Cover photo: Francis Wolff
Design: Reid Miles
Liner notes: Robert Levin
Art Blakey (d), Lee Morgan (tp), Benny Golson (ts), Bobby Timmons (p), Jamie Merritt (b)
Recorded by Rudy Van Gelder at Van Gelder Studio, Hackensack, NJ, October 30, 1958
Originally released January 1959
Date first heard: unknown
Supposedly, kids don’t like jazz.
A little over 10 years ago, when my son was in kindergarten, he was taking a bath and started singing the B section of the head to “Moanin'”. (I’d been playing it in the car quite a bit.) Around that same time, I remember driving somewhere and putting on “Milestones” (the 1958 tune, not the Bird one). As soon as he heard the familiar opening Chambers/Jones groove, my 5-year-old son started clapping on the two and four in his booster seat. The fact that a little kid would enjoy jazz that was recorded nearly a half century before he was born shouldn’t be surprising. Those tunes rock! Great music transcends the little boxes we tend to place our kinds into. It’s simply a matter of exposure. And if a 5-year-old can sing it, it’s got to be catchy, right?
Like virtually anything Art Blakey ever attached his name to, the album that came to be known as Moanin’ (originally, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers), is an emphatically entertaining record. For more than 35 years, Blakey’s Messengers were the leading purveyors of hard bop. Hard swinging, loud, aggressive, and uncompromisingly fun. Certainly, a description of Blakey’s legendary drum style, but these adjectives also perfectly describe his albums, as well as any of the many Messengers lineups.
There is something so perfect about the retroactively designated “title track” that words are difficult. The simple call-and-response riff that Bobby Timmons habitually messed around with at rehearsals became the basis for one of the greatest tunes in the history of jazz, if not all music. It’s one of those tunes that seems so familiar that even on your first listen, it feels like an old friend. It’s bluesy, but goes beyond blues. It taps into something even more elemental.
Among the countless brilliant solos in his tragically short career, Lee Morgan never played a better one than his “Moanin'” masterpiece, laid down at age 20. I’d say the same for Benny Golson’s breathtaking tenor solo, which is about as close to expressing the desperation and agony of a broken human as there exists on record. I’ve never heard a rock musician come close to building a solo the way the jazz greats do. In their improvisations here, Morgan and Golson tell stories better than words ever could.
Even though this particular quintet would be short-lived, there is better documentation of them than for many other jazz groups. Very shortly after recording Moanin’, Blakey and company embarked on a string of European dates, resulting in the 1958 Belgium concert film below, and a Paris gig released in France the following year on Fontana.
The rest of Blue Note 4003 is a blast, as well, including the Golson standard “Along Came Betty” and a bright reading of “Come Rain or Come Shine.”
TL;DR: Hard bop masterpiece, the opening track is worth the price of admission.
Best track: “Moanin'”
Miscellaneous: As I type this, it’s Benny Golson’s 92nd birthday! (1.25.21)