Saturday, December 19, 2009

December 19: Art Blakey, "At The Jazz Corner Of The World"

Artist: Art Blakey
Album: At The Jazz Corner Of The World
Year: 1959
Label: Blue Note

One of the stranger occurrences in jazz music is that while names like Coltrane, Davis, and Coleman remain some of the most highly respected musicians of any genre, the style in which these giants play is far from popular with mainstream listeners. While their experiments and unique playing styles without question shaped the jazz genre, more than three decades after their greatest moments, a jazz sound that is rooted in swing and blues is what continues to thrives within society. This is not to say that the music of the more adventurous players is not still both stunning and essential, but one must wonder why the "greats" of the more hard-bop based, more straightforward style of jazz have not received similar reverence. While they may have been playing in a more traditional style, this by no means implies that the level of musicianship or the impact of the music is any less than the "innovators" of the sub-genres of jazz. When it came to blowing away audiences and playing a far more structured, yet absolutely brilliant style of jazz music, few performers excelled to the heights of drummer and band leader extraordinaire, Art Blakey. As one of the key figures in pushing jazz forward in the decades where rock music began to dominate, his contributions stand not only as essential to the survival of the genre, but he released a number of albums that are truly as powerful and influential as those of the "experimental greats." Bringing together his amazing talents with some of the most accomplished names in jazz history, Art Blakey's monumental double-release, 1959's At The Jazz Corner Of The World remains one of the most extraordinary and musically perfect albums ever released.

Seeming to work in the reverse order of what normally happens, there are actually five different releases of At The Jazz Corner Of The World. The original 1959 release on Blue Note Records came out on two double LP volumes, with each individual LP representing a single, twenty minute session. Then in 1994, Blue Note Records released all four LP's on a double CD set, with each disc representing one of the two volumes of the original release. Finally, for some unknown reason, in 2004, Toshiba-EMI released the records again, yet this time they were once again in the split album format, forcing the listener to purchase two CD's, when they were still available combined on the Blue Note release. Obviously, for those seeking the record, the 1994 CD release is "the" version to seek out, and it is also the version that will be used for the purposes of this review. Regardless of which version you hear, the playing throughout the performances is absolutely stellar, and this is largely due to the back that Blakey's backing band, The Jazz Messengers, remain today one of the most exclusive and talented backing groups in history. Names like Wayne Shorter, Donald Byrd, Branford Marsalis, and Freddie Hubbard all spent time in The Jazz Messengers among a massive list of some of the greatest performers in jazz history. The reason that Art Blakey was able to attract such high profile names was largely due to the tight sound of the band, as well as Blakey's unparalleled abilities as a bandleaders. Both of these aspects, as well as the power of The Jazz Messenger are on display throughout all of At The Jazz Corner Of The World.

These live recordings, recorded live at Birdland (which was called The Jazz Corner Of The World) in April of 1959 actually finds the lineup of The Jazz Messengers at a very rare moment. Saxophone master Benny Golson had just left the group a few weeks prior, and within a few months, Wayne Shorter would take over, so this is one of the few performances which features the great Hank Mobley on saxophone. In many ways, Mobley presents the perfect partner for Blakey, as Mobley's sound was notoriously not as wild as Coltrane, yet not as cool and mellow as Lester Young or Stan Getz. The pairing of these individuals proves to be pure musical magic, and Mobley proves to be one of, if not the finest saxophonist to ever play with The Jazz Messengers. Truth be told, Mobley's first solo recording after his departure from the group, 1960's Soul Station was unquestionably his finest work, and features many members of The Jazz Messengers, including Blakey on drums. Along with Mobley, another jazz giant found on At The Jazz Corner Of The World is trumpet-master and Blue Note cornerstone, Lee Morgan. Playing some of the most blistering and beautiful solos of his career, one can also hear Morgan briefly experimenting with the almost vocal-like progressions throughout the performance. Injecting an element of soul and almost gospel sounds into the performances, pianist Bobby Timmons is found on this recording, though at the time he was bouncing back between The Jazz Messengers and serving as one of the key players in Cannonball Adderley's quintet. Rounding out the band is a man who played with everyone from Coltrane to Dizzy Gillespie to B.B. King and stands today as one of the most important bassists in history: Jymie Merrit. Able to play brilliantly across any style of music, Merrit has rarely sounded better then he does throughout At The Jazz Corner Of The World.

While one cannot overlook the unquestionably high talent level of each of the members of The Jazz Messengers, one can similarly not overlook the masterful leadership and song choices of Art Blakey. Playing his own compositions, as well as a pair of Mobley's songs and filling out the rest of the set with pieces from Thelonious Monk and other jazz luminaries, At The Jazz Corner Of The World shows that this grouping of musicians was capable of quite literally any style of jazz music. This diversity in song style is the true genius of Art Blakey, as he makes so many different types of jazz far more "accessible" to listeners who didn't quite "get" what Coltrane and others were playing at the time. This combination of exceptional musical talent, stunning solos, yet keeping it all in a very strict and straightforward manner is a style that many have attempted, yet none have succeeded as brilliantly as Art Blakey. Pushing each song into the space it needed to live, Blakey's playing throughout At The Jazz Corner Of The World is as good as ever, and his playing mastery is perhaps no more apparent then on the sensational "Art's Revolution." Bringing an almost Jewish tone to the music, Blakey spends the song constantly changing the rhythm, yet he never changes the tempo and the result is an absolutely unparalleled moment in jazz music. From hard-bop tunes like "M & M" to the cooler, more bluesy "Hipsippy Blues," Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers burn across more than an hour of music, and every song is a true masterpiece that helped to bring top-notch jazz to the masses.

Without question, the popularity and evolution of the jazz genre simply would not have been what it is had it not been for the contributions of Art Blakey. Along with his backing band, The Jazz Messengers, it was Blakey who brought the brilliant sounds of jazz music to the masses, and though he was not as experimental as many of the more recognized names in jazz music, there is no debate as to whether or not his playing was just as fantastic and equally influential in the overall history of the genre. Capturing one of the greatest lineups that The Jazz Messengers ever had, the key to the sound on At The Jazz Corner Of The World is unquestionably the chemistry between Blakey and saxophonist Hank Mobley. Though the rest of the band is absolutely fantastic, Mobley stands far above the rest, and there have been few jazz pairings that have yielded as amazing results as that of Blakey and Mobley. Clearly feeding off of one anothers' energy, each of the musicians is constantly pushing the others to greater heights, and the results stand as one of the greatest jazz recordings in history. This lineup of The Jazz Messengers only lasted for a few short months, as many of the members went on to other groups or their own solo work, yet looking at the overall catalog of each musician, this recording stands as their finest across the board. Though he rarely receives the same reverence as the more experimental jazz giants, one cannot overstate the importance of Art Blakey, and his impact on the jazz genre is no more apparent then on his absolutely phenomenal 1959 release, At The Jazz Corner Of The World.

Standout tracks: "Hipsippy Blues," "M & M," and "Art's Revolution."

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