I had collected over 20 sides by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers before recently noticing this 1956 release on Columbia. It's second to none--a recording that captures the then nascent Messengers at their zenith but also sets a standard approached by very few other quintets. Maybe Miles--but one would be hard pressed to find a tighter, fuller, more expressive ensemble together with more lyrical, inspired solos. The presence of Doug Watkins' bass merely clinches the deal.
Donald Byrd has never sounded better to me, demonstrating why this Detroit preacher's kid is said to have caused such a stir when he made his initial appearances. He almost matches the ceaseless invention and flowing lyricism of Hank Mobley, who is simply untouchable on the date. Despite the breathless tempo of Hank's "Infra-Rae," the saxophonist is utterly relaxed and in control. Another Mobley original, "Late Show" (aka "Hank's Other Tune"), features an inspired, authoritative tenor solo that I doubt Hank himself or any other tenor saxophonist has ever topped.
As for the ensemble choruses, listen to the two horns on Silver's "Ecarole," and you'll wonder why Blakey ever expanded to a sextet--or, for that matter, why some listeners miss big bands. The shadings, dynamics, nuanced textures--the expressive colors that are missing on most of the flattened acoustics of the Blue Note recordings--they're all here. This is a "musician's record." After listening to this edition of the group and this recording, I doubt I could force myself to play the "highly funkified," popular but overrated "Moanin'" session again or, for that matter, Silver's formulaic and stiff "Song for My Father" session. Even the Blue Note recording of Horace's lovely "Nica's Dream" pales when compared to the rich and evocative treatment it receives on this earlier version of the tune.
There are twelve rich and varied tunes on the disc--a couple of standards plus a generous supply of vintage Silver and, especially, Mobley contributions. (If you find a CD with more music for the price, I'll refund your money.) The original liner notes by George Avakian are supplemented by detailed, informative descriptions of the music on the record by drummer Kenny Washington.
Shame on Columbia/Sony if it gets lazy about promoting this edition--or the American public, if it allows such a treasure to languish in the archives.