Album reviews

Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers With Thelonious Monk Deluxe Edition (rec. 1957)

Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers With Thelonious Monk Deluxe Edition
(Atlantic R2 670841/RHINO 603497842384, released 20 May. Album review by Leonard Weinreich)

When some empty head on TV exclaims “I’m going to raise my performance up to another level”, wave this album vigorously at the screen. More than any other, it defines the real meaning of ‘another level’. You can’t get higher. This is the summit.

Jazz Messenger's album cover

And it’s a summit of genuine giants: Thelonious Monk and Art Blakey, neither of whom, inexplicably in 1957, had firm contracts with any record label, major or minor. Sniffing an opportunity, Neshui Ertegun (who founded Atlantic Records with his brother Ahmed) planned a one-off album featuring New York’s most hardened boppers: Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. The leader, a superhuman drummer with a supernatural ear for fresh talent, also operated a virtual jazz university that spewed out famous graduates including Kenny Dorham, Benny Golson, Lee Morgan, Bobby Timmons, Curtis Fuller, Woody Shaw, Wayne Shorter and Wynton Marsalis.

At the time of the Ertegun recording offer, Horace Silver had recently departed, leaving the Messengers with an empty piano stool. To fill the temporary vacancy, Blakey called Thelonious Monk, an old chum with long shared musical history. Since 1947, Blakey had accompanied Monk on a dozen recording sessions, more than any other drummer, allowing him ten years to penetrate and explore Monk’s idiosyncratic musical universe, absorbing the oblique and dissonant melodies, unexpected pauses, asymmetric accents, percussive piano technique and uncanny ability to suspend time. Blakey was also acutely aware that Monk was suffering under the repressive NYPD Cabaret Card rules that barred the appearance in Manhattan’s clubs of any musicians guilty of narcotics offences. Which explains why Monk, his career teetering, seized the prospect of a fee, recognition and exposure and agreed to record for scale, disappointing his long-suffering agent.

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Displaying profound respect for Monk’s talents, Blakey opted for five Monk compositions (Evidence; In Walked Bud; Blue Monk; I Mean You; Rhythm-A-Ning) and Purple Shades, a funky blues by tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin (the only U.S. jazz musician ever to decamp from the scene and run his own vineyard in Bordeaux). The band assembled in Manhattan’s Capitol Studios for recording sessions over two days in May 1957 supervised by a brace of top flight Atlantic engineers, including Tom Dowd and Earl Brown.

During the mid-50s, Monk’s unusual and intricate compositions appeared daunting, creating hurdles even for saxophonists as experienced as Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane. This deluxe edition album features a second CD containing alternative rehearsal takes that, even with missteps, uncertainties and clams are little short of remarkable (curiously though, each time this album has been prepared for re-release, yet another previously unknown out-take has been excavated from the dust of a previously unknown vault). But even the most cynical jazz aficionado would agree that any extra material from these sessions is not only instructive but worth beyond its weight in rubies. Marvel by comparing the early take of Evidence with the subsequent released take, where the development of Blakey’s solo should be studied by anyone who dreams about beating vellum with a stick.

You’re witnessing the apogee of hard bop, a high-energy, urban, gritty music, fuelled by racial discontent, disappointment and pride. The two Messenger horns, experienced young gunslingers, are no slouches at learning their lines. Griffin, fearless, inventive and swift, blazes like a demon through Monk’s tricky changes (prime example: In Walked Bud). And incandescent trumpeter Bill Hardman leaves us bewildered that his abilities were so tragically unrecognised at the time. Hard-working bassist Spanky DeBrest maintains a solid grip on the rhythmic centre allowing his more freewheeling colleagues to play unrestrained tag around his powerful bassline, always swinging.

Particularly during horn solos, both Monk and Blakey exhibit Olympian levels of ESP with precisely timed fills and out-of-kilter comments that supplement, complement, prod, tease and spur the front row. And, when Monk launches into solo flight, Blakey’s underlying interplay is alone worth the entry price (try the alternate version of I Mean You). And relish what Monk does with his solo on In Walked Bud, the last few bars before the first bridge.

This deluxe edition, with extra CD and photos, reproduces the original sleeve notes by jazz historian Martin Williams and extensive new notes by Ashley Kahn, plus the distinguished graphics of the original album, portraits of Blakey and Monk by ace photographer Lee Friedland, art directed by the reclusive, yet legendary, Marvin Israel. All handsomely produced by Florence Halfon. Essential stuff.

Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers With Thelonious Monk Deluxe Edition is released on 20 May 2022

LINK: Purchase at Presto Music

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