Reprinted from yesterday's late editions.
Art Blakey, who prides himself on keeping his mind active by employing young musicians, opened a six-night engagement Monday night at Blues Alley with a powerhouse sextet of youthful performers.
The group, led by the 57-year-old drummer, is another in a long line of energetic ensembles he's headed over the last 30 years. They've all featured hard-swinging and vibrant ensemble work, racehorse tempos and slashing solos.
From the opening solo Blakey took last night, the pace was fast and furious. His work was filled with jagged accents, swelling rolls and complex cross-rhythms.
Thrashing his cymbals and reeling off billowing press rolls, Blakey pushes his soloists relentlessly. It takes a strong performer to bear up to the Blakey percussion storm.
Valeri Ponomarev can do it. A native of Moscow and new to the group, he possesses the necessary powerful technique and sound. Heavily influenced by Clifford Brown's trumpet approach of staccato melodies and sweeping technical fluency, Ponomarev doesn't consistenly vary his rhythmic thrusts to produce swinging lines.
Tenor saxophonist David Schnitter is another performer who manages to be heard over Blakey. He plays long, melodic lines with a deep, sonorous tone. He even sings. But his rendition of "Georgia on My Mind" bordered on being updated blackface.
Schnitter and Ponomarev were both featured on ballads "Body and Soul" and "Autumn in New York," respectively, that only offered a glimpse of their skill at ballad improvisation. In each instance, after a chorus of embellished melody, they charged into double-time playing under Blakey's prodding.
Alto saxophonist Bobby Watson, the other hornman in the group, performs with a more disparate and less derivative style than his front-line partners. His emotion-packed version of "Round Midnight" showed how he has molded a variety of saxophone influences into his own voice.