Tony Allen and Art Blakey have a lot in common. As pioneering percussionists, each represents peak performance in their respective fields—Allen as the premier drummer in Afrobeat and Blakey as the one who put the “hard” in hard bop. Yet that each one is defined by a unique instrumental technique is also what separates the two. Art Blakey was one of jazz’s heaviest hitters, his rhythmic style lending an otherwise “cool” sound more than its share of fire and passion. Yet Allen’s role in Fela Kuti’s Africa 70 was almost the inverse, his rhythmic consistency almost trance-like against the exclamatory sound of Kuti’s saxophone and choir of vocalists. They’re musicians connected by a common strand of sonic DNA yet what they do is distinctively their own.
To hear Allen take on the music of Art Blakey in a new EP, A Tribute to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, is then a pretty interesting proposition. By and large, this brief, albeit mighty release is a reflection more on Blakey’s impact on jazz than Allen’s interpretation of it, necessarily. The set contains four tracks which were made legendary in the hands of Blakey, whose punchy, snare-heavy approach gave them an extra bit of intensity thereby helping to usher in an era of hard-bop in which jazz had moved on from more laid-back jam sessions to outright shredding. Few tracks are as emblematic of this shift as “A Night in Tunisia,” which Blakey sped up and cranked to its limit. Allen, however, puts his own identifiable spin on it, his light-wristed patter leaning more on his signature Afrobeat sound than its more manic source material. Similarly, “Moanin’” has a head-nodding groove seemingly fit for a ’70s-era detective feature; this isn’t cool jazz, but damn is it cool.
The versions of “Politely” and “The Drum Thunder Suite” that Allen leads are similarly intoxicating, the latter in particular. In fact, that’s one area where Allen’s performance most strongly seems to channel Blakey’s own. Allen and his band lose themselves in a stunning take on the rhythmically driven career standout of Blakey’s, its sound as majestic and urgent as ever. Allen and his band aren’t in the business of playing Blakey’s music exactly as he did, though this is music treated with reverence and affection. It draws a line from ’50s and ’60s era jazz to ’70s era Afrobeat and continues onto the present, all the while, the sound losing none of its power or appeal along the journey.