Even when I was a young boy, I loved listening to jazz. Every night when I went to bed I would turn on the radio and listen to either the classical station or the jazz station, humming along to the ones I knew, until I finally and happily succumbed to slumber. It was at this early point in my life at which, I am now convinced, I first became interested in the finer things.
Recently, I have experienced a revival in my need to move my feet to the beat of a rip-roaring jazz ensemble, an on-stage wall of bodies and sound, impassioned and electrified and lost in the world of its own music. Thus, last weekend, I came home after work, mixed myself a Manhattan, and sated my own need for music with a personal old favorite of mine: The Big Beat, by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.
Art Blakey is a jazz legend, one of the innovators of the bebop style – in particular, the drums, on which he was a prodigy. Beyond his own incomparable talent, he is known for surrounding himself with similarly incomparable musicians, a rotating group of rising stars which were called simply, “The Jazz Messengers.” The only other musician who could pick ‘em like Art was Miles Davis – and even he took some musicians who played for Blakey first!
This specific record was recorded in what I consider to be the golden age of the band. In addition to Blakey on the drums, the record features Wayne Shorter on the tenor saxophone (one of those who went on to play for Miles Davis), Jymie Merritt on the double-bass, Bobby Timmons on the piano, and on the trumpet, the wickedly talented (and, later, tragically murdered) Lee Morgan. Right from the first moment of the first song, “The Chess Players,” this group of musicians produces a sound with such energy and enthusiasm that you can’t help but feel the big beat.
As I can remember, Wayne Shorter wrote at least three of the songs on the album, showing his serious songwriting talent even this early in his career. Lee Morgan’s trumpet is unmistakable, one of the most powerful horn players in jazz, with a clear tone coming from the bell like a holy messenger. Bobby Timmons is an excellent soloist, able to be spontaneous while still being melodic, and often uses a more delicate touch on the keys than you’d expect from your average bebop pianist. Jymie Merrit gets several excellent solos throughout the record, and Blakey himself is always there in the background, solid as a rock, guiding the band without dominating it, just as he did with all the musicians in his charge from day one until the end. Highly recommended.