Art Blakey: Just Coolin’

Blakey CD

JUST COOLIN’ / MOBLEY: Hipsippy Blues. PETKERE: Close Your Eyes. UNKNOWN: Jimerick. TIMMONS: Quick Trick. MOBLEY: M & M. Just Coolin’ / Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers: Lee Morgan, tpt; Hank Mobley, t-sax; Bobby Timmons, pno; Jymie Merritt, bs; Art Blakey, dm / Blue Note B003164102

I don’t think that any jazz fan needs to be reminded that Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers were the epicenter of Blue Note’s catalog from the late 1950s into the early ‘60s. Label owner and producer Alfred Lion was absolutely crazy about the band, and made many classic albums with them.

This one, recorded March 8, 1959 at Rudy van Gelder’s Hackensack studio, features a short-lived Jazz Messengers lineup. Hank Mobley was with the Messengers for just one year; he replaced Benny Golson and was replaced in 1959 by Wayne Shorter, who stayed with the band until 1964 (Morgan stayed on trumpet through 1961).The reason this studio album was scrapped was that Lion decided to record the same band in a live Birdland performance five weeks later and issued that recording under the title Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers at the Jazz Corner of the World, a 2-LP set.

But a good band is a good band, and there was a looseness to the Messengers with Morgan and Mobley that was tightened up a bit when the personnel changed, thus despite the live set it’s good to have at least a few more tracks from this period. Although considered a progenitor of the hard bop style, I always felt that Morgan’s aesthetic actually grew out of R&B. He would surely have made a great acquisition for Ray Charles’ band had Charles been able to afford him. This is not a criticism; I liked Morgan’s playing very much. But even a cursory listen to these tracks will tell you that Morgan’s playing was sparser than that of most bop trumpeters and deeply imbued with the blues. Indeed, it just may be that Lion felt that this set was a bit too laid-back once he heard the tapes of the live performance. If so, he was wrong to shelve it. The whole recording has a certain vibe of its own.

Modern-day trumpeters really need to listen to Lee Morgan a bit more, in fact. He has many lessons to teach the young ‘uns, most importantly not to scatter notes like shooting a machine gun. Listen to any track on this album, even Close Your Eyes where Morgan is rather busy, and you’ll hear what I mean. He never tried to overwhelm you with bullshit. Every note had to fit into the phrase, and every phrase had to make sense. His counterpart here is pianist Timmons, who almost seems to be taking cues from the trumpeter. He doesn’t overplay his instrument, either, and the naïve listener may assume that these solos aren’t very meaty, but that wasn’t the point. The point was to create something new and interesting from the changes of each tune, i.e., to create new tunes, and this he did to perfection. He is perhaps busiest in the very uptempo Jimerick, a piece whose composer was apparently not jotted down anywhere (it might have been a head) but not over-busy, and the same may be said for Morgan. There are some definite similarities in his playing to that of Howard McGhee, another bop trumpeter who incorporated the blues into his playing; note how, for instance, Morgan bends a couple of notes at the very end of his solo as a lead-in to Timmons’ second appearance on this track. When Mobley enters, he, too, is inflecting his playing with the blues, but some of what he played here seems to me a little too flashy without considering the meat of it. It’s not a bad solo by any means, but he seems to want to impress you with his technique more than he needed to. Blakey also gets a solo on this one, and for the most part he, too, plays somewhat economically despite a bit of a show-off flourish at the end.

Timmons’ own Quick Trick is actually a medium-tempo piece, also with a strong blues feel. In his first solo, he pretty much sticks to playing the melody with some nice embellishments; the two horns then play interesting little figures of their own that fit into the piece as Timmons continues, now playing an improvisation. Morgan enters on a high note blast, but don’t take this as a sign of exhibitionism: after a few bars, he is back to his well-constructed self, even throwing in a few more high notes as he goes along just to prove that this was what he had in mind to begin with. Mobley, listening to Morgan, plays one of his finest solos on the album, but he’s also extremely good on his own composition, M & M, obviously a reference to Lee and himself. Morgan’s solo is also extremely good, if perhaps a little show-offy near the end; Timmons, though retaining his own approach, also tosses in a few fast, upward keyboard runs as a bit of flash. Then we get a nice three-way chase chorus between Mobley, Morgan and Blakey that really cooks before the ride-out.

Just Coolin’, the finale, is another nice medium-up piece. The theme isn’t a particularly strong one, consisting of a few licks strung together, but once past that the solos makeup for it. It’s almost difficult to say who’s better here. The main point is that, by this point in the session, everyone was locked in and in tune with one another to the point where everything flowed like a river—not smoothly but majestically, which is better. Even bassist Merritt finally gets a solo on this one. It’s not the most brilliant I’ve heard, but again, it fits in, as does Blakey’s drum solo.

This is a truly enjoyable album with strong solo work that bears repeated listening.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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