals, it features the first of several inspired solos by drummer Victor Jones, who anchors and spurs the group throughout. Next up, Benny Golson’s “Are You Real?” showcases Ponomarev’s brilliance as an arranger. Orchestrating for the sax section, he harmonizes the first two measures of Golson’s original solo from 1958’s Moanin’, then continues the arrangement with his own hip lines. Later in the tune, the trumpet section pays homage to Lee Morgan’s solo from the same album. It’s a tour de force of writing.
Ponomarev only solos twice himself, choosing instead to highlight a range of swinging musicians. Pianist Mamiko Watanabe is featured on six of the nine selections, shining brightest on “Hammer Head.” Baritone saxophonist Anthony Nelson honks and hollers on “Caravan,” which also includes a glittering solo by the leader. On “Quick Silver,” tenor saxophonist Peter Brainin gives a wink to “Lover Come Back to Me,” the tune on which it’s based. Trumpeter Antoine Drye sounds particularly crisp on Bud Powell’s “Webb City,” and the concert ends with a two-minute mashup of “Kalypso” and “The Theme,” which functions a little like an after-dinner mint: not absolutely necessary, but lovely and refreshing. — Sascha Feinstein