A Night in Tunisia

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Among the dozen or so can’t-miss recordings that a hipster might pick up involving Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, this one has a special cachet. Recorded on April 8, 1957 for Vik, an RCA subsidiary, it presents Blakey’s hard-bop cadre as it had evolved after the drummer’s association with pianist-composer Horace Silver had dissolved: that is, patently aggressive, sweating profusely and bashing the night away. Boasting a rare sextet lineup of Bill Hardman (trumpet), Johnny Griffin (tenor sax), “Ferris Benda” (alto sax — actually Jackie McLean side-stepping his contract with Prestige), Sam Dockery (piano) and Spanky De Brest (bass), this was the proto-big-beat edition of the Messengers. It pointed the way to such classic editions as the Benny Golson-Moanin’ set, the Lee Morgan-Hank Mobley-Birdland sides and the Lee Morgan-Wayne Shorter super-sessions.

On the title-opener, Dizzy Gillespie’s dream of a North African soiree, Blakey’s hard-ass tom-toms leave no doubt as to what’s coming. Soon he’s joined by his men on assorted percussion (maracas, cowbells, etc.) leading into Hardman’s full-toned statement of the theme (the Messengers always had the warmest trumpeters, from Kenny Dorham to Morgan to Freddie Hubbard). McLean then kicks off a series of sexy overachievements with his unmistakable, sliding tone, followed by Hardman’s burnished staccato cadenzas and Griffin’s maniacal outbursts of 16th-note fury.

“Off the Wall,” Griffin’s contribution to the set, has the heady midtempo of late-night ’50s finger-poppin’ — relaxed yet purposeful, funky but chic. While the horns stretch out and show that they can do, the rhythm section skates figure-eights around them; it’s as much a Messenger signature feel as Blakey’s drum explosions. Then Hardman’s “Theory of Art” turns up the burners to a kind of shuffle-boil, giving everybody a chance to glisten, dazzle and elevate, with Griffin showing why Thelonious Monk would soon invite him to even wilder adventures.

McLean and Blakey’s collaboration, “Couldn’t It Be You?,” shows that the Messengers weren’t all fire and brimstone, without diminishing the swing factor for an instant. Then the session concludes with Sonny Rollins’ “Evans,” a beboppish anthem that could serve as a set-closer in a club. With three alternate takes and Nat Hentoff’s original liner notes as extra treats, the overall impression here is of history in the making — which it was.

George Tysh is Metro Times arts editor. E-mail him at [email protected].

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