From the very opening moments of these remarkable recordings, one is at once struck by the sense that a moment of historical importance is being witnessed all over again. Blue Note's Alfred Lion, in his unerring vision, decided to record Art Blakey's new band at Birdland in February 1954. He had rightly sensed that something new, something thrillingly new, was afoot. Though Charlie Parker was still a year from death, bop was demanding an invigorating lease of life to take it into a new dimension of expressiveness and vitality. The resulting transformation of the now hackneyed music into something raw, urgent and fizzing with energy was to be popularly called "hard bop", and was thrust into public consciousness on this record, and its sister volume (Birdland, Vol. 2 - which should be purchased with Vol. 1).
The set opens with a presentation by Birdland's MC, the quirky, shrill-voiced Pee Wee Marquette. The sheer confidence of the ensemble emerges instantly: Art Blakey had assembled the hottest combo of the moment. Even Miles Davis, who had attended a rehearsal shortly before the recording, had sarcastically expressed a desire for Clifford Brown to "break his chops". He was clearly awestruck by Brownie's now legendary round, fat tone, and a seemingly limitless capacity to conjure up melodies and counter-melodies, weaving in perfectly-executed arpeggios to accentuate the harmonic changes. His solo on "Quicksilver" is brimming with all of these qualities - no wonder Miles was intimidated.
Lou Donaldson's first solo on "Split-Kick" is right out of the Charlie Parker-inspired tradition. But it emerges throughout the records that Donaldson's attack, tone and phraseology is confidently his own. Art Blakey, who was older than his sidemen by a decade, had with his avuncular authority nurtured the chemistry that would make his fledgling Jazz Messengers the most fecund school of music for the next 30 years of jazz history.
Bebop classics such as "Now's the Time", "Confirmation" and "A Night in Tunisia" reveal the influence of the tradition (then barely a decade old) and its central place in the repertoire of even a cutting-edge band. But more revealing still is the presence of new numbers composed by Horace Silver ("Split Kick", "Quicksilver", "Mayreh") and Lou Donaldson ("Lou's Blues"). The band was giving well-known material an electrifying, vigorous treatment, illustrated clearly by Donaldson's blistering break before his solo on "A Night in Tunisia", and at the same time developing a body of original work to cement the compositional and performing talent of its young members.
From an historical perspective, this recording and Vol. 2 are the decisive springboard from which Clifford Brown was to become the most talented and popular trumpeter of his generation. A mere month later Max Roach called him to form what was to become the most sought-after small jazz group of the 1950s, and one of the most admired in history. From this band also, Horace Silver grew to become a leading voice of the hard bop movement and a Blue Note icon. Blakey himself went on to give opportunities to young musicians such as Kenny Dorham, Donald Byrd, Doug Watkins, Hank Mobley, Bill Hardman, Johnny Griffin, Jackie McLean, Lee Morgan, Benny Golson, Bobby Timmons, Wayne Shorter... Perhaps no other jazz musician's generosity and insight has given wings to so many great players. Listen to these records and wonder what might have happened to American music if Art Blakey hadn't been born.