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Art Blakey: Art Blakey: A Night in Tunisia – 1961

Marc Davis By

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There are other great Messenger albums, but this may be the perfect combination of great personnel and the greatest bop tune of all time.
Dizzy Gillespie's "A Night in Tunisia" has been done almost to death. Wikipedia says it has been recorded at least 500 times and it is the title track to at least 30 albums. It might be the most recorded bop tune of all time.

Who did it best? Take your pick.

Dizzy himself recorded many hot versions. All are good and some are great. Charlie Parker and Miles Davis can claim one of the earliest and best. The song comes in many flavors. There are slow draggy versions, superheated incendiary versions, and vocal versions. Ella Fitzgerald had a great take. So did Lambert, Hendricks & Ross.

But the very best? My money is on Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers on the album of the same name.

Recorded in 1960 and released in 1961, A Night in Tunisia is the Jazz Messengers at their absolute peak. This is the version with Wayne Shorter on tenor, Lee Morgan on trumpet, Bobby Timmons on piano, Jymie Merritt on bass and, of course, Blakey on drums. A five-star combo? How about six?

There are six terrific songs on A Night in Tunisia, filled with amazing solos. But the tune you want is the 11-minute title cut, the opener. It is a house on fire, filled with unexpected twists and turns.

Blakey starts with a crazy-wild drum solo, then a duel with the bass. Finally, after a minute and a half, just when you're wondering if the song will ever begin, here comes the piano and sax, and only then the opening theme on trumpet. And then... we're off to the races!

This may be the fastest "Night in Tunisia" ever recorded. Shorter—a very young man, still a few years away from his own groundbreaking Blue Note albums—turns up the flames with a very Bird-like solo, which segues into more breakneck pyrotechnics from Morgan's trumpet. The bass goes crazy. Blakey inserts a rattlesnake rhythm, then starts his own trademarked bashing bombast.

At eight minutes, just when you think the song is about to end with a restatement of the theme—surprise! Morgan goes off the rails with an inspired, unaccompanied solo. Then Shorter with his own unaccompanied solo. It is sublime. And finally—finally!—the whole band jumps in and bring the song to a crashing finale.

And that's just the start. A Night in Tunisia is filled with delights. A waltz that is anything but Strauss-ian. A song called "So Tired" that, contrary to the title, is surprisingly up-tempo. And finally, a version of "When Your Lover Has Gone" that is more of a toe-tapper and less like the familiar ballad by Billie Holiday or Frank Sinatra.

When I think of Blue Note Records, I immediately think of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. And when I think of the Messengers, I think of A Night in Tunisia. There are other great Messenger albums—indeed, there are no bad ones—but this may be the perfect combination of great personnel and the greatest bop tune of all time. Get it.

Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)

Availability: Very easy to find

Cost: $5 used, $10 new

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