In the mid-'50s, before critics deemed him a jazz institution, Art Blakey was busy making great music. Along with his Jazz Messengers, he delivered hard bop and gave dozens of players a chance to learn the business. This two-disc collection represents two solid sets, Play Lerner and Loewe from 1957 and A Night in Tunisia (not to be confused with two later Blakey albums of the same name) from 1958. The personnel are similar for both dates, with tenor Johnny Griffin, trumpeter Bill Hardman, pianist Sam Dockery, and bassist Jimmy DeBrest joining Blakey. Play Lerner and Loewe kicks off with an up-tempo version of "I Could Have Danced All Night," a four-minute romp that allows each soloist to play at breakneck speed and basically forget about the melody. This joyous abandon spills over into the remainder of the album. Griffin and Hardman toss off a series of sparkling exchanges at the beginning of "There But for You Go I," followed by a lively, extended solo by Dockery. Play Lerner and Loewe finishes with "Almost Like Being in Love," a piece filled with rapid horn ascents and backed by Blakey and DeBrest's steady, demanding rhythm. The highlight of A Night in Tunisia is the title track, a joyful 12-minute take on Gillespie's classic piece of Latin-tinged bop. This track, and the album, is also livened up by the presence of altoist Ferris Bender. Because of their similar personnel and approach, Play Lerner and Loewe and A Night in Tunisia make a good match. Both albums find Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers in superb form, offering the listener a double dose of hard bop delivered with pizzazz.
AllMusic Review by Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.
Track Listing - Disc 1
Track Listing - Disc 2