Should It Stay or Should It Go?

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Story Time

Artist: Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers
Albums: Moanin'; Paris Jam Session; Mosaic
Source: Bought used

When it comes to music, I'm a sucker for a good story. Sure, the tunes are important, but a compelling (and repeatable) storyline running through the tracks somehow makes it easier for me to sink my ear-teeth in.

One of the things that eased my entry into serious jazz-loving was the abundance of good stories. The Jim Crow tours, the defections to Europe, the ups & downs of drug-addled geniuses, the unforgettable moments on stages long gone...all of these narrative threads wove themselves into what I was hearing and made them stick in a way the music couldn't do all on its own.

Two of the most interesting storylines, in my oh-so-humble opinion, are the family trees that sprung from two of the most formidable talent magnets of all time. My sports-loving dad could hit all the statistic books he'd like, but Miles Davis and Art Blakey are the greatest scouts of their time. If you made a list of everyone who ever played with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers or Miles' estimable bands, then crossed off all the names that didn't turn into major jazz artists and band-leaders later on...well, you wouldn't need much more than a Post-It Note for what remained. And there'd be plenty of room left over, too.

I've only got three albums from Blakey's staggering, half-century long discography, but just look at the names: Lee Morgan and Benny Golson are on Moanin'; Wayne Shorter and Bud Powell play on the Paris Jam Session; and Freddie Hubbard, Curtis Fuller and Cedar Walton (plus Shorter again) are in the Mosaic band. And my holdings only run from 1958 - 1961, which is a small sliver of Art's time as a bandleader (late 50s to 1990, if you're keeping count). Over that longer span, he also counted everyone from Horace Silver to Wynton Marsalis as sideman.

It's a great story: an excellent drummer with an ear for talent that ensures that he's always surrounded by players and composers that keep him in the top ranks of an always-evolving music. A man who plucked nascent talent from the soil and nursed it into full bloom. It would even be easy to assume that Blakey was coasting on the talents of his players, but that would be drastically unfair to the man himself. Listening to him play (and lead) on these three discs shows a guy who was perfectly set up to be a mentor to some of the greatest talent around; in other words, the Jazz Messengers needed Blakey just as much as (and probably much more than) he needed them.

This was crystallized in my mind recently when Lee and I went to see former Messenger Cedar Walton play at a club in NYC. Walton's time with Blakey was a half-century in the past, but you wouldn't know it from listening to his quintet play: they sounded, first and foremost, like the most recent version of the Jazz Messengers (it would have been easy guess that the drummer was in charge). The rhythm was the alpha factor on the bandstand, and the rest of guys were falling into line around it. But not really falling - they were all soaring. All these years later, and Walton was a late-breaking chapter in Blakey's story.

SISOSIG? I'm often hesitant to pick up more Blakey records, but for kind of a short-sighted reason: my gut reflex is that his brand of hard bop isn't particularly innovative or ear-bending in any significant way...but listen to any of these three discs, and it's clear that ain't the point. This is jazz of the highest order, and one of Blakey's singular talents as a bandleader is to bring out the best in the players he hires. I am a dedicated fan of so many of the people who passed through the ranks of the Jazz Messengers, and the truth is I'd do well to track down more of the stellar performances recorded under Blakey's imprimatur...not to mention the deeply jazztastic drumming that he lays down each and every time the Messengers do their thing.

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