Saturday, August 29, 2020

CD Review: Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers - Just Coolin'

Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers
Just Coolin' 
(Blue Note)

In some ways, it's hard to believe that a prime Art Blakey session has been sitting in the Blue Note vaults for 60 years. It would have been a perfect candidate to surface either during the '70s series of lost sessions or the wave of CD reissues that unearthed myriad Blue Note lost tracks. Maybe the abundance of Jazz Messengers recordings already available put it on the backburner indefinitely. Whatever the reason, it represents an A-list version of the Messengers which all but the biggest Blue Note fanatics might not realize only lasted a few months.

Lee Morgan (trumpet) and Hank Mobley (tenor saxophone) both made their mark with the Jazz Messengers, but they each did it at separate times. Mobley was a member of the initial version of the group from 1954 to 1956, which included pianist Horace Silver. He went on to release several albums under his own name for the label, frequently using Blakey as his drummer and often including Morgan as his frontline foil. 

Morgan was one year into his three-year tenure in the Messengers at the time of this recording. Benny Golson had just left the group, a spot that would be filled before long by Wayne Shorter, whose writing would advance the group's hard bop approach even further. In the meantime, Mobley was brought back into the band in early 1959, which at that time included pianist Bobby Timmons - another important composer to the Messengers - and bassist Jymie Merritt.

The story goes that the six tracks on Just Coolin' were abandoned because the quintet recorded four of them live at Birdland a month after this studio session and the live set was considered superior to these. Maybe so, but the music recorded on March 8, 1959 by Rudy Van Gelder is nothing to sneeze at. This was clearly a band that got down to business quickly. When Mobley quotes the melody of Duke Ellington's "It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)," the title was not yet a cliche could be construed as much as a personal statement as a clever musical quip. Because these guys swing plenty hard.

It's interesting to note that the week before this session took place, Miles Davis' sextet recorded the first session for what would become Kind of Blue. While that group was looking towards newer foundations for improvisation, this lineup of the Jazz Messengers could still find plenty of potential in driving jazz that relied heavily on blues changes delivered over a heavy beat with some gospel roots. 

Considering the brevity of this Jazz Messengers lineup, this album could be considered a meeting of the minds of some of the best hard bop players at that time. It's tempting to express how underrated players like Mobley and Timmons are. The former is probably better known for compositing "Moanin'," for the Messengers than for his skill at creating dynamics with fast right-handed chords in the middle of a chorus, and just as quickly switching to light single note lines, which can be heard in "Jimerick." 

Mobley, whose myriad albums for Blue Note (many of which have variations on his name as the title) get mentioned only after his brief tenure with another famous trumpet player, was an extremely creative improviser who knew how to spin a long idea-filled line. As a composer, he was top shelf too, as "Hipsippy Blues" indicates here. It doesn't hurt that he tosses in another sharp paraphrase ("Why Don't You Do Right") during his solo in that song.  

Morgan, not quite as underappreciated as the other two thanks in part to "The Sidewinder" a few years later, is naturally on fire here with his bright, ripping tone. Never one to rely on flash, he begins his testimony on "Hipsippy Blues" sounding puckish and thoughtful. "Close Your Eyes" which would become a standard in the Messengers repertoire, also shows him to good degree as well as Merritt, whose his rich tone also gets some room on the title track. 

Maybe the group outdid this session when they hit Birdland stage a few weeks later and got it all on tape. But after all that time, Just Coolin', which includes a previously unheard Timmons track "Quick Trick" should be heard if nothing else for an additional document of what this A-list group could accomplish. 

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