In the latter half of the '50s, drummer Art Blakey seemed to be searching for a certain sound and mood. He’d taken full control of the Jazz Messengers—a proving ground for immensely talented young guns who would become some of jazz's biggest names—in 1956, a few years after he co-founded the group with pianist Horace Silver. The magic that that mentorship promised was there from the start, as was Blakey’s general musical vision: The Messengers’ 1957 album Hard Bop, which featured Jackie McLean on alto sax, presented a fusion of bebop, gospel, and funk in distinct contrast to the austere cool jazz of Dave Brubeck. But Blakey wanted an even stronger emphasis on jazz’s roots in the blues and the church. And by 1958, Blakey had found the right sidemen for the job: trumpeter Lee Morgan, saxophonist Benny Golson, pianist Bobby Timmons, and bassist Jymie Merritt—four Philadelphia musicians who provided the Messengers with down-home soul and sturdy compositions. Those galvanizing elements made 1959’s Moanin’ both a creative triumph and an immensely popular recording.
For a jazz record, Moanin’ is laden with hits. Foremost is 22-year-old Timmons’ title track, a tune with simpler harmony than most bebop charts but a fiercely percussive sound and a never-ending sense of swing. Golson and Morgan preach as they play on “Moanin’”; Morgan’s leaping solo exercises the trumpet’s full range and, for all his invention, testifies that the main message is in the melody. The Jazz Messengers’ vibrancy and longevity had much to do with Blakey encouraging his players to compose, giving over bandstand and studio time to any young sideman with strong tunes in hand. Dominating this session is saxophonist Benny Golson, with an impressive four of the album's six tunes. Along with “Moanin’,” two of Golson’s charts, “Along Came Betty” and “Blues March,” not only became standards in Blakey’s live repertoire but found their way to the heart of the jazz songbook.
Jazz aficionados like to add that Golson’s less canonic “The Drum Thunder Suite” is a dynamic three-movement showcase for the rumbling strengths of Blakey’s playing—including his sound-of-Armageddon snare press roll, which jazz historian Dan Morgenstern once described as the “sound of a giant clearing his throat.” Considering that iterations of Blakey’s Jazz Messengers over the next 30-plus years included composers and players such as Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, Keith Jarrett, Terence Blanchard, and Wynton Marsalis, it’s no small thing that Moanin’ may be the best single album the drummer ever made.