40. The great renewal

In Case You Missed It – from Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Album of the Year, 1981.

Like a lot of mid-fifties born folks, I guess, I was ready to rediscover the joys of hard bop by the time this album hit me. After the heights of jazz-rock grabbed my attention in the ’70s (The Mahavishnu Orchestra! Weather Report! Eleventh House!), and led on to electric miles and a host of other stuff, it was time to pay more attention to other forms that had produced – one began to suspect – equal or even higher accomplishments.

And perhaps were even still doing so. I knew Blakey, of course, and that he was still active – had acquired a few albums; some old, some new. But I’d been taking him for granted. Yes, the work from the 1950s into the ’60s was great, but the fact he was still doing it, mostly with people whose names meant little, registered only infrequently.

Until hearing this album, with its teasingly ambiguous title (is it going to be your album of the year, or are we just being told that the Messengers have made yet one more recording?). But as soon as the needle hit the grooves, this one sounded special, and still does. Why, when there are 70-odd messengers albums to choose from? This was Blakey best late career line-up – all just about still under 30, with 20 year-old Wynton Marsalis the baby of the group, and altoist Bobby Watson, ten years Wynton’s senior, with Blakey for a few years and now musical director. But all of them – including Billy Pierce on tenor, James Williams on piano and Charles Fambrough on bass – were among the best that the drummer ever recruited.

Yes, there were future editions that included Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison, Lonnie Plexico, Jean Toussaint, Mulgrew Miller (all together) and a host of others, and I heard a few of them live later in the decade. But this is the one that immediately conveyed that every single player was top drawer from first to last. And the one that, looking back, had the generative aspect that – like, say the Shorter/Morgan line-up – when you review the names years later you realise you have sought out later recordings featuring every single member of the band.

So here they all are captured at an early peak, goaded, cajoled and generally kept in line by Blakey’s eternally insistent drums. There are live albums by this lot, but I like the compactness of these cuts. Typically for the time, the record (the first two tracks on this Spotified edition are from elsewhere) was captured in a single day in a studio in Paris – presumably in a gap between live shows where they were presenting the same material. And, confirming the strength of the line-up, apart from one standard all the tunes were written by people in the band (OK, one is by Mrs Watson). They are all good but this one, by Bobby W, is a particular favourite. Of his too, perhaps, as he was still playing it into this century. Here’s a version by the 29th Street Saxophone Quartet, the “other” saxophone foursome that enlivened the 1980s.

It’s a brisk, no-nonsense affair – typical Messengers material in other words – allowing Blakey full use of his rich accentual repertoire to spur on the soloists. Watson’s just-acidic-enough alto probably takes the solo honours here, preceded by Pierce. Young Wynton, in his only studio date with the Messengers, isn’t too bad either, and Williams has a taste too. Fambrough “just” plays time, but gets his turn elsewhere. Solos aside, the collective conveys such joy when the ensemble play together. Old school acoustic jazz never went away, but it seemed like it had a new lease of life. I always listen to the full set of tracks in their entirety. Album of the Year? Yes, perhaps it was.

Why the No 40? This is one of a series running (in no particular order) through 2021. I explain a bit what it’s doing here.

There’s a cumulative playlist of all the ones that can be found on Spotify


  1. You’ve done it again John. I have a lot of Art Blakey and often play the early Blue Notes and the Lee Morgan/Wayne Shorter incarnation. I have Album of the Year – but I had overlooked it for years. Just replayed both sides. Yes – a gem! Thanks for the reminder.

    1. You’re very welcome – although you have done a Sterling job already. Maybe my overlooking “Album of the Year” had something to do with the cover – which looks like a Music for Pleasure album by Bert Kampfaert. Lennox Ave Breakdown it ain’t!

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