The Pressure Cooker

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Read the introduction and see the full album list here.

No Art Blakey record has ever seemed as complete to me as A Night In Tunisia, and no Jazz Messengers lineup as perfectly matched at that which recorded the record for Blue Note in 1960: Blakey on drums, Lee Morgan on trumpet, Wayne Shorter on tenor, Jymie Merritt on bass, and Bobby Timmons on piano.

Art Blakey made a lot of great records in this period, for Blue Note and for Riverside. But for all the furious intensity of a Free For All or the mellow intricacy of a Buhaina’s Delight, it’s hard to find an equal for A Night In Tunisia (though the excellent Mosaic, from 1961, comes close).

Tunisia has my favorite Blakey lick, the drum introduction to ”Kozo’s Waltz,” a lick I tried for months to perfect in the few minutes before high school jazz band started each week. Badadadah, budududuh, bahdahdah BUH BUH. Ba-da-da-duh-buh-huh, buh-bah-dah-buh-duh-buh. That perfect press roll. Those amazing polyrhythms.

I always loved that ”A Night In Tunisia” is the opening track on the album. It’s as if Blakey and the band are testing us, the audience, seeing if we can make it through eleven minutes of pure music, trial by melodic fire. Make it past Blakey’s incredible solo on ”Tunisia,” and Morgan and Shorter’s sublime solo passages at the end – if you can still form complete sentences, you’ve earned the rest of the album.

Lee Morgan was beautiful writer (”Ceora” from the overlooked Cornbread is a favorite of mine, and his tunes on The Procrastinator are marvelous). Of Tunisia‘s six tunes, two are by Morgan, and they’re great. We don’t just get the lyrical ”Kozo’s Waltz,” but also the ballad ”Yama,” which shows the band’s cohesiveness and gives an idea as to where later Shorter compositions like ”Dance Cadaverous” may have gotten some of their inspiration.

Wayne’s ”Sincerely Diana” is pure hard bop, all forward motion and Shorter harmonies. Shorter was in his second year of recording, but his compositional voice has already progressed significantly from his own Vee-Jay discs.

That’s really what Blakey’s band was all about. The Jazz Messengers were the pressure cooker of jazz. I would say hard bop, because Blakey was firmly rooted in what is called hard bop – though he called it no such thing – but I hesitate. Blakey may have been a hard bop and bebop drummer, but his talent was not for turning out great hard bop or bebop players, though he did that, too.

What he did so well was take musicians who were good musicians, and he forced them to find themselves. Shorter was a passable Coltrane devotee in 1959, but his first record after leaving Art Blakey, 1964’s Speak No Evil, shows the many musical miles he’d covered since then. Lee Morgan was a gifted young trumpeter in 1959, well on his way to becoming one of the best trumpeters in hard bop. He left Blakey with a new sense of bandleading, and some of his best records – The Sidewinder, The Procrastinator, Search For The New Land – were made after he left the group.

Bobby Timmons went from ”the youngest member of our ensemble” with Kenny Dorham in 1956 to a confident leader of trios and quartets. The same story fits countless other Blakey alumni, from Freddie Hubbard to Keith Jarrett. A Night In Tunisia is the record that shows it all: tunes from the band, the pressure cooker set piece, the cohesive sound (much of it owed to the rock-solid foundation laid down by Jymie Merritt, a criminally overlooked bassist).

It may not have the fire and brimstone energy of Free For All, or the genesis appeal of The Jazz Messengers in 1956, but this is no journeyman record. Don’t let it sneak by.

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If I Were A Gate, I’d Be Swinging

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Read the introduction and see the full album list here.

I don’t remember the first time I heard a jazz record, but I do remember the first time I paid attention.

It cursed me, in a way, ”If I Were A Bell.” I think the fact that the first jazz recording that really captivated me was made in 1956 might have contributed to my reluctance, for several years, to listen to anything made beyond 1965. But I don’t care about that.

It’s the best jazz recording ever made. I’ll get in trouble for that. I don’t care about that, either. I guess I should clarify that word, best. See, I don’t think it should be the only jazz recording. I don’t even think it’s the greatest, the most important, jazz recording ever made. You can fight that one out amongst yourselves; I’ll be over here in the corner, listening to ”If I Were A Bell.”

That’s the beauty of it. That’s why it never wears down. It has the essence of jazz in its eight minutes of sound. I don’t mean the Wynton Marsalis essence of jazz – vague words like ”swing” that raise more questions than they answer, and a lot of talk about Buddy Bolden and the way things used to be  – but the real essence of the music.

Lester Young liked to tell a story with his solos. That’s what jazz is, isn’t it? It’s what every creative art strives to be – a good story. Today, it’s fashionable to tell our audiences all about what we do. I’ve done it here on The Head In. ”Here’s who I am, why I’m here, what you’re getting.” Robert Glasper does it when he tells us about how jazz is on the wrong path, how we need to let go of this and grab on to that; Wynton did it at the Vanguard with ”Buddy Bolden”; whether you’re Vijay Iyer or Yoko Ono or Richard Ford or Chuck Close, you all do it, because that’s what’s done.

Not in the eight-minute world of ”If I Were A Bell.” Not in the eight-minute world where people play it and tell you what it is later. When I was younger, I thought that Miles never got around to telling us what it was. There’s no raspy epilogue – ”That was ‘If I Were A Bell,’ motherfucker.”

Oh, but there is. There are five voices telling us what song it is, motherfucker. For eight minutes.

I still hear this tune not only as a beautifully coherent, almost telepathic quintet performance, but also as five isolated voices. There’s Miles, muted but close to the mike, loud in the mix. The mute crystallizes every note, so no phrase is lost in the dead sound of the recording studio. He plays the melody, and then he plays a few dozen more, tells us his little story.

Then there’s Coltrane, of course; the early, lyrical Coltrane, before religion and liver problems and Alice and Archie Shepp. But even here, he dives right in, late to the mike, adding his chapter to the story. Under it all, Paul Chambers’s bass is providing a countermelody, the subplot. Close your eyes for a moment as you listen. Forget about Miles, Coltrane, the foreshadowing of Red Garland’s stabbing left hand, and forward lean of Philly Joe’s cymbal. Just listen to Paul Chambers, just for a moment.

”I’ll play it, and tell you what it is later.” That’s jazz, right there. Because it is music, after all. It isn’t books, or movies, or that link to the hip new blog. Is jazz dead? If you have to ask, you ain’t got it, because it’s right here, telling you what it is now.

I’ve listened to a lot of music since I first heard ”If I Were A Bell.” A lot of records have told me stories just as good, and as well, too. That’s where jazz is. It’s in the stories – not in artist’s statements, or Treme, or the Atlantic. It’s in the music. So come on over to my corner, ‘cause man, have I got a tune to play for you.