Album Review: Moanin’ by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers

Moanin’, by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, 1958. Blue Note, 95324

On October 30, 1958 Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers recorded the album Moanin’ at Van Gelder Studio in New Jersey for the Blue Note label. Moanin’ is one of the most influential and important hard bop albums due to its outstanding compositions, arrangements, and personnel. The quintet at this time consisted of Pittsburgh native Art Blakey on drums, and trumpeter Lee Morgan, tenor saxophonist Benny Golson, bassist Jymie Merritt, and pianist Bobby Timmons, all from Philadelphia. Benny Golson wrote the arrangements and contributed four of the album’s six tracks. The title track, “Moanin’,” composed by pianist Bobby Timmons, became the greatest hit of Art Blakey’s lengthy career.

Lee Morgan’s improvisational contributions are indispensable to the sound of the album. He and Benny Golson carry the melodic and solo responsibilities as the only horns in the band. Clifford Brown strongly influenced Morgan’s style, characterized by an aggressive rhythmic attack, long melodic phrases, and a brassy timbre.

Benny Golson’s tunes “Are You Real?,” “Along Came Betty,” “The Drum Thunder Suite,” and “Blues March” lend a variety and versatility to Moanin’ by utilizing various song forms and musical styles. As an improviser, Golson’s smooth tone and fluid lines contrast with and complement the aggressive playing of Lee Morgan.

Morgan and Golson provide a solid frontline, but the Jazz Messengers rhythm section drives the band and propels the soloists to ever higher levels. Pianist Bobby Timmons composed the title track and consistently makes his presence heard through his tasteful comping and solos. Bassist Jymie Merritt provides the bass lines and rhythmic punctuation depending on the style of the song and is featured as a soloist several times throughout the album.

Drummer and bandleader Art Blakey provides the aggressive, driving pulse that propels the Jazz Messengers and is so characteristic of the hard bop style. Blakey was 39 at the time of this recording, though he chose to surround himself with young talent. By the time of Moanin’ the Jazz Messengers had progressed through several incarnations, with Blakey being the only constant. Despite the changing personnel the Jazz Messengers remained the archetypal hard bop group, characterized by an emphasis on the blues roots of the music. Blakey is notable for his aggressive drumming, use of polyrhythm, musical interactions with his soloists, and his personality. Blakey felt strongly that jazz was underappreciated in America and he sought to bring it to a broader audience. As a musician he provided his musicians with ample space for solos and encouraged them to contribute compositions and arrangements.

This combination of Pennsylvania born musicians collaborated to record one of hard bop’s most influential albums. The track listing includes Bobby Timmons’ “Moanin’;” Benny Golson’s “Are You Real?,” “Along Came Betty,” “The Drum Thunder Suite,” and “Blues March;” and a single standard, Arlen and Mercer’s “Come Rain or Come Shine.” The selection of songs for Moanin’ demonstrates the variety of styles in which the Jazz Messengers comfortably perform. The album features aspects of blues, funky jazz, Latin-American music, and New Orleans style marching bands.

The song “Moanin’” is one of the tunes that helped to generate the “soul jazz” style of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Influenced by gospel, “Moanin’” makes use of call-and-response technique between the piano and horns. Instead of a walking bass Merritt plays a rhythmically driving bassline while Blakey plays a swing rhythm with emphasis on beats two and four.

Benny Golson’s “Drum Thunder Suite” was composed due to Blakey’s desire to record a song using mallets extensively. The suite consists of three contrasting themes. The first theme, “Drum Thunder,” is primarily a drum solo with horns playing short melodic ideas in unison (soli writing). The second theme, “Cry a Blue Tear,” utilizes a strongly Latin rhythm in the drums. It features a lyrical melody with trumpet and saxophone playing complementary lines. The final theme, “Harlem’s Disciples,” begins with a funky melody, and then a piano solo sets the stage for the concluding drum solo. “The Drum Thunder Suite” makes an interesting use of different stylistic approaches and arranging techniques.

“Blues March”, also composed by Benny Golson, is intended to invoke the spirit of a marching band, with the drums clearly marking all four beats of the measure. The rhythm section is minimally invasive in this tune, and all of the listener’s attention is drawn to the soloist. Morgan and Golson play typically bluesy choruses, though Bobby Timmons’ solo is the highlight of the track. His solo begins with a simple line which is developed into an exciting, chordal conclusion.

“Are You Real?,” composed by Golson, is a more straightforward hard bop tune featuring a 32-bar chorus and a faster tempo. The standard “Come Rain or Come Shine” is performed with the attention to melody and arrangement not typically associated with hard bop, but is convincingly and faithfully represented by the Jazz Messengers.

Moanin’ is one of hard bop’s seminal albums due to the extremely high quality of the personnel and compositions featured. The mastery with which Lee Morgan and Benny Golson provide the frontline is further elevated by the solidarity of Timmons, Merritt, and Blakey. It is a testament to the great quality of the performers, compositions, and the hard bop genre. The accessibility of the album is surely a result of Art Blakey’s desire to promote jazz as an art in a time where public interest in the music was waning and musical styles such as doo-wop and rock and roll began to gain popularity.


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