Review Summary: A hard bop prod..
When Alfred Lion first heard Sam Wooding’s Orchestra in Berlin in 1924, I doubt he could have foreseen that his newfound fascination with jazz would culminate in him starting Blue Note Records in New York City just fifteen years later. Or that Blue Note would play such a vital role in bringing the genre into the orthodox core, becoming the hub of jazz’ most electrifying and progressive seers. And that his label would be responsible for putting out every note of early brilliance that Miles Davis, Clifford Brown and John Coltrane would breathe throughout the 50’s.
The spaces left by those future giants in the emerging and increasingly popular jazz scene, like in most cases, were filled out by those who either forswore passion for pure technique, or those happy and moderate enough to abet genius, rather than usurp it.
Art Blakey’s musical history is one of balanced headway and working-man ethos. After his initial indoctrination into jazz drumming in the early 30’s, he spent close to twenty years touring with various orchestras, before a stint with the venerable queen bee of jazz piano, Mary Lou Williams, brought him to 52nd Street in New York. There he put together his first variant of the Jazz Messengers, making the rounds in the city’s music clubs, before Donald Byrd helped him gain the attention of Columbia Records, who in turn handed him over to Blue Note. The Jazz Messengers, in their ever-changing form, but always led by Blakey, would cut all their 50’s output on the label. It is at that point, through tireless playing and industry alliances, that Art Blakey began surfacing as more than a reliable percussionist. Behind such classics as Orgy in Rhythm
, Night in Tunisia
, stands a man gone down in history as a humble collaborator and expert arranger, an innovator in drumming, champion of polyrhythmic percussion, his four limbs like a restless spider at the kit, pushing and levitating sound into an uninterrupted flux.
was Blakey cementing himself as bandleader and jazz sibyl. His drumming style, devoid of the chronic embellishments and indulgence that marked big band and bebop, presented a beat so agile and unremitting, that it laced the pieces in constant thrust, forcing the other instruments into keeping pace, driving and aggressive and deft.
These relentless exercises in forward momentum are telling of Blakey. Before words like ‘hard bop’ or ‘press roll’ ever became public domain and not the fare of musicians and aficionados, he was a patient and propulsive bandleader, a virtuoso timekeeper, and a man of vision, albeit one of a fairly modest scale. His arrangements were never as volatile as Mingus’, never as overelaborate as Thelonious Monk’s, and he’ll likely never be touted as fervently as Miles Davis or Coltrane by those who aren’t in-the-know. Even in the drumming realm, his name usually trails Buddy Rich or Elvin Jones.
On Along Came Betty
, he dutifully steps back, letting Lee Morgan’s trumpet roam and cry at center stage. Morgan, who just the year before had lent his lungs to Coltrane’s matchless Blue Train
, would spend three more years with Blakey, before striking out on his own. The rest of the Messengers of that era were all practiced sessions hands, whose collaborative credentials ran the gamut of jazz’ greatest. Benny Gibson’s tenor sax and bassist Jymie Merritt had been playing on the big band and bebop circuit for years at that point. And pianist Bobby Timmons would go on to appear on some of Cannonball Adderley’s and Chet Baker’s most timeless works. Among innumerable studio credits, Timmons would oversee bebop’s melding with gospel into what would become soul jazz, before untimely dying of cirrhosis in 1974. Along Came Betty
is the first moment on Moanin’
when all five of them lock into perfectly-timed interplay. For all that mathematical reciprocity, it’s incredible to hear how loose each instrument sounds, devoid of any stiff turns or stalls that would occur in the hands of a lesser arranger.
Blakey’s style is at the forefront on the propellant Blues March
. His technique is on full display here, playing between the 2 and 4 on the right hand pattern, while his left cracks the ride cymbal, steady as an automaton. Morgan and Gibson trade quips over the beat, before Blakey snaps the song in two, riding a snare roll to a seconds-long booming crescendo, so that when the horns do come back in play, it sounds like they’re floating in a vacuum of aural decay. It briefly leaves the piece breathless. Until that indomitable beat brings it back to life.
From a retroactive viewpoint, the title piece, perhaps better than anything else found here, demonstrates Blakey’s unflinching capacities. Written by Timmons, Blakey’s arrangement is the original take on a piece that would soon become a standard in the genre, known mostly for Charles Mingus’ thunderous and mercurial version, as well as Horace Silver’s exercise in piano flourishes. But Blakey is markedly slower, taking his time with this one, never letting the instruments climb over one another, but rather splice together into a sledgehammer-like pulse. A lot of that discipline likely stemmed from Blakey’s Afro-Cuban tilt. Having spent considerable time in Africa, flirting with Islam, as well as the West Indies, his style of arrangement adopted the Afro-Cuban modus of instruments plaiting into a cohesive flow to accentuate a singer’s vocals. Taking out the context of a vocalist, Blakey’s arrangements became hermetic waves, as cadenced and throbbing as they were intent.
Today, Blakey’s legacy is in a haven of its own. Beyond hard bop, his singular focus on impetus stoked the flames of what would become known as Neo-traditionalist jazz, fusion, early recurrences of avant-garde in the 80’s, not to mention the implications his forceful drumming likely had on hard rock and punk. Not bad for a man who’s spent most of his professional career sat down, out of the limelight, half-obscured by equipment, standing up to take a quick bow at the end of the show before retreating, to do it all again the next night.