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Bebop

November 17, 2020

Art Blakey – Coolin’ At The Corner

Blakey coolin copy

By Armand Lewis

Most jazz albums are documents of a group’s current performance rep-ertoire. The tunes played live in clubs or concerts are continuously crafted over time to some level of near perfection. Once satisfied, the band will take them into the recording studio for what is hoped to be the definitive performance versions. But in rare instances, this normal progression may be reversed.

On April 15, 1959, Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers recorded two LPs-worth of new tunes at New York’s famous jazz club “Birdland.” Named after Charlie “Bird” Parker, the venue was also known as “The Jazz Corner of the World.” The set that night was released as Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers at the Jazz Corner of the World – Volumes One and Two (Blue Note 84015, 84016) and is considered among the best of Blakey’s many live recordings.

Featuring very strong performances by drummer Blakey, tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley, trumpeter Lee Morgan, pianist Bobby Timmons and bassist Jymie Merritt, ten performances were released on the two LPs — several of them original compositions that would not be recorded again by Blakey or any of his band members.

However, just over a month before the Jazz Corner recording, Blakey and company had recorded a studio album of six of the Birdland tunes for Blue Note. The resulting album has languished in the vaults for sixty years: unheard until producer Zev Feldman and Blue Note president Don Was unearthed the forgotten tape and released it this summer as Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers -“Just Coolin’.”

Why the session was not issued at the time is likely due to the relative strength of the Jazz Corner set. Perhaps Blakey and company needed the extra month of live performances before the April 15 date to become sufficiently comfortable with the new repertoire as the studio album has moments where the group seems slightly hesitant as they work through what may have been relatively new and unfamiliar material.

The live date also let everyone stretch out and explore the tunes with longer versions of “Hipsippy Blues,” “Close Your Eyes,” and “M&M.” Still, if for nothing else, Just Coolin’ is notable for the inclusion of two compositions that appear to have never been recorded by anyone on any other album.

It’s also the only Blakey studio album to feature the three Hank Mobley tunes featured on the session: “Hipsippy Blues,” “M&M,” and “Just Coolin’.” While Just Coolin’ had originally debuted on a Mobley 10” LP from 1955, neither Mobley nor Blakey would ever record any of these tunes again.

The previously unknown composition “Jimerick,” whose composer is also unknown, features some excellent solos – particularly by trumpeter Lee Morgan — though Mobley, Timmons and Blakey all turn in strong showings here as well. Morgan’s performance is so strong and assured that it’s possible that this may in fact be his own composition — thus being more comfortable and freer with it.

Pianist Timmons’ “Quick Trick” would also never be recorded again by any of the participants — including its composer. Clearly in Timmons’ established style, the tune has a slightly Thelonious Monk-ish quality that Morgan and Mobley seize upon and thoroughly enjoy playing.

This edition of Blakey’s Messengers would turn out to be something of a transitional group. With the exception of Hank Mobley replacing Benny Golson, who had left to form his own band, this is the same ensemble that had previously recorded the classic Moanin’ LP in October of 1958.

Though Mobley had previously played in the Messengers during the ‘50s, his return tenure would be short-lived. In July of 1959, Mobley failed to show up for the Messenger’s set at the Toronto Jazz Festival — forcing Blakey to quickly draft Wayne Shorter into the tenor position.

The Messengers’ next Blue Note recording (Africaine on November 10, 1959) would see major changes taking place, not only the addition of Shorter, but also with Walter Davis replacing Bobby Timmons at the piano. This may also be a reason the Just Coolin’ album was not released. With new personnel as well as new tunes, Blue Note may have opted to record Blakey’s new group, rather than release a record that could have been seen as “yesterday’s news.”

Just Coolin’ and the Jazz Corner sets would also mark the last time Hank Mobley and Lee Morgan would record together within the Jazz Messengers. Each of them would go on to release a string of albums on their own for the next several years, reuniting only once for Mobley’s classic No Room for Squares album in 1963.

However, by 1965, the two would seem inseparable, appearing on most of the Mobley or Morgan LPs recorded from ‘65 though ‘67. These would include Mobley’s Dippin, Caddy for Daddy, and Far Away Lands as well as Morgan’s Cornbread, Charisma and The Rajah among others.

Even though the specific group that made this lost album did not last longer than the early months of 1959, Just Coolin’ remains a timeless message from a classic band.

Armand Lewis buys and sells rare Jazz LPs. He can be reached at mrbluenote@peoplepc.com






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