Blue Note Unearths Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers Classic Lineup On ‘First Flight To Tokyo: The Lost 1961 Recordings’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

This one puts a capper on the bevy of terrific archival discoveries in 2021. This double LP and double CD release captures a pulsating previously unreleased live recording of Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers from Hibiya Public Hall in Tokyo on January 14, 1961, during the band’s first ever tour of Japan. The Jazz Messengers were one of the first then modern jazz groups to tour the country and the audience response is off the charts. Of course, the band was one of the all-time best lineups with Lee Morgan on trumpet, Wayne Shorter on tenor, Bobby Timmons on piano, and Jymie Merritt on bass. First Flight to Tokyo: The Lost 1961 Recordings, like so many archival discoveries, comes courtesy of Zev Feldman, “The Jazz Detective.” David Weiss also shares the producer role. As is customary with Feldman projects, it comes with an elaborate booklet featuring rare photos from Japanese photographers Okura and Hozumi Nakadira, an historical essay from acclaimed jazz journalist Bob Blumenthal, plus an interview with the lone surviving band member, Wayne Shorter, who has a conversation with label head Don Was. There are other features too which we will touch on later.

The concert was focused on familiar pieces, perhaps in deference to the audience. Although Blakey never shied away from introducing new pieces in concerts (i.e., Meet You at the Jazz Corner of the World, taped at Birdland the previous September), here the band delivered jazz classics and a couple of tunes that had made them popular with the Japanese audience.  Most are extended pieces. Charlie Parker’s “Now’s the Time” appears twice, the opening version one at 22:34 and version two at 17:15.  Monk’s “’Round About Midnight” and Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisa” also appear. The three Jazz Messenger tunes, perhaps still the most indelible of their catalog even today, are represented by Benny Golson’s “Blues March,” and Bobby Timmons’ “Moanin’” and “Dat Dere.” We realize that Shorter and Morgan went on to compose pieces for the group, but this was very early in their tenure with the band. Consider that in 1961 Shorter was 27, Morgan was only 22, and even Blakey, the elder of the band, was only 41. As such, you hear plenty of youthful fire, spurred on by an immensely enthusiastic audience that added even more fuel to these combustible stretched out takes. 

As Blumenthal states in his essay, Blakey was crowned in a Japanese magazine poll as the American musician that the country’s jazz fans were “most eager to experience in person.” This concert comes at the end of a tour in which the band received countless accolades and appreciation from clubs to theaters. Blakey became in essence a global “Messenger” of the art form. He returned to the country often subsequently and even named his son Takashi Blakey, who is interviewed in the enclosed booklet. Shorter says this, “I was amazed at the reception when we finished, not just the whole concert, but each thing we played. Every time we went on, we knew we were being appreciated in ways we never had been in America.”

Among the many highlights are: Shorter in one of his most aggressive solos on record in the first version of “Now’s the Time,” Blakey’s several energetic solos throughout, many of which begin the pieces, Morgan’s playful approach to “Blues March” and his muted trumpet low register soloing on “’Round Midnight” serves in contrast to Miles Davis’ familiar higher register version, Morgan becoming more feisty in his coda; Morgan’s absolutely blistering soloing in “Night in Tunisia,”  Merritt’s solo in “Moanin’,” and Timmons, a pivotal player in the nascent soul-jazz sound, performing in that style, especially on his own two compositions.  Throughout band members literally quote other songs and play both imaginatively and powerfully. It’s interesting to hear Shorter and Morgan in this context, as they were each only starting to form their own individual styles. For example, Coltrane’s influence on Shorter’s sound comes through clearly in his solo of “Now’s the Time” version two. 

As we detailed in last year’s archival release from 1959, Just Coolin’, this classic unit was in large part brought together by Benny Golson who recruited fellow Philadelphians Morgan, Timmons, and Merritt. Shorter, of course, replaced Golson and in subsequent years became the primary composer for The Messengers. So, this unit had been in place since the summer of 1959, about a year and half prior to the Japan tour. They had well established chemistry and were determined to infuse these familiar tunes with fresh ideas as they were on the front lines of ushering in hard bop.
Returning to the booklet (as promised), there are interviews with Lou Donaldson, Japanese jazz star Sadao Watanabe, Japanese music critic, Reiko Yukawa, Blakey’s son (as mentioned), and a trio of drummers: Louis Hayes, Billy Hart, and Cindy Blackman Santana. Above all, the historical references that Blumenthal provides make for essential reading, which he ends this way, “…In the succeeding decade, when the Blue Note label had been sold and its new owners had temporarily shut it down in the USA, it was the Japanese fan base that effectively kept the label’s legend alive…”  As such this is not only one of the most energetic live jazz recordings on record but serves as an important historical document as well.

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