The gospel and blues fuelled, grooving and swinging jazz of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers has an enduring appeal as well as endless potential for updating and absorbing into more contemporary styles. George Cooper’s Jazz Defenders are a great local example of that, as they have been reminding us recently. If you wanted a live taste, 25 years after Blakey’s death, of the repertoire and energy of the original band who better to lead, than an alumnus of the great man’s touring band that was an ever evolving school for talent. Jean Toussaint, a graduate from the mid-eighties incarnation, brought his Roots and Herbs project to the Wiltshire Music Centre on Saturday with a line-up to die for and a pad of Wayne Shorter, Benny Golson, Lee Morgan and Bobby Timmons tunes to set the the most resistant pulse racing.
They launched in with Wayne Shorter’s Roots and Herbs (of course). With Andrew McCormack on piano, Byron Wallen on trumpet and Dennis Rollins on trombone joining Toussaint, this was an all-star line-up that guaranteed fireworks when it came to the blowing. In the spirit of Blakey, one of Toussaint’s own students Will Theaksly took the drum chair and proved to be no passanger. Bass player Daniel Casimir took the first solo however and showed why he won the vote at this year’s Musicians Company awards. A perfectly paced solo, playing with space so that groove and momentum just oozed out had the band whooping. He repeated the feat in Blues March at the end of the set as the band dropped out and a long space somehow left the air pulsating. The faint tap of a grinning Toussaint’s shoe was hardly necessary to bring the the band roaring back in. There were plenty of other moments of drama and poetry. The racing swing of The Summit saw Andrew McCormack unwind a dazzling solo, skittering runs and driving left hand chords nodding at more fireworks to come. The sheer attack and inventiveness of Byron Wallen was riveting every time he stepped up to the microphone. McCormack again, on the gentler waltz Sleeping Dancer Sleep On (Shorter again) conjured more magic as he brought the tune in with evocative sketching of the harmony, then took it out again with fluid melodic flights during his solo. This was a prelude to a barnstorming unaccompanied intro to Moanin of visceral blues, swelling gospel and excursions via more dissonant neo-classical clusters before the classic theme emerged. Toussaint himself really let fly on this one reminding us, as he had all evening, of how to develop a foot stomping solo. He has been touring this project for the last year or so drawing on a large pool of players and just occasionally the ‘come together for the occasion’ nature of the band showed, but the quality and verve of these players was more than equal to the challenge. A great reminder of the energy and inspiration of the Blakey band.