Art Blakey – The Jazz Messengers – Columbia Records/Pure Pleasure Records CL 897 (2-180 gram audiophile vinyl LPs) ****1/2:
(Art Blakey – drums; Donald Byrd – trumpet; Hank Mobley – tenor saxophone; Horace Silver – piano; Doug Watkins – bass)
Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers is renowned for the caliber of musicians that participated in the various reincarnations of the band. A protégée of Chick Webb, his skills as a band leader were rooted in his expertise and commitment to ensemble play. The Messengers would be a force in jazz for nearly forty years, launching the careers of many future stars. As far back as 1947, there were recordings of the group. Blakely became connected to Horace Silver through their association with Blue Note Records. They decided to record an album with horns. Hank Mobley and Donald Byrd (who replaced Kenny Dorham in 1955) joined, along with bassist Doug Watkins. The mission now was to merge original compositions and arrangements with the improvisational structure of bebop.
Jazz Messengers, recorded in 1956 at New York’s 30th Street Studio, is the defining project by the Art Blakey iconic ensemble. The original album is enhanced with 5 cuts of bonus material. The level of talent in this quintet is memorable, albeit transitory. What does come across is scintillating ’50s bop that stands the test of time. Side 1 gets off to a rousing start on the Hank Mobley original, “Infa-Rae”. With a tight integrated rhythm (by Blakey and Watkins), the band members percolate. Byrd is given the first solo, and his piercing, shimmering trumpet runs are testament to this emerging talent. Later, Mobley sparkles on tenor with flair and melodic touch. Signature drum brakes and soloing demonstrate the awesome power of Blakey. The group takes it up another notch on Horace Silver’s “Nica’s Dream” (written for jazz patroness Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter). Wrapped inside a decidedly calypso groove, the jam shifts into traditional 4/4 mode. Byrd and Mobley alternate unison, harmony and improvisation with brilliance. Silver executes a creative solo, mixing discordant left hand notation with brilliant lyrical flourishes. The ability to shift rhythm and timing without disrupting the flow is inspiring.
Side 2 begins with another Silver composition, “Ecaroh”. Drawing on latin-tinged undercurrents, the piece is transformed into a straight ahead jazz excursion, full of intricate tempos, drum fills and key modulations. “Carole’s Interlude” is energized with an amazing series of thundering drum brakes. Silver’s piano expression swings with colorful intensity. Byrd and Mobley embrace the material with a shared vision. Blakey consistently brings vibrancy to the entire session. On “Hank’s Symphony” he absolutely explodes with a furious dexterity that is incomparable. A nuanced gem, “The End Of A Love Affair” showcases Byrd’s sensitivity and eloquence. Bassist Doug Watkins provides a nimble subtext to this number. His interaction with individual players and the ensemble is near perfect.
The bonus material is interesting, though not as formidable. Side 3 draws less on the latin influences and more on traditional themes of this era. More subdued, the band’s approach is artistic and discerning. A real departure is a cover of “Ill Wind” (Arlen/Koehler). Silver’s arrangement is bluesy, and built around a lithe, rolling piano and Byrd’s muted trumpet. These songs reflect a smoother edge. Side 4 is graced with a rare version of “Deciphering The Message”. Blakey once again demonstrates his percussion mastery. Rather than extending his solos, he works them into fills and brakes. The tunes never lose momentum. In the case of “Carol’s Interlude (Alternate Take)”, the version is lively, but not as compelling as the prior take.
Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers is a vital part of jazz history. The sound has the rawness of the mono recordings of this period. Liner notes by George Avakian (1956) and Kenny Washington (1997) are informative and precise. Audiophiles and jazz enthusiasts should welcome this album to their collection.
Side 1: Infa-Rae; Nica’s Dream; It’s You Or no One
Side 2: Ecaroh; Carol’s Interlude; The End Of A Love Affair; Hank’s Symphony
Side 3: Weird-O; Ill Wind; Late Show
Side 4: Deciphering The Message; Carol’s Interlude (alternate take)