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Belated New Music From Drummer Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers Is A Gem

Blakey led his band for almost 40 years, making many classic records with top musicians. Just Coolin', a newly unearthed 1959 recorded studio session, showcases his stylistic precision.

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Other segments from the episode on July 29, 2020

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 29, 2020: Interview with Tim Kurkjian; Review of CD 'Just Coolin.'

Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Drummer Art Blakey led his band, The Jazz Messengers, for almost 40 years, making many classic records with top musicians. A newly unearthed 1959 Blakey session is now out. Our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead likes it a lot.

(SOUNDBITE OF ART BLAKEY AND THE JAZZ MESSENGERS' "JIMERICK")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Trumpeter Lee Morgan on the fast blues "Jimerick." That's from the album "Just Coolin'," belated new music from drummer Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. This 1959 session went unreleased until now because a couple of months later, the same quintet recorded most of the same tunes for live albums issued instead. Both spirited volumes of the live "Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers At The Jazz Corner Of The World" let the band flex and stretch. But this compact, more crisply recorded studio session is a gem. The band's front line paired two players who already got along - 20-year-old trumpet phenom Lee Morgan and gruff tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley. Mobley wrote three of the six tunes, including "Hipsippy Blues."

(SOUNDBITE OF ART BLAKEY AND THE JAZZ MESSENGERS' "HIPSIPPY BLUES")

WHITEHEAD: Art Blakey's band epitomized so-called hard bop, a hard driving, heavily swinging style drenched in the blues. The drive mostly came from the drummer. In his prime, Blakey was a great, innovative and aggressive accompanist. Listen to him lead on Lee Morgan. Blakey draws out the trumpeter's cocky phrasing with all manner of percolating punctuation, including his signature press roll - quick, forceful roll on snare drum.

(SOUNDBITE OF ART BLAKEY AND THE JAZZ MESSENGERS' "CLOSE YOUR EYES")

WHITEHEAD: The Jazz Messengers' bluesiness (ph) owes a lot to pianist Bobby Timmons, one of the architects of the band's style. He'd recently written Blakey's bread and butter song "Moanin'." The nimble pianist mixed earthy phrasing with a bell-like tone. His admirers included even picky Thelonious Monk. One of two new tunes here is Timmons' "Quick Trick." On his solo, the horns chime in with a little encouragement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ART BLAKEY AND THE JAZZ MESSENGERS' "QUICK TRICK")

WHITEHEAD: The late 1950s was a golden age for buoyant jazz rhythm sections. One reason was the state of jazz bass playing. By 1959, bassists like this band's Jymie Merritt could really get around the fingerboard. But they weren't using amplifiers yet, so they had to thwack those strings to make them sing. Merritt's percussive pulse grounds the band, rhythmically and harmonically.

(SOUNDBITE OF ART BLAKEY AND THE JAZZ MESSENGERS' "JUST COOLIN'")

WHITEHEAD: Bassist Jymie Merritt passed away in April. Thousands of jazz musicians have tried to recapture this magic, Art Blakey included. When he made "Just Coolin'" in 1959, he'd been honing this approach for years and, by now, had attained a sort of stylistic perfection even as the band was still developing. And now to have new material by this explosive and short-life quintet, that'd be good news in any year, let alone now when we could all use some cheering up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ART BLAKEY AND THE JAZZ MESSENGERS' "M&M")

DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the new book "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." He reviewed "Just Coolin'," the newly unearthed 1959 session by Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers. On tomorrow's show, the legacy of white supremacy in American Christianity. We'll talk with Robert P. Jones, author of the new book "White Too Long." His main focus is the Southern Baptist Church, the denomination in which he grew up, which justified slavery and supported the Confederacy. Jones founded PRRI, the Public Religion Research Institute. I hope he can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ART BLAKEY AND THE JAZZ MESSENGERS' "M&M") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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