For over 30 years Art Blakey was as influential a band leader as there was in jazz. From 1947 until his death in 1991, his group the Jazz Messengers was a university of jazz for young and talented musicians. Many of these young lions would later become some of the period's most influential players of the genre. Steve Turre was one of the few musicians who played trombone with Blakey and can be heard on Blakey's 1973 album Anthenaga along with then members Cedar Walton and Woody Shaw. His experience with Blakey left a lasting impression on the young trombonist and his latest album, The Bones of Art, is as much a dedication to the late band leader as it is a celebration of the diversity of expression available on his instrument, the trombone. Steve used the Blakey connection to realize his dream of fronting a band with three trombone voices leading the way. He assembled fellow Blakey trombone alumni Steve Davis, Frank Lacy and Robin Eubanks to contribute their individual signature sounds along with pianist Xavier Davis, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Willie Jones III.
The Bones of Art may well be the best trombone featured album since the seminal collaborations made by Kai Winding and JJ Johnson. The album starts off with a dedication to trombone legend Slide Hampton, "Slide's Ride" is a driving, hard bop smoker that features the three synchronous trombones of Davis, Lacy and Turre demonstrating the true meaning of simpatico. Pianist Xavier Davis sounds like a young McCoy Tyner before the solos start. Listening to the three voices with their nuanced interpretations is most interesting. Turre leads off with a boisterous medium register solo that has a growly gusto, Davis' solo is more billowy, blissfully floating with a light airiness. Lacy's sound is the most raucous of the three with his slurring streams clustered with a quick-cadenced ease. The rhythm section provides the torrid pace with Peter Washington and Willie Jones III keeping the exquisite time. Slide would be proud.
Steve Turre's ballad "Blue and Brown" is an homage to Lawrence Brown who was Duke Ellington's first trombonist. A sweet Basie-like piano solo by Davis and a wonderfully buoyant bass solo by Washington are two features of this slow waltz. The three trombone voices meld together like three pats of butter in a hot pan in a display of magical harmony that leads to a nostalgic sounding pixie-plunger solo by Turre.
Trombonist Frank Lacy's "Settegast Strut" is a piece of music that lends itself perfectly to the powerful sound of the three 'bones in synchronous harmony. Lacy's big, gutsy growl is on majestic display for three choruses, as he demonstrates his amazing control of this expressive instrument. He slides through a range of ascending notes that sends shivers down your spine and then bellows out some low notes that seem almost bottomless. Turre adds a couple choruses of his own that squeeze out some of his own ideas on the music. All the while Willie Jones III punctuates with his crashing cymbals at just the right times and Davis's flowing piano crescendos smooth out the lines in between and at the coda.
Part of the fun of this album is listening to all the devices and styles these guys can produce from their bag of tricks. "Bird's Bones" is Steve Davis' composition dedicated to Charlie Parker. This bop inspired song starts out with Davis on open horn, Lacy on a cup mute with its distinctively "tinny" sound and Turre on metal straight mute. Davis solos first with an open horn,Turre is up next with a distinctive handmade wooden mute that has a bit of a muffled sound. After a brief piano solo by Davis, Lacy plays with a squeaky sounding Harmon mute followed by a short bass solo by Washington and then a few choruses of Willie Jones soloing between breaks as the song ends.
Peter Washington's galloping bass opens the scene on Turre's "Sunset" as the three trombones- one open, one with a plunger and one with a mute- play the opening line in a lazy, almost dreamy way. But the song has a sauntering swing that inspires the playful spirit of these players. Lacy takes the first solo with an open horn that seems to awaken to the rhythm in an uplifting way. Turre uses his plunger to create a more playful swing with his screeches and slurs paving the way for a piano solo by Davis. Davis tickles the ivories with a spirited playful touch. Steve Davis plays a warm, bellowing solo with an open horn, letting some of his notes linger in the air like ripe figs on a tree, delicious. The trio use bucket mutes for the finale as they close languidly to the ostinato bass line.
On Turre's "4 & 9," a reference to the alternating time signatures 4/4 and 9/4 used in this song, we are treated to another trombone master and Blakey alumnus, Robin Eubanks. Eubanks is a master of odd meters and Turre's tune is tailor-made for this man's specialty. Pianist Xavier Davis puts some funk into the tune using the Fender Rhodes and guest bassist Kenny Davis adds his own brand electric bad ass.
Turre navigates through the meter changes with accomplished aplomb on his open horn, then Eubanks takes it to another level. He bursts unto the scene with a solo that is both spirited and soulful as he traverses the changes with a smoothness that belies their complexity.
"Fuller Beauty" is a modal ballad that is dedicated to trombonist Curtis Fuller who played with Turre in the Blakey band. This one is gorgeously expressive. Turre plays a heartfelt open solo that finds him at his most sensitive. The pianist Davis also finds a warm, sensitive side to his playing here, with Steve Davis and Frank Lacy playing harmonically rich supporting parts. Jones and Washington anchor this ballad with subtle surety.
Kevin Eubanks "Shorter Blu" is a dually dedicated to the saxophonist Wayne Shorter, another Blakey alumnus, and to Blakey himself, whose Muslim nickname was Blu. Here all four trombones act in concert on this unusual piece of music. After a rising piano solo by Davis, Eubanks opens with a, shifting, zigzag-like solo. Turre takes a turn with a Harmon muted solo and then Lacy takes his own gruff solo before the ensemble all enter in a free-spirited jam that colors the song to the coda.
The gutsiest song on the album is Turre's "Julian's Blues." This low-down dirty blues is dedicated to trombonist Julian Priester, whose approach to harmony in such bands as Sun Ra's Arkestra impressed Turre. The ensemble plays this blues with solidarity of soul. Solos start with Lacy laying down his raspiest solo, setting the tone for the down and dirty mood. Steve Davis plays a gentler, rounder solo that contrasts nicely with how Lacy left him. Pianist Davis plays with economy and still manages to make his point felt. Turre comes in with a stone lined cup on his horn, creating a distant sound, that he trades off with bassist Peter Washington before the ensemble ends with Lacy having the last grimy word.
The finale is a Latin flavored Steve Davis song titled "Daylight" and like daylight it is a fitting uplifting ending to this wonderfully expressive album. On this one the three bones and superb rhythm section are joined by percussionist Pedro Martinez who adds to the sway with his congas and some conch shell playing by Turre.
For those who love trombone, a great vibe and good music, Steve Turre's The Bones of Art offers a feast of sounds and expressiveness that is second to none.