Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Looking Forward by Looking Back: Art Blakey's "Moanin'"

There is a dichotomy that surrounds the state of contemporary jazz.  One camp believes that the best jazz has already been made, and that innovations within the style should happen within the boundaries set by its originators.  To stray too far from these conventions can potentially challenge the integrity of jazz, especially in the eyes of its more conservative advocates.  The other belief is that jazz is a fluid concept at its essence.  Although the style can take on a myriad of forms superficially, branching into fusion and hip-hop in recent decades, its basic vocabulary and improvisatory nature tie it to an ever-evolving genre.

Both of these viewpoints have their merits and faults.  I don't think that jazz should be "museumized" and preserved in some idealized, pristine state.  It should evolve, but it should also build on what came before, and I don't mean at a superficial level.  In order to appreciate what is being done in contemporary jazz, it is absolutely necessary to include, elaborate on, and transcend the vocabulary of jazz’s historical pioneers.  I think that this kind of continuity is what holds the genre together, and distinguishes true jazz from "instrumental adult contemporary sax pop" or "improvisatory prog rock noodling."

This belief has led me to amass a relatively substantial collection of great classic jazz albums.  Basie, Miles Davis, Coltrane, Parker, Mingus, etc. all figure prominently in my CD racks, but I still feel like there are many classic jazz albums that I have yet to discover.
Moanin' (The Rudy Van Gelder Edition)This was proven yet again when I picked up Moanin’ by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers earlier this year.  This recording is considered a classic by critics and scholars alike, but for whatever reason, it has eluded me.  Moanin’ is very reminiscent of some of my favorite jazz albums, particularly from Miles Davis’ “hard bop” period with the Modern Jazz Giants.  The tunes are catchy and straightforward, of course, but a good jazz recording is not solely judged on the basis of its head melodies.  Rather, it’s what these melodies and their associated changes allow the soloists to create.

Moanin’, of course, excels in this regard.  Despite being a bandleading drummer, Blakey plays a fairly conservative hand in his own group, although it is nearly impossible to ignore the depth of Blakey’s groove and the power of his fills. In my opinion, the single performer who really shines on Moanin', however, is trumpeter Lee Morgan.  The first solo he takes on the title track is just devastating.

This clip is not the original recording, so this is not specifically the solo I am referring to (although it is the one that he is referring to, if you get my reference).  I will include the original in the April roundup playlist for the jazz researchers out there.  This is a "must transcribe" performance.  Considering the fact that jazz in an “improvised” tradition, I think it is really interesting to pay attention to the way in which these two solos (and the “bonus track” alternate take, as well) conceptually intersect and diverge from one another. 

In its entirety, Moanin’ lives up to its reputation as a “hard bop classic.”  It’s meant to be listened to and appreciated for its intensity, intelligence, and heart.  Albums like it are the reason that I gravitate towards classic jazz.  Becoming familiar with the soloing vocabulary of the musicians in this era enriches my appreciation of those who employ it in other manifestations of the jazz style.  Additionally, on current recordings, I have to entertain the idea that performance is constructed in the studio.  For Moanin',  there is little question in my mind as to the relative "liveness" of the album and the intuitive interactions in each performance.   

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