UNTIL NOW, young Manchester-based drummer Gaz Hughes has, perhaps, best been known as the cool, atmospheric rhythm-maker behind the music of trumpeter and Gondwana Records owner Matthew Halsall, in recordings such as On the Go and Fletcher Moss Park (also appearing on recent three-album release Oneness).
For his debut release as leader, Hughes honours the music of one of the true jazz drumming ‘greats’ in a glorious sextet with Alan Barnes, Bruce Adams, Dean Masser, Andrjez Baranek and Ed Harrison. The art of ‘Jazz Messenger’ Art Blakey (1919–1990) – described by fellow drummer Max Roach as ‘Thunder’ – is captured superbly by Hughes, right down to that retro album-cover design, in an album brimming with joyous, bebop fervour. From the first strains of A Bitter Dose, the feel-good is there – this band’s easier-swinging interpretation is refreshing, with Bruce Adams’ piercing trumpet improv a stand-out. The entire ensemble sparkles as one; and whilst classic jazz numbers are just that, it’s great to hear them portrayed by today’s players and with the depth and clarity of modern recording techniques (it often seems that the pianist lost out in the 1950s and early 1960s!).
Ping Pong (Wayne Shorter) pops and bounces fluently, even cheekily, to Alan Barnes’ bari, while full horns sizzle together. Hughes’ leadership is focused, with heady rhythms and erupting splashes clear in the mix, yet never dominating. Ten-minute-medley homage – Together Again, Lover Man, Easy Living – is sublime, Masser’s and Barnes’ lush, romantic expression especially moving; and Blakey’s spirit is alive and well in Freddie Hubbard’s swaggering Crisis (jazz-heavenly nods of approval imagined!). The sextet’s hypnotic swell in Wheel Within a Wheel (interestingly, at times, reminiscent of Hughes’ work with Halsall) is illuminated by fine individual solos passed around; blithesome One By One (from Blakey’s Ugetsu) is celebrated with infectious abandon; and strutting, Middle-Eastern (almost mariachi-hued) Arabia completes the album in fast-swinging style.
Throughout these 52 minutes, it’s clear that Gaz Hughes and his illustrious band are honouring the tradition – and the greatness of Blakey and his esteemed contemporaries – while breathing 21st-century fire into these evergreen classics (going back into the originals, they really are). An extensive UK tour, billed from February through to October 2020, already suggests they’ll shake things up with more Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers numbers – and this album forecasts a fabulous live experience.
Released on 1 February 2020, The Gaz Hughes Sextet plays Art Blakey is available as CD or download at Bandcamp.
Alan Barnes alto sax, baritone sax
Bruce Adams trumpet
Dean Masser tenor sax
Andrjez Baranek piano
Ed Harrison double bass
Gaz Hughes drums
Gaz Hughes (2020)