Art Blakey And The Jazz Messengers

Blue Note Records, 1958

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Welcome to the latest edition of A Clueless Rock Writer’s Guide to Jazz. Today our subject—representing the next class in my perpetual jazz education—is Mr. Art Blakey.

In 1944, at the age of 25, hard-hitting drummer Blakey joined Billy Eckstine's big band, considered the first bebop big band and the launching pad for future jazz icons including Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, Lena Horne, Charlie Parker and Sarah Vaughan. After the Eckstine band broke up in 1947, Blakey traveled to Africa with the intention of visiting for three months, but “I stayed two years because I wanted to live among the people and find out just how they lived and—about the drums especially.”

After returning to the US, in the early ’50s Blakey at various times backed Davis, Parker, Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk, whose very first recording session he had played on in 1947, the same year he recorded his own first session as a bandleader, under the name Art Blakey’s Messengers. In 1954 Blakey and pianist Horace Silver formed a group they co-led under the name The Messengers, before Silver left and the remaining group became known as Art Blakey And The Jazz Messengers. The name would stick for the three-decades-plus remainder of Blakey’s recording and performing career.

Wikipedia calls Blakey And The Jazz Messengers “the archetypal hard bop group of the 1950s, playing a driving, aggressive extension of bop with pronounced blues roots,” which sounds impressive even if I’m not advanced enough in my jazz studies to parse out exactly what that means. To me the music on this album sounds like classic nightclub jazz, music you should be listening to while sitting on a richly scented leather banquette holding an ice-cold cocktail, with a small round table in front of you, the house lights down low, and the spotlights on the nattily dressed quintet on stage.

Said quintet consisted at the time of this recording in October 1958 of drummer/bandleader Blakey (age 39), sax player Benny Golson (29), Jymie Merritt on bass (32), and a pair of stellar young talents in Lee Morgan on trumpet (20) and Bobby Timmons on piano (22), with Golson doubling as musical director and chief composer. (Blakey had several years before declared his preference for working with younger players: “I'm gonna stay with the youngsters. When these get too old I'll get some younger ones. Keeps the mind active.”)

The nine and a half minute title track, the sole track contributed by the precociously talented Timmons, is a gentle bop that opens with a nice back and forth, push and pull between his piano and Golson’s tenor sax, quickly moving to an unhurried but deeply expressive trumpet solo from Morgan. Golson takes the baton for his own extended, lyrical solo on the fourth and fifth minutes, climaxing with Timmon’s rhythmic, somewhat flashy response, and falling back with Merritt’s offbeat but intriguing solo. At 7:58 the band rolls back around to the opening theme and restates it, this time with an extra helping of swing in the delivery that carries the group to a strong finish.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

“Are You Real?” opens upbeat and bouncy, with Blakey and Merritt pushing the beat until Golson comes in with a rippling sax solo, followed by an emphatic blast from Morgan. After that they each take turns, one after another after another, with instinctive, finger-snapping interplay between the five men the rest of the way on this 4:47 jam. “Along Came Betty,” a Golson track inspired by a memorable passer-by, features a sultry sophistication, smoky with a gentle swing. Golson’s sax melody takes the lead early before Morgan busts in with an assertive trumpet solo; then it’s Golson out front again before Timmons takes an extended piano solo in the fifth minute, and they wrap up with a full-band run at the opening melody.

Side two of the original vinyl LP opens with “The Drum Thunder Suite,” a piece Golson composed specifically to show off Blakey’s mallet work. It opens appropriately with a genuinely thunderous drum roll. The horns answer briefly and then it’s more thunder and they’re off to the races with a more vigorous response form the horns. Trading off between Blakey’s rollicking runs and aggressive blasts from the horn section, it feels at times like an old-school big band jazz orchestra on a powerhouse number of some kind; they’re showing some flash, getting brassy even when the brass isn’t playing. Over the course of three fairly distinct segments, each player gets a chance to dialogue with Blakey.

The Golson-penned “Blues March” opens with exactly the cadence implied by its title before dropping straight into a lively melody line played in unison by the horns before Morgan and then Golson take a pair of terrific solos, quick and fluid and nimble and pretty much everything you’re looking for from a horn solo on a bop tune. Then Blakey returns to the marching theme to introduce fresh solos from Golson and then Timmons, and the whole band returns for a unison run at the opening theme.

The one cover here, of Arlen and Mercer’s finger-snapping “Come Rain Or Shine,” is similarly egalitarian in the way it spreads around the solos, moving from a bright opening theme to Timmons, Golson, Morgan, and Merritt in turn for energetic runs.

The Blue Note Records RVG edition issued on CD in 1999 adds two bonus tracks to the original 1958 LP. The opening track features in-studio chatter and warm-up, including a snippet of conversation between Lee Morgan and recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder; it’s a fun theater-of-the-mind introduction that puts you in the room with the players. The second bonus track, placed last, is an alternate take of “Moanin’” that’s quite similar but feels like it lacks just a little in terms of the snap and precision of the released version in both the melodic foundation of the song and the solos. Still, it’s interesting to hear alternative takes of iconic tunes like this one that offer clues as to why the familiar version works as well as it does.

The world of jazz was always one of shifting alliances and lineups, and Golson soon left the Messengers, replaced by no less a name than Wayne Shorter as the group continued a run of success that would last through decades to come. “Moanin’” and “Blues March” in particular remain standards today—not that I’d ever heard either of them before picking up this album, but you knew that already. Until next time, class dismissed.

Rating: A-

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