[24 October 2006]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
In contrast with today’s multimedia-fuelled record industry, and Ken Burns’ mammoth documentary notwithstanding, the golden age of jazz is much more heard than seen. Aside from iconic figures like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane, jazz musicians from the form’s defining years exist visually in a vacuum of equally iconic Blue Note, Riverside, Columbia, and Impulse! packaging. The music sounds so timeless, has so gracefully weathered the testing of time, that we expect to turn on a visual document like Live in ‘58 and find stately, ponderous old men, as weathered and visceral as their music, as self-serious as we can be about it.
The greatest shock, then, to viewing Live in ‘58 is just how young the musicians are. Blakey put together countless versions of the Jazz Messengers over a 50-year period, but this short-lived lineup is often cited as one of the best. Blakey, a youthful 39, was the senior member of the group. The next oldest, bassist Jymie Merritt, was in his early 30s. Musical director / tenor saxophonist Benny Golson was 29; pianist Bobby Timmons was 22. Most striking is the rotund, clean-shaven face of trumpet player Lee Morgan: Already a veteran performer with half a dozen solo albums to his name, the 20-year-old prodigy looks for all the world like he’s just stepped off of a schoolyard.
The band, dressed in sharp suits, are professional and composed. But they are also nonchalant, doing their thing with a minimum of movement and interaction with each other or the crowd. But this decorum is probably less the result of arrogance than the surreal context of five young black men performing at a concert hall in Brussels, Belgium, in front of an entirely white audience—with cameras rolling. Though everyone looks the part—Golson with his thick, black horn-rimmed spectacles; Timmons with his angular profile and soul patch—these aren’t the stereotypical cool cats you might imagine.
They are very, very good musicians, and the material is top-notch, too. This was the first Jazz Messengers incarnation that featured, in Golson and Timmons, composers who were able to pen hits in their own rights. Of the six tracks performed (plus a bit of theme music at the end), half are Golson compositions that had originally been featured on Morgan’s solo albums. Two of these, the gentle ballad “I Remember Clifford” and midtempo groove “Whisper Not”, would soon become standards. Timmons’s “Moanin’”, however, is the best of the originals, its call-and-response melody and energetic bridge sounding instantly familiar. It is, simply put, one of the all-time classics of the era, and the Messengers’ performance, only a month after the original recording was issued, is definitive.
Everyone is on top form. Golson shows off his range and surprising intensity as a soloist, while Morgan’s seemingly effortless performance dazzles. Here we can sense how he would, with The Sidewinder five years on, solidify his legendary status. Timmons seems to be at one with his piano, investing both his rhythm and solo playing with genuine soul; during his solos he can be heard faintly scatting along.
However, this band—and this show—really belong to Blakey. He doesn’t take a solo until well into the third number. But he is clearly in control, looking down on his assembled sidemen with pride while leading them with his authoritative, inimitable drumming style. During the concert’s climax, a thundering performance of Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night In Tunisia”, which Blakey had already made his own, he takes off onto another level. With Merritt holding down the tempo, the other three players play percussion instruments, creating a syncopated backdrop against which Blakey solos with primal, near-tribal fury. His long face drawn, mouth agape, eyes gazing to the heavens, he is positively possessed by his talent and passion. Through it all, though, he retains a grace of form that makes him appear to be not so much playing drums as swimming while sitting down.
This uniquely gifted version of the Jazz Messengers makes Live in ‘58 essential for hard-bop fans and highly-recommended for those with more than a passing interest in jazz. That the black & white picture and sound quality are as well-restored as they are is a huge bonus. It seems fitting that the recording itself was never aired and had literally been lost in the Belgian archives for nearly fifty years. A hidden treasure, indeed.