Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers was one of the longest-running, self-renewing ensembles in the history of jazz music. Beginning (sort of) in 1955 with the group Horace Silver, Kenny Dorham, Hank Mobley, Doug Watkins, and Blakey, the group remained an ever-changing quintet until 1961, at which time the sextet heard on Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers’ Caravan came into being.
The addition of a third horn brought new textures to the group’s sound and new complexity to its arrangements. Freddie Hubbard, Curtis Fuller, and Wayne Shorter were all considered strong rising stars at the time of this album’s recording (1962). Shorter, as the only holdover from Blakey’s previous edition of the Messengers, was the de facto musical director and had become a composer of some note as well. In a short time, he would leave Blakey to become part of Miles Davis’ second great quintet, but as of the recording of this album, he was already a force to be reckoned with.
So impressive was this band, that Blakey himself is not nearly as strongly at the fore as on some previous recordings. Of course, Blakey was a great drummer precisely because he could make himself felt even when the listener might not be overly aware of hearing him, but there seems to be a sense that he let these new kids drive, content to provide a bit of direction here and there, perhaps enjoying the band’s momentum as much as we, as listeners, do. That’s not to say that Blakey lacks force here when needed. His opening drum riffs set the scene on “Caravan” and drive the piece forward as surely as a camel driver urging his charge through a desert sandstorm.
Shorter and Hubbard contribute pieces to the recording, and both distinguish themselves well in this regard. Shorter’s pieces include “Sweet ‘n’ Sour,” a jazz waltz that is a study in contrast, and “This Is for Albert,” a harmonically interesting piece that is dedicated to Bud Powell. Hubbard contributes the minor-key “Thermo,” an energetic piece that points the way towards the young trumpet phenom’s reputation as ‘the new Miles.’ Hubbard’s playing also bears some comparison to Davis, although his clear push into the instrument’s upper register on his interpretation of “Skylark” is rather unlike Miles. Though Fuller was actively writing for the band at this time, none of his compositions are feature here. He acquits himself well, though, on his feature ballad, “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” with his warm tone and all-round beautiful playing.
It’s pretty pointless to compare the various editions of the Jazz Messengers, a group that continued to exist in various forms and with various musicians until 1990, but one doesn’t have to look far to see that this edition of the band was something special. In a discography full of great albums with nary a poor or commonplace one among them, Art Blakey’s Caravan is a standout—which is high praise indeed.