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ART BLAKEY & THE JAZZ MESSENGERS "MOANIN'"

January 29 2014

The first onstage school of jazz ultimately opened for long-term session with drummer Art Blakey who enlisted young players to his revolving-door group, the Jazz Messengers, not only to teach but also to continually refresh himself and his band with new energy, excitement and especially repertoire. (During a 1954 live session, At Night at Birdland, Blakey remarked during the set: “I’m gonna stay with the youngsters. When these get too old I’ll get some younger ones. Keeps the mind active.”) The Messengers was co-founded in the early ‘50s by Blakey and pianist/talented songwriter Horace Silver, who bowed out in 1956 to pursue his solo career.

Throughout its existence, the Messengers served as the proving ground for dozens of greats, from tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley to trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. A select sampling of impressive musicians who learned at the feet of the bass drum and elevated at the high hat of Blakey: pianists Wynton Kelly, Keith Jarrett, John Hicks, Cedar Walton, James Williams, Benny Green; saxophonists Jackie McLean, Lou Donaldson, Gary Bartz, Johnny Griffin, Branford Marsalis, Donald Harrison, Bobby Watson, Kenny Garrett; trumpeters Clifford Brown, Woody Shaw, Freddie Hubbard, Donald Byrd, Terence Blanchard; bassists Wilbur Ware, Reggie Workman, Doug Watkins; guitarists Bobby Broom, Kevin Eubanks. Quite a crew.

Blakey had an uncanny sense of bringing fresh-to-town artists who made their marks on the Messengers as rising stars, who then left for greener pastures—which was fine with the leader because that’s how the in-and-out personnel policy of the group worked. School 24/7, grinding tours, playing to top form with no slouching, then graduation and hopefully onward and upward.

One of the greats that Blakey mentored was tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter, who in the late ‘50s to early ‘60s became the music director of the band and primary composer. He delivered several new songs to the Messengers set list, including “Chess Players,” “Lester Left Town,” “Children of the Night,” “Ping-Pong” “On the Ginza” and “Mr. Jin” among many others. After five years (a long term) with Blakey, Shorter jumped ship and joined Miles Davis’s soon-to-be-classic quintet.

Shorter’s work gave new life to Blakey’s band, but none of his tunes were as seminal and long-lasting as the batch of compositions that were released on the Messengers’ 1958 classic, Moanin’. The album stands as one of jazz’s all-time recordings, largely because of its tunes, including the hip and swinging “Moanin’” by 22-year-old pianist Bobby Timmons’ that opens the date and four songs by 29-year-old musical director and tenor saxophonist Benny Golson: the relaxed “Along Came Betty,” “Blues March” (complete with Blakey’s military drum beat opening the number), the lyrical “Are You Real?” and the powerful “The Drum Thunder Suite.” A hard-bop cover of the Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer tune “Come Rain or Come Shine” closes the six-pack. Quintet personnel on the date also includes very young trumpeter Lee Morgan (soon to be a huge Blue Note star in his own right) and bassist Jymie Merritt.

“Moanin,’” “Along Came Betty,” “Blues March” and “Are You Real?” are all played to perfection by the band and not only deservedly became integral to Blakey’s songbook, but have also found their place in the jazz canon. However, often overlooked is the compelling three-movement drum piece Golson wrote for Blakey who stars with gusto. “The Drum Thunder Suite” opens with mallet thunder with the horns driving the storm, continues with the Latin-tinged middle section and the closing funky melody that features Morgan on a clarion trumpet solo.

It’s rare that a jazz album—let alone a pop album—includes so many “hits.” That’s what Blakey accomplishes on Moanin’ with ease, swing and rumble.