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Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers: Just Coolin’ (Blue Note)

A review of the unreleased 1959 album from the drummer-led group

Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers: Just Coolin'
The cover of Just Coolin’ by Art Blakey & the Jazz Messangers

This previously unreleased March 1959 studio session captures the Jazz Messengers in a period of transition. Benny Golson had departed; Wayne Shorter had not yet arrived. In the interim, the tenor chair was filled by Hank Mobley, who’d been a member of the original Messengers, appearing on their breakout albums At the Café Bohemia, Volumes 1 and 2, recorded in 1955 and released the following year.

 Jazz itself was also transitioning during this time; bebop had morphed into the funkier, more roots-driven hard bop (due in no small part to Art Blakey and the Messengers’ pioneering work), and the even rootsier Saturday night/Sunday morning amalgam that became known as soul-jazz was on the horizon (several musicians here, including Lee Morgan and Bobby Timmons, would be central in this development).  

Appropriately, then, these six tracks—half of them penned by Mobley—are buoyed by a hip, streetsy swagger, striding along the nexus between hard bop and soul-jazz. Mobley, alternately beguiling and blues-drenched, sounds in places almost like a tenorized Lou Donaldson, his characteristic flashes of humor adding both spice and hipster irony to his lines; Morgan imbues his usual technical virtuosity with fiery emotionalism, as if to give a workshop in the ongoing bop/hard-bop evolution. Timmons’ solo work is slyly understated but punctuated with spiky jabs, scurries, and curlicues. Blakey may be a bit more restrained than usual, yet he remains determinedly in control, relentlessly inspiring (compelling?) the soloists to alter their mood or rhythmic approach—or, sometimes, just ratchet things up to a higher level—with a well-placed kick, cymbal fusillade, or press roll.

Until now, the only extant documentation of this Messengers unit had been At the Jazz Corner of the World, recorded at Birdland by Alfred Lion a few weeks later. Although the “without-a-net” creative tension of a live performance is necessarily missing here, this is an invaluable opportunity to hear a short-lived but significant incarnation of one of jazz’s most fabled groups.

Learn more about Just Coolin’ on Amazon!

JazzTimes 10: Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers

David Whiteis

David Whiteis is a critic, journalist, and author based in Chicago. He is the recipient of the Blues Foundation’s 2001 Keeping the Blues Alive Award for Achievement in Journalism. His books include Southern Soul-Blues (U. of Illinois Press, 2013) and Chicago Blues: Portraits and Stories (U. Of Illinois Press, 2006). He is currently at work completing a book on contemporary Chicago blues and a co-written autobiography of the late soul singer Denise LaSalle.