By Damani McNeil
In the pantheon of Jazz musicians, Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers hold a special place, and perform a critical function. Releasing 47 studio albums over a 35 year span featuring scores of members in myriad combinations, Blakey’s Jazz Messengers have served as a living archive of jazz, recording some of the most iconic snapshots of the state of the genre and it’s most prolific artists. Situated in between the release of Ugetsu (1963) and Kyoto (1964), Free For All is one of the group’s most legendary offerings, and also one of their most beautiful.
The record’s title track kicks the collection off with a jaw-dropping bang. The frenetic energy is built immediately, with Cedar Walton (piano) playing a foreboding line over Blakey’s battery and Reggie Workman’s churning bass. Freddie Hubbard (trumpet), Wayne Shorter (tenor saxophone), and Curtis Fuller (trombone) ambush the melody, pouncing on the tune and punctuating Blakey’s extended fills and rolls en force. In his solo, Shorter growls and roars, stringing notes together in finger-blurring runs. He bellows triumphantly over the last chorus of his solo, eliciting howls of pleasure from the surrounding musicians and setting the table for Fuller and Hubbard’s explorations. The two earned shouts from their colleague as well, driving the tune to Blakey’s solo, before its spectacular, extended conclusion.
“Hammerhead” is oozing and sumptuous. Blakey frames the melody with drum rolls, establishing its tempo slower than the first tracks as though to serve a dab of aloe to soothe the searing heat Free For All carried. After the head concludes and the solos begin, though, the listener realizes the tune burns with the same intensity as the one before. Each snare hit follows the next with remarkable velocity, meshing with the ride dictated by Blakey’s right hand to form some of the most incredible jazz drumming of all time. Shorter’s mastery of swing is apparent. His notes stack together at haphazard angles, but his fingers are as steady as those of a surgeon, and all of the notes tumble out of his horn and hit the listener at just the moment they should. Again, various members of the sextet audibly howl with pleasure as Hubbard gets down over the pulsating shuffle.
In the liner notes, Michael Cuscuna writes that Hubbard dedicated the record’s third track, “The Core,” to the political organization CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) in recognition of his “admiration of that organization’s persistence and resourcefulness in its work for total, meaningful equality.” The title doubles as a confident proclamation of the playing of the Messengers, declaring the group was getting at “the core of jazz — the basic feelings and rhythms that are at the foundation of music.”
The group’s performance substantiates his claims. The tune’s driving swing seems a standard result whenever Shorter, Hubbard, and Blakey get together to record. It manages to speed away from the listener while remaining at their shoulder, raising their heart rate with a frantic yet measured urgency. Freddie’s clarity on the song brilliantly imparts the respect he has for the CORE organizers. He explodes into his solo, quoting the head of the tune before launching into a cascade of bebop and blues language imitated by many, but rivaled by almost none. His greatness shines as he tests the limits of Blakey, Walton, and Workman’s bond, but the trio never break, no matter how dizzying Hubbard’s playing becomes.