Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers

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Africaine Review

by Michael G. Nastos

Africaine is one of the distinct curios in the discography of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers for many reasons. Recorded in 1959, not released on vinyl until 1979, and on CD for the first time in 1998, one wonders the reasons why it was summarily delayed. An alleged spat between Blakey and Blue Note head honcho Alfred Lion, the fact that this African and Cuban based jazz was ahead of its time, and the overt regularity with which Blakey was churning out albums might account for it. Certainly the first pairing of Blakey with Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter, and the wonderful pianist Walter Davis, Jr. was not a factor, for the quality of this music is sky high. Shorter's initial appearance with this band is prolific as a player and composer, but Morgan contributes half the material, a fact jazz fans seem to overlook. "Haina" (short for Buhaina, Blakey's nickname) is a churning, dense, rumbling percussion saturated jam with cha cha clave beats and conga playing from usual trumpeter Dizzy Reece, a cooking Blakey urging the band to hard bop. "The Midget" (for Birdland night club doorman and announcer Pee Wee Marquette, who gave Blakey the Buhaina moniker) is the most melodic African piece where Morgan merges Blakey into shuffle grooves. "Celine" is a Latin and African jazz precept sporting a bright melody with a wondrous bop bridge for Shorter's biting tenor. Over the years the classic version of "Lester Left Town" included on this date has grown in stature. It's a tuneful, chuckling melody in hushed tones, slight dynamic variances, and singing second line displaying the new progressive jazz aesthetic perfectly, and validates the perfect partnership between Shorter and Morgan. The saxophonist's other contribution is the title track with a sweet flowing angular blues melody alongside staccato accents from the pianist. An unsung yet extraordinary jazz hero, Davis, Jr. offers his composition "Splendid," a perfect hard bop vehicle full of neat, trimmed piano accents, triple tonguing from the horns, and blue jazz notes perfectly rendered. This date is thankfully available from now on, a popular item among Blakey mavens, and a recording that shows a band fully able to fuse many exotically attractive elements into a unified whole of creative jazz music ecstasy.

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