Album reviews

Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers – ‘First Flight To Tokyo: The Lost 1961 Recordings’

Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers – First Flight To Tokyo: The Lost 1961 Recordings

(Blue Note. Album Review by Adam Sieff)

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This really is quite a find. In early 1961 a stellar Jazz Messengers lineup of Art Blakey, Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter, Bobby Timmons and Jymie Merritt set off for a two week tour of Japan, becoming one of the first modern jazz groups to do so. Their final shows of the tour were at Hibiya Public Hall in Tokyo, a triumphant end to a hugely successful tour and an emotional one for the musicians, who were treated with more respect than they would expect to receive at home.

It was only four years ago that Resonance Records and Blue Note’s ‘Jazz Detective’ Zev Feldman first learnt that tapes of those Tokyo performances even existed. They had been recorded on a Nagra tape recorder for a documentary film of the tour which was never released. At some point over the years the original tapes had then been re-assembled on quarter inch tape reels, and it’s from these that the new album has been produced.

Blue Note and co-producers Feldman and trumpeter David Weiss have presented this new music extremely well. They took the decision not to include incomplete performances and selected a new running order before the tapes were mastered by Bernie Grundman. There are two pysical formats released, a deluxe 2-LP 180g vinyl edition and a 2-CD package, with both featuring detailed booklets that include rare photos from the Blakey family’s archives and the Japanese photographers Shunji Okura and Hozumi Nakadaira. There are images from the original 1961 Japanese tour programme, an essay from Bob Blumenthal and interviews with, among others, Wayne Shorter, Lou Donaldson, Sad Watanabe, Blakey’s son Takashi Blakey, Louis Hayes, Cindy Blackman and Billy Hart.

Needless to say, the music is terrific. It’s all prime repertoire, and each is long enough for the musicians to have enough room to stretch out and play. The version of Bobby Timmons’ classic Moanin’ may just be the definitive one, and his Dat Dere is equally terrific. There are two versions of Now’s the Time, a swinging Blues March, a smouldering Round About Midnight, and a typical high energy performance of A Night In Tunisia.

The soloing throughout is dazzling, which can be no surprise from such a formidable group of musicians who were soon to become stars in their own right. They’re clearly lifted by the atmosphere and the reaction of the audience., as Shorter said, ‘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.’

After almost 61 years on the shelf, this music still has the power to blow your socks off.

Release Date: 10 December 2021

LINKS: Moanin’ on YouTube

Blue Note website

2 replies »

  1. This is what I wrote after seeing this band in May 1961: ‘Then came a big contrast [to Thelonious Monk who was on the same bill]: less cerebral, more in-your-face, exciting music from Blakey’s band. Themes and solos. Lee Morgan’s bright trumpet, the understated yet inventive playing of Shorter, Blakey’s superb drumming underpinning everything, generating climaxes, stretching out, indicating changes with a nod of the head or a facial expression. Soulful piano from Timmons. They played pieces like Dis Here, Blues March, Moanin’. Wonderful.’ So, wonderful it is to have this unexpected record of a long-distant experience.

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