When Art Blakey founded the Jazz Messengers, his initial goal was to not only make his mark on the hard bop scene, but to always bring younger players into the fold, nurture them, and send them out as leaders in their own right. Pianist Horace Silver, trumpeter Clifford Brown, and saxophonist Lou Donaldson were somewhat established, but skyrocketed into stardom after this band switched personnel. Perhaps the most acclaimed combo of Blakey's next to the latter-period bands with Lee Morgan and Wayne Shorter, the pre-Messengers quintet heard on this first volume of live club dates at Birdland in New York City provides solid evidence to the assertion that this ensemble was a one of a kind group the likes of which was not heard until the mid-'60s Miles Davis Quintet. Three of Silver's greatest contributions to jazz before he turned to original soul and funkier sounds are here. "Split Kick" (introduced by the erudite Pee Wee Marquette) is a definitive hard bop vehicle, as Brown and Donaldson dig into their melody and solo lines with deep affection and joy for this music. "Quicksilver" is more of the same as the horns play in unison and pull the famous lyrical quote from "Hey, You Beautiful Doll." "Mayreh" is a happy reharmonized version of "All God's Children Got Rhythm," hard bop at its best, with Brown on fire. Of course, Donaldson's forte is soul, as emphasized during the slow "Blues," assimilating Charlie Parker's cooled tones nicely. A near ten-minute "A Night in Tunisia" establishes the loose-tight concept Blakey patented as he dominates the bandstand in loudness. J.J. Johnson's "Wee-Dot" is as definitive a bop flagwaver as there is, with a short head and plenty of solo space. Where Brown was always masterful in a ballad, "Once in a While" showcases his beautifully executed legato sound, but not at the expense of his innate ability to both invent and extrapolate without losing touch of this special melancholy song. This recording, as well as subsequent editions of these performances, launches an initial breakthrough for Blakey and modern jazz in general, and defines the way jazz music could be heard for decades thereafter. Everybody must own copies of all volumes of A Night at Birdland.
AllMusic Review by Michael G. Nastos