Drummer Art Blakey had a knack for attracting the best young talent to his ever-changing groups, collectively known as The Jazz Messengers. Over the 1950s, 1960s, and beyond, this was a proving ground for musicians to show their stuff. Blakey was often the biggest cheerleader as well as the one setting a perfect backbeat to showcase his soloists.
Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers: Paris 1959, a brief (51-minute) film of a concert date at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris, features Wayne Shorter on saxophone, Lee Morgan on trumpet, Walter Davis Jr. on piano, and Jymie Merritt on bass. (The Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, by the way, was the site of the premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring in 1913; the choreography by Nijinsky caused such consternation among attendees that the audience rioted.) The group is a study in contrasts in playing style: Shorter stands almost motionless while playing sax and Davis looks almost as if he has fallen asleep at the keyboard. Morgan is much more animated on the trumpet and Blakey is in ecstasy at the drum set.
The playlist includes a couple of Benny Golson tunes - the oft-recorded classic “Blues March” and “Are You Real?” - along with a hectically paced “A Night in Tunisia,” the standard “Close Your Eyes,” and Lee Morgan’s “Goldie.” The standard was the highlight for me, with some wonderful solos from everyone. Merritt is the real surprise, playing some aggressive, rhythmic solos on the double bass. One wonders why he is not better known, but he seems to have recorded with The Jazz Messengers and others for a brief period from 1958 to about 1962 and then disappeared.
The visual quality of the film is nothing to write home about - very contrasty - but it is still a pleasure to watch and listen to this fine group play.