One of my favorite Art Blakey albums is Africaine. Recorded in November 1959, the album marked the start of a new chapter in the evolution of the Jazz Messengers. All six tracks on the album are uptempo hard-bop swingers (there are no Tin Pan Alley ballads here), and the creative ideas throughout are superb. Interestingly, Africaine wasn't released until 20 years after its recording, clearly one of Blue Note producer Alfred Lion's rare errors in judgment.
To be fair, it's nearly impossible to single out one Blakey/Jazz Messengers album for ultimate praise, since virtually all of them are thrilling in different ways. But Africaine is a cut above for me. The album marks Wayne Shorter's first recording as a Jazz Messenger. Actually, Africaine was only Shorter's second recording, with Wynton Kelly's Kelly Great (Vee-Jay) being his first.
In addition, Africaine marks the very first time Blakey recorded Shorter's Lester Left Town. The song would be re-recorded a year later at faster clip for the same group's The Big Beat and would become a Jazz Messengers standard, recorded live by the ensemble six times. Shorter's 1959 composition was a tribute to high-style tenor saxophonist Lester Young, who had died earlier that year in March. In some ways, Lester Left Town stands as a pallbearer's lament, joining the ranks of Charlie Parker's Parker's Mood and Benny Golson's I Remember Clifford.
Shorter brought a muscular soulfulness and raw energy level to the Jazz Messengers following Hank Mobley's departure. As Leslie Gourse noted in Art Blakey: Jazz Messenger, Shorter's addition to the group was a fluke:
"Hired by Art Blakey at the Stratford Jazz Festival in Canada as a replacement for the gifted but mercurial Hank Mobley, who didn't show up, Shorter would stay with Blakey until 1963, becoming one of the most noted composers in modern jazz."
Another reason I like Africaine so much is the spirited playing of Walter Davis Jr., who contributed Splendid, a high-octane major-minor composition. Davis sounds playful and confident at the keyboard here, laying back to leave room for melody but leaning in to run furiously fast hard-bop lines. Pay particular attention to Davis' delicate but confident solo work on Splendid.
Lee Morgan also is exceptional on this album. The trumpeter joined the Jazz Messengers in 1957 and first recorded as a member of the group in April, on Theory of Art (Bluebird). It was a full house on that Messengers session, with Morgan joined by Bill Hardman (trumpet), Melba Liston (trombone), Sahib Shihab (alto sax), Johnny Griffin (tenor sax), Cecil Payne (baritone sax), Wynton Kelly (piano), Spanky Debrest (bass) and Art Blakey (drums).
The last three tracks of Africaine were written by Morgan—Haina (a blues march), The Midget and the stunning Celine, which was written for a woman Morgan knew. "He said she looked like a cat," Shorter says in the album's liner notes. This track is one of my favorite compositions by Morgan, who in my opinion has never received the proper level of praise or recognition for his writing.
Best of all, Africaine is loaded with Blakey's driving tempos, polyrhythms and cymbal-ic elbow jabs. Blakey always came to play, but on Africaine, there's an extra level of intensity and rhythmic creativity. As Shorter says in the liner notes, "Dizzy's thing was Afro-Cuban. Then Art Blakey took off the Cuban and said African!"
Africaine definitely has rush-hour beats and tempo thrusts, but the amount of percussion isn't over the top, as is the case on some Blakey albums. There's just enough to remind you that Blakey was exceptional and much more than a drummer's drummer. He did as much to change jazz—or prevent jazz from changing, thankfully—as any other great.
Interestingly, this album wasn't easy to record. Upward of 14 takes were needed for Africaine, 12 for Haina, 10 for Splendid and 4 for Lester Left Town. Producer Alfred Lion was so unhappy with the record's hard birth that he put the tapes on the shelf and had the Messengers re-record Lester Left Town the following year. Tsk, tsk.
JazzWax tracks: Sadly, Africaine is not available at iTunes, and it appears to be out of print as a CD, selling for between $37 and $54 from independent vendors here. It's a crime this one isn't available. If readers know where the album can be found as a download, please let me know and I'll pass the word.
JazzWax video: I couldn't find Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers performing Lester Left Town, but dig this clip of Stan Getz playing the Wayne Shorter composition in 1979.