The classic edition of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers originally took shape at the Canadian Exposition in the summer of 1959 when Wayne Shorter, then a member of Maynard Ferguson's reed section, was recruited by Lee Morgan to substitute for an absent Hank Mobley. In the six months seperating that event and the recording of The Big Beat much had transpired. Shorter, with Morgan alongside, made his recording debut on Wynton Kelly's first Vee Jay album, which in turn led both horn players to sign contracts with the Chicago-based label. Pianist Bobby Timmons took what proved to be a brief leave of absence from the Messengers to help Cannonball Adderley launch his new quintet. It was the Timmons sanctified composition "This Here" that helped turn Adderley's new unit into an instant sensation. Blakey did bring the Messengers, with Walter Davis Jr. on piano, into Rudy van Gelder's studio on November 10 (the same day on which the Vee Jay album Introducing Wayne Shorter was completed); but the resulting Africaine was initially rejected by producer Alfred Lion because it lacked a track with the crossover potential of Timmons's earlier "Moanin'". The Messengers left for Europe immediately after the Africaine date, where they taped in various performances on their own and with guests such as Bud Powell. Meanwhile, Timmons signed a recording contract with Riverside and cut his composition "Dat Dere" twice -in a trio version for his This Here Is Bobby Timmons date in January, and in his final appearance with Adderley for the Them Dirty Blues album a month later.
Lion must have been overjoyed when Timmons returned to the Messengers with "Dat Dere", for it is both the most impressive composition Timmons ever wrote and one of the greatest works to emerge during the soul-jazz craze. The melody is taken through some sophisticated development without ever losing its funky feeling, and the out chorus -perhaps a sign of former Jazz Messenger Benny Golson's residual influence- is equally inspired. The lyrics that Oscar Brown Jr. added several months later had a great deal to do with turning "Dat Dere" into a jazz classic, yet this version by the Messengers played a role as well. It is particularly enlightening to compare the solos by Morgan, whose half-valve effects and vocalized inflections could stand as a definition of soul music, and Shorter, who frets like a more contemporary, perhaps existential skeptic.
From a compositional standpoint, however, The Big Beat is best remembered for serving notive that Shorter wsa a master in the making. "The Chess Players", his version of soul music, received a lyric as well (from Joe Hendricks), while "Sakeena's Vision" manages to function as both a structural brain-twister and the kind of percussion-punctuated opus that displayed leader Blakey at his best. "Lester Left Town", Shorter's first masterpiece, had been recorded on the Africaine date, and led to a heated argument between bandleader and producer. "I think my tune was too new" Shorter explained to Conrad Silvert in 1981. "The modernity, all those chromatics were too much for Alfred". No such problems occured on the present session, which finds Blakey bringing the tempo up from the earlier version. While the opening melodic phrase is extremely Lestorian, suggesting Young's solo on the Count Basie recording "Jive at Five", Shorter has again deployed space in a manner that tailors the piece to Blakey's personality.
"It's Only a Paper Moon", the lone standard, is heard in two takes cut at the beginning of the session, and provides a fine illustration of why producers sometimes insist hat a band go back and give a piece one more try. While there is nothing fatally wrong with the alternate, it was the first performance recorded that afternoon and the musicians were taking a relatively curious approach. Still, the bonus track has its charms, including Shorter's wild quote at the top of his second chorus, Morgan sounding as if he is backing into his trumpet solo, and evidence in the first piano chorus that Timmons absorbed Bud Powell in part through the example of Red Garland. The master take is much more intense affair, and worth hearing if only for an indication of how Jymie Merritt's strength was so essential to this band.
For more comparative listening, check out composer Bill Hardman playing "Politely" on the Lou Donaldson album Sunny Side Up, recorded for Blue Note a month before the present version; Sheila Jordan's extraordinary reading of "Dat Dere" on her 1962 Blue Note album Portrait of Sheila, and Miles Davis's 1951 take on "It's Only a Paper Moon" for Prestige, which is swung at an impeccable medium tempo by Blakey.