By Devon “Doc” Wendell
On March 6, 1960, Art Blakey and his most recent incarnation of his ever- changing Jazz Messengers were on fire. The Messengers consisted of the young trumpet wizard Lee Morgan, who emerged from Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band in 1957 and had made two previous recordings with Blakey & The Messengers: The epochal Moanin and Africaine, both from the previous year. Along with Morgan is the incomparable Wayne Shorter on tenor saxophone, Bobby Timmons on piano, Jymie Merritt, on bass, and Art Blakey on drums, of course. The session from this date resulted in The Big Beat album for Blue Note Records. With this lineup how could this album be anything less than spectacular?
Blakey would always pick one star soloist from the band to write the bulk of the material for a specific recording and Wayne Shorter does the honors on The Big Beat. Shorter penned the gospel-fueled, down home opening number “The Chess Men” as well as the slick and swinging “Sakeena’s Vision” and his homage to Lester Young, the funky “Lester Left Town.” Young passed away the previous year.
Shorter and Morgan play with such a youthful jubilance. You truly get to hear two jazz icons growing within each solo. It’s as if there are no limits to their creative prowess throughout the entire album. Bobby Timmons’ blues-based piano style adds the perfect relaxed and elegant contrast to the fire emanating from Shorter and Morgan’s horns and to Blakey’s often bombastic drumming. Merritt is the perfect pocket bassist. He just locks into Blakey’s grooves and acts as the anchor of the band.
The Shorter originals really stand out and are the album’s highlights. The dynamics and sensitivity of “Sakeena’s Vision” make the piece a perfect vehicle for each soloist to show off the wide range of their individual styles. Lee Morgan’s solos are so unique and full of this flowing energy that never quits. His tone is sharp and piercing and he is totally fearless and sure of every move. There was no one like Lee Morgan then or now.
On Bill Hardman’s “Politely,” Shorter takes a basic blues themed composition and adds an entirely new dimension to it without venturing out of the song’s stated theme. Shorter was already a master in every way. Bobby Timmons brings everyone back down to Earth with some perfectly placed block chords reminiscent of the great Ahmad Jamal.
And then you have Art Blakey; that one and only Blakey beat is sublime. Blakey could create a pocket and drive it into your subconscious forever. He could make any soloist sound better, no matter how great they already were. Blakey’s little flourishes would add the cherry on top of the sundae. He could then turn around and play the hardest, most aggressive solos imaginable. That Blakey hi-hat/ride cymbal/snare combination changed the way generations of drummers approached the instrument.
The two takes of The Arlene-Ross standard “It’s Only A Paper Moon” cook beyond belief. Morgan’s trumpet solo is syncopated and nasty. He serves up those signature bent notes and slurs with a delightfully confident swagger. Shorter plays it cool and funky, sticking to the irresistible groove laid down by Blakey, Merritt and Timmons.
Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers: The Big Beat is a life transforming hard-bop album by one of the greatest musical collectives in jazz history. This is a must for all music lovers.