In case you didn't quite catch the "message" subtly embedded in the title of Chicago-based tenor saxophonist Carlos Vega's new recording, Art of the Messenger, here is a brief reminder that it was drummer Art Blakey who formed the Jazz Messengers in the mid-1950s and led the celebrated hard-bop ensemble until his death in 1990. The Messengers' roster of alumni reads like a Who's Who of Jazz Hall of Fame members.
With that in mind, Vega assembled a valorous quintet, molded in Blakey's combative image, to deliver its own powerful "message" via eleven of Vega's bop-centered compositions and arrangements. Those helping Vega spread the word are trumpeter Victor Garcia, pianist Stu Mindeman, bassist Joshua Ramos and drummer Xavier Breaker. Together they produce a reasonable facsimile of those seminal Messengers, albeit without the clear yet indefinable spark that set Blakey's storied combos above and apart from their contemporaries. A laudable endeavor, especially when one considers the enormous shoes they were summoned to fill.
One element that is lacking—even though Vega does the best he can—is the deft composer's touch of a Benny Golson, Horace Silver, Jackie McLean, Wayne Shorter, Chuck Mangione, Bobby Timmons, Cedar Walton, Brian Lynch, Chick Corea, McCoy Tyner, Wallace Roney, Curtis Fuller or the Marsalis brothers, Wynton and Branford, to name only a handful of the Messengers' celebrated graduates. While Vega's themes are admirable, they can hardly be expected to approach the standard set by those acknowledged giants. He does, however, come close, especially on "Who Cooks for You," "Across the Ocean," "Art of the Messenger" and "Bird's Word," each of which would have been quite at home in the Messengers' expansive library.
The same holds true for improvisation. Vega, Garcia and the others—even Breaker, sitting in for the peerless Blakey himself—are good, at times considerably better than good but, even so, they are stalking the footsteps of some of the greatest bop musicians who ever lived. Still, one could readily envision Mindeman, for example, occupying the same chair once held by the likes of Silver, Timmons, Walton, Corea, Tyner, George Cables, Mulgrew Miller and other masters without having to bow his head or offer any apologies.
Even though a step or more removed from its predecessor's admitted supremacy, Art of the Messenger affords a pleasurable stroll down memory lane with several bright and engaging layovers along the way. Vega's heart is in the right place, a locale that Blakey surely would have endorsed.