It was at Rudy Van Gelder’s Studio, Hackensack, New Jersey, on October 30, 1958, that Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers’s classic album Moanin’ was made.
“This is take four,” says Rudy Van Gelder just before the band breaks into pianist Bobby Timmons’s composition and one of the most recognizable themes in jazz. As an opening track “Moanin” is just about as perfect as it gets and has been called one of hard-bop’s signature tunes. The track was so popular it led to Blakey and the Messengers’ eponymous album being referred to as “Moanin’” by almost everybody, and the title stuck. The track was also released as a single, its nine minutes split over both sides of the 45 in February 1959. Billboard had this to say about it: “Fine offering from Blakey and the Messengers. It’s a smart tune that features fine solos over Blakey’s percussive urging. Pop jockeys may also find these spinnable sides.”
“Moanin’” may never have happened if it hadn’t been for Benny Golson’s insistence that 22-year-old Timmons complete the little eight-bar motif that he would often play between tunes at the band’s gigs. Credited with putting the funk back into jazz and an irresistible number, just this one track would have made the album memorable, but it is outstanding from start to finish. Golson takes over the writing of the remaining tracks, bar the album’s closer, which is the Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen standard.
Having begun his recording with the Blakey band just two years earlier, Lee Morgan was still only 20 years old when they made this record – hard to believe when you hear the sophistication of his playing and his empathy with Golson who was almost a decade older.“I come in very loud,” Morgan warned Van Gelder just prior to recording take 4 of “Moanin,” and indeed he does, but nothing can detract from the soulfulness of his trumpet playing. A star was born.
Side two of Moanin’ opens with Blakey’s suite, a “schizophrenic symphonic showpiece” that has everything from bebop to bossa nova. And by the time the album finishes with “Come Rain or Come Shine” – Timmons proving he’s no slouch on the keys – you are completely sold on the Jazz Messengers’ sound. Back in 1959 so was just about everyone else: this was the album that established them as one of jazz’s premier outfits.