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Sunday, March 3, 2013

Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, "Moanin'"

Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers
Blue Note (1959)

1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die

We saw during the last post that being the big name in a band doesn't mean getting the most attention. Usually, this lesson applies to the guys figuratively/literally running the show: percussionists. Just as Tito Puente ruled with timbales during his mambo performances, Art Blakey takes control of his band The Jazz Messengers with his drum kit, with few overblown drum solos to show for it.

Blakey's role as a leader, if not a virtuoso, is present throughout the classic title track "Moanin'" and the equally great "Along Came Betty." Consider the layout for "Betty." The song opens with the group playing the opening theme, as is expected. The first set of solos comes from trumpet player Lee Morgan. When you remember that this is all improvised, you can understand how Blakey is giving instructions to Morgan via his drums. It all sounds nice, but Blakey seems to desire more feeling, so he delivers a series of rim-shots and the trumpeter responds. He builds up the solo with flair from the snare, and then lets Morgan know he can stop with punctuation from the cymbal. Next, saxophonist Benny Golson gets the same treatment. Blakey breaks into a few drum rolls, and pianist Bobby Timmons comes back from a break, adding to the rising action.

Most of the tracks on "Moanin'" demonstrate the common hard bop practice of giving everybody a solo. The eponymous opener runs through solos from the trumpet, tenor saxophone, piano, and even a bass moment for Jymie Merritt (it sounds like Blakey sticks to brushes on the cymbals as to not drown out his bassist. Bass solos are often tough to hear during jazz recordings). But Blakey, the marquee name, hasn't taken a turn in the spotlight. The same happens in "Betty."

It may be obvious from the title, but Blakey gets his during "The Drum Thunder Suite." He spends most of the song's first half dishing out tribal blasts on the toms. He finally lets loose and plays that solo you know he's been holding in, and it's a dramatic, Ginger Baker-type affair. Everyone else gets a solo during the track as well, but Blakey displays aggression throughout, which isn't present when he's in a leadership state-of-mind. "Are You Real?" features a series of breakdowns from Blakey, interwoven with the trumpet solos.

It's easy to suggest that Blakey wasn't the most talented member of the Jazz Messengers, and you may be right. Considering that "Moanin'"(a song you WILL recognize during its opening theme) was written by Timmons, "Come Rain or Come Shine" is a standard, and the other four tracks were Golson's, some might say Blakey's was just the name on the album. Not so fast. I've already explained Blakey's role as a leader, and it's important to consider the acclaim Morgan, Olson and Timmons would achieve during their careers, plus Chuck Mangione and the Marsalis brothers were Messengers as well. The group served as a launching point for many a career, and Blakey was the constant figure. Phil Jackson wasn't a star in his playing days, but damned if he didn't create some of the best players in NBA history as a coach.

INTERESTING FACT: The album was to self-titled, but the song "Moanin'" gained such popularity that the album came to be known under that title, even though original packaging bore no such text.

Along Came Betty by Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers on Grooveshark

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