Trumpeter Vance Thompson leads an all-star tribute to jazz great Art Blakey
The late jazz drummer Art Blakey perfectly captured the escapist pleasures of music with his famous quote, “Music washes away the dust of everyday life.” Knoxville trumpeter and bandleader Vance Thompson aims to bring that spirit with his tribute to Art Blakey and his band The Jazz Messengers, at Barking Legs Theater on March 3.
“Blakey was a very serious musician, but he was also an entertainer and a strong believer in the idea that music should be fun and engaging for the audience,” said Thompson, via phone. “He really thought that the musician’s job was to allow the audience to get lost in what they were doing on the bandstand so they could forget about all their troubles and just be transported to some place that would make them feel better about themselves and the world around them.”
Thompson founded the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra in 1999, which is supported by its own non-profit organization, and teaches courses in jazz and music business at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
“I had a friend in high school whose dad had some Art Blakey records; he had Caravan and he had Buhaina’s Delight,” said Thompson. “Those were some of the first records that really made me fall in love with the music and try to learn how to play jazz.”
Although Blakey’s music was influential for Thompson, until now, he never performed that repertoire, and one thing that impressed Thompson about those records was trumpeter Freddie Hubbard’s playing.
“He’s one of my all-time favorite trumpet players,” said Thompson, who was drawn to “the quality of his sound, the excitement that he plays with, and the unbelievable virtuosity that he has.”
Thompson’s six-piece ensemble includes Tylar Bullion on trombone, bassist Tommy Sauter, drummer Garrit Tillman, and two standout sidemen: tenor saxophonist Greg Tardy, who has recorded for the legendary Impulse! label, and Space Time Records recording artist Keith Brown on piano.
Brown’s father, the acclaimed pianist Donald Brown, played with Blakey in the early ‘80s in a remarkable lineup that also included brothers Wynton and Branford Marsalis.
“I definitely got a lot of first-hand information about just how to play some of those songs that the Jazz Messengers did,” said Keith Brown, via email. “Since my pops played with The Messengers, I’ve always had a love for what that group did.”
“He also has given some little details in playing some of that music that a lot of people may miss, but once you know, you can tell that those types of details are what help really give the music the thing that it has,” said Brown.
“It’s nice to have such strong musicians to be able to work with,” said Thompson. “Greg and Keith are people that I admire and am constantly learning things from.”
“I have a good enough relationship with them that I can ask them questions and expect them to give me a straight answer,” said Thompson. “They both have a very deep and thorough understanding of the tradition of the music, and so they know the history on their instruments, which means that they can play a lot of different kinds of ways; so that makes it exciting to play with them, and they know how to create drama and variety in what they’re playing.”
Selections for the concert will include three tracks from Caravan, including the famous title track by Duke Ellington, “Pensativa” from the album Free for All, Cedar Walton’s “Ugetsu” (which is Japanese for “fantasy”), the classic Jazz Messengers track “Moanin’” and “Backstage Sally” from Buhaina’s Delight.
Also, the sextet will tackle “New York,” written by Donald Brown, which Keith Brown described as “more of that just in-your-face energy thing that Art Blakey had as well.”
Although Thompson teaches music arrangement, he did not take liberties when arranging the selections for the concert, choosing to faithfully transcribe the parts from the recordings; this doesn’t mean that his ensemble will deliver carbon copies of the album tracks.
“These are not just some guys up there reading the charts of the Blakey music,” said Brown. “We actually have an understanding of the history of that band, both on and off the stage, and just the personality of the music and musicians that have played in that band over the years.”
“I think when you have that understanding, you can then really know how to add yourself into the music while still keeping it in character,” said Brown.
Vance Thompson & Friends: A Tribute to Art Blakey
Thursday, March 3, 7:30 p.m.
Barking Legs Theater
1307 Dodds Ave.