Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. Moanin' (Blue Note, 1958)

I'm not a jazz guy. I mean, I like some jazz, but I am definitely not a jazz guy. I don't have the patience, really, and I'm too big a fan of hooks and riffs and the power of tightly constructed rock and pop. I like structure, and jazz -- some jazz -- is the antithesis of structure, a musical approach predisposed to tear structure a new one in the pursuit of new kinds of musical understanding and expression. And that's great and all, but you can have it.

The only jazz I get really, well, jazzed about is hard bop. A style that emerged in the mid-50s or so, hard bop's blueprints are gospel and early R'n'B, driving, with well-defined melodies and beats. Hard bop players stretch out and solo, but they work within defined melodic parameters, pushing the boundaries without wandering off the reservation. It's a highly listenable approach, earthy and gutsy and raw but capable of intense lyricism, beauty, and sensitivity.

And of all the hard bop jazzmen, Art Blakey is by far my favorite. As a drummer and a bandleader, Blakey brought a level of daring and innovation to his instrument -- and to jazz as a whole -- that's hard to hold a candle to. His playing is ferocious, precise, commanding; he owns whatever track he plays on without overpowering the rest of the players. Never too showy but always technically and intuitively phenomenal, Blakey's chops are some of the best ever laid to tape.

Take the classic '58 LP Moanin'. Recorded for Blue Note and produced by legendary Blue Note house engineer Alfred Lion, the LP features the classic Blues Messengers lineup of Blakey on drums, Lee Morgan on trumpet, Benny Golson on tenor sax, Bobby Timmons on piano, and Jymie Merrit on bass. It's an incredible collection of originals and standards, played with force and muscle but smooth and swinging, too. It's jazz for folks who "don't like jazz," with massive hooks and straightforward soloing that emphasizes the various melodic themes instead of exploding them.

Lead off cut Moanin' is a monster, with a hypnotic central theme provided by Timmons (the tune's composer), and irresistible trumpet playing from Morgan, who makes his horn shout and cry at will. The bass goes for a long walk as the piano pounds out the bluesy, snakey melody. And beneath it all is Blakey, keeping a solid 4-4 beat, wailing on his snare like a redheaded stepchild, providing the foundation for flights of (nothing too) fancy from his sidemen. "Moanin'" is a mid-tempo burner, catchy and instinctively cool, the kind of jam you want as your theme song.

It's hard to follow up a track as legendary as "Moanin'", but Blakey and his band give it a shot, and not too shabbily. Of particular note are "Drum Thunder Suite," a rhythmic tour-de-force and showcase for Blakey's technique, a cacophonous symphony of timing in several movements, and the New Orleans swagger of Blues March, which features an impossible to forget horn motif and some delightfully insistent drumming from Blakey. Lovely standard Come Rain or Come Shine is given a nicely upbeat treatment, the somewhat melancholy melody perked up by the tempo, scattered rays of light on an overcast day. Timmons' piano bits are bright and spry, Blakey's ride cymbal laying a luminescent wash over the proceedings.

To me, Art Blakey is about as rock'n'roll as jazz gets. He played with an overabundance of energy, throwing himself into his work with abandon but never losing complete control. Cool, but not in the narcotized, above-it-all way that would be embodied by Miles Davis, Blakey was clearly excited by his music, and that excitement is impossible not to hear, especially on an album like Moanin'.