Jazz Classic: Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers-Moanin’.

Although Philly-born tenor saxophonist Benny Golson’s tenure with The Jazz Messengers was short-lived, he still played an important part in the development and history of the group. He joined in 1958, and during the summer, helped Art Blakey recruit three new Messengers.

They were all from Philly, and included bassist Jymie Merritt, pianist Bobby Timmons and trumpeter Lee Morgan who joined Benny Golson in the front line. This latest lineup of The Messengers made their recording debut on what would become a classic album, Moanin’.

It was also Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers debut album for Blue Note Records. The group had led a nomadic existence for the past few years recording for a number of different labels including  Columbia, Pacific Jazz, Cadet, Vic Records, Jubilee, Atlantic and Bethlehem. Now Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers had signed to jazz’s premiere label and were about to record one of the most important albums of their career.

On the ‘30th’ of October 1958, Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers journeyed to the original Van Gelder Studio, at 25 Prospect Avenue in Hackensack, New Jersey. By then, Benny Golson was The Jazz Messengers’ musical director and chief composer. He wrote Are You Real, Along Came Betty, The Drum Thunder Suite and Blues March. These compositions plus Bobby Timmons’ Moanin’ and a cover of Come Rain or Come Shine were recorded by Rudy Van Gelder and produced Alfred Lion and eventually became Moanin’.

After the recording of Moanin, Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers embarked upon a European tour. During November and December 1958, they wowed and won over audiences across Europe with a series of spellbinding performances. However, all wasn’t well behind the scenes and there were personality clashes during the tour. When Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers retuned home, Benny Golson left the group. 

Although he had only been a Messenger for a few months, he had played on a future jazz classic and ensured the band stayed relevant in spite of the growing popularity of the soul-jazz movement. However, Benny Golson wanted to be part of a more structured band, and in 1959 formed The Jazztet with Art Farmer. By then, Moanin’ had been released, and Hank Mobley who was former Messenger had rejoined the group. 

Meanwhile, Moanin’ was released to widespread critical acclaim in January 1959. Critics were won over by what a captivating combination of old-fashioned gospel and blues which Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers combined with what was their innovative and sophisticated take on modern jazz.  The result was a potent and powerful combination and Moanin’ featured some of the finest music that Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers would ever record. 

Side One.

Moanin’ opens with the title-track is mellifluous and melodic bluesy shuffle that’s also an early example of soul-jazz. Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers are at the top of their game and set the bar high for the rest of this future classic album. 

Straight away, there’s an almost wistful sound to Are You Real? Especially the horns who pose the question and play a starring role while the rhythm section drive the arrangement along. Then when the solos arrive, the rest of the band enjoy the opportunity to  shine. Bobby Timmons fingers dance across the keyboard, Art Blakey powers his way round his drum kit enjoying the opportunity to showboat before the baton passes to bassist Jymie Merritt who plays a fleet-fingered solo. The result is a propulsive tracks that’s a mixture of beauty and melancholy. 

Closing side one of Moanin’ is Along Came Betty where the tempo drops on this lyrical track that’s much more melodic and expressive. It’s the nearest thing to a ballad on the album and is without doubt one of the highlights.

Side Two.

The Drum Thunder Suite was written by Benny Golson especially for Art Blakey. This three part suite features Drum Thunder, Cry A Blue Tear and Harlem’s Disciples and was a showcase for the legendary drummer and bandleader. Just like the rest of the album there’ an intensity to his playing as he unleashes on of his finest performance on the album. Later, the suite would become a staple of his live sets.

Blues March is another of the Benny Golson composition on the albums. From the get-go it sounds as if he had been influenced by the music of New Orleans’ marching bands. Art Blakey’s drums plays a leading role in the sound and success of this truly memorable track.

Closing Moanin’ is the standard Come Rain Or Come Shine. It’s been reinvented and features a brisk, lilting arrangement. Initially the horns play a leading role while the piano plays a supporting role. Soon, it’s all change and Bobby Timmons jabs and stabs at the keyboard picking out the melody before the drums signal the arrival of the saxophone. It’s played with power and freedom revealing a joyous sound that soars above the arrangement before Jymie Merritt plays a solo and then the band are reunited and continue to reinvent this standard which closes this classic album. 

Sadly, this lineup of Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers was short-lived and the only album they recorded was Moanin’.  Benny Golson left before the release of Moanin’ and was replaced by Hank Mobley. However, he was just a short-term replacement. 

By the time The Big Beat was recorded on March the ‘6th’ 1960 Wayne Shorter was the latest tenor saxophonist to join The Messengers. The group’s lineup was fluid and that would always be the case.

Who knows what would’ve happened if Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers had continued to record with the same lineup that features on Moanin’? With Benny Golson as musical director, chief composer and tenor saxophonist the group may have gone on to release a string of groundbreaking classic albums. Sadly, personality clashes meant that Benny Golson left after Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers toured Europe in December 1958 and it’s a case of what might have been. 

Surely even Art Blakey must have wondered what would’ve happened to the group he cofounded if Benny Golson had continued to play a leading role? However, the tenor saxophonist played a huge part in the sound and success of Moanin’ which nowadays is  regarded as  a jazz classic and one of the greatest hard bop albums ever released. 

For newcomers to both jazz and hard bop Moanin’ is an album that’s a vital part of any collection and features the finest lineup of Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers at the peak of their considerable powers. It’s an album the legendary bandleader and drummer never surpassed during what was a long and illustrious career leading a band that featured many of the future giants of jazz.

Jazz Classic: Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers-Moanin’.

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