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Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers: First Flight to Tokyo: The Lost 1961 Recordings

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Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers: First Flight to Tokyo: The Lost 1961 Recordings
There is a saying in the opera world which, though innocuous on the face of it, damns a work before the overture has begun let alone after the fat lady sings. The saying, beloved of breathless publicists deaf to its implication, is that such and such an opera is "rarely performed."

The reason it is rarely performed, of course, is because nine times out of ten it is a dud. When it comes to jazz albums the parallel saying is "previously unreleased." Unless the recording has only recently been discovered to exist, five gets you ten that it, too, is a dud—and the longer it has lain unreleased the greater that probability. First Flight To Tokyo is, Blue Note tells us, a "thrilling previously unreleased" live recording. Its subtitle, The Lost 1961 Recordings, suggests the tapes have not until recently been known to exist and that, as with the Dead Sea Scrolls, only decades of dedicated archaeological excavation have unearthed them. In fact, the tapes and their whereabouts have been known about for sixty years. One is minded, therefore, to arrange the following words into a well known phrase or saying: barrel, bottom, scrape.

Actually, First Flight To Tokyo is not that bad. It is certainly not a dud. But nor is it the masterpiece it will doubtless be dubbed by gullible reviewers who are perhaps unfamiliar with the genuinely great live albums in the Jazz Messengers' discography. It is, in fact, a solid album from one of the hardest working bands of its era and not without interest. But A Night At Birdland (Blue Note, 1954) or At The Café Bohemia (Blue Note, 1956) it is not.

The alternate takes of Charlie Parker's "Now's The Time," one lasting 22:34, the other 17:15, suggest the band played two sets at Tokyo's Hibiya Public Hall on January 14, 1961. The tune had been in the band book since 1954 and is part of the aforementioned A Night At Birdland, along with Dizzy Gillespie's "A Night In Tunisia," which is also heard here. The Messengers' front line was then trumpeter Clifford Brown and alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson, not First Flight To Tokyo's trumpeter Lee Morgan and tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter. The other Tokyo tunes—pianist Bobby Timmons' "Moanin'" and "Dat Dere" and ex-Messenger tenor saxophonist Benny Golson's "Blues March"—were more recent additions to the book. Nothing from Shorter, who is one of the two most interesting composers in the history of the Jazz Messengers (the other being Golson).

All these tunes get expansive going on raucous performances. The opening track is the longer of the two versions of "Now's The Time," and it is the most compelling performance on the 2xCD set, opening and closing with five minute solos from Blakey, sandwiching others by Shorter, Morgan and Timmons. Just shy of three years away from his defining hit, "The Sidewinder," Morgan is already post bop and across gospel infused hard bop. Shorter is still some distance from his nuanced mature style and attempts, on this track and the others, to follow Blakey's wish that every chorus should sound like the grand finale of the set. Throughout the album, Timmons is his own deeply funky self.

The only track which does not quite convince is Thelonious Monk's "'Round About Midnight." Morgan is superb, but Blakey and the Messengers were better at belters than ballads, notwithstanding their gorgeous reading of Golson's "Whisper Not" on 1958 Paris Olympia (Blue Note).

Bottom line: First Flight To Tokyo is one for hardcore Jazz Messengers' aficionados, who will already know that this particular Messengers lineup is arguably heard at its best on two Blue Note studio albums also recorded in 1961, A Night In Tunisia and Roots And Herbs.

Track Listing

Now's The Time; Moanin', Blues March; The Theme; Dat Dere; Round About Midnight; Now's The Time (Version 2); Night In Tunisia; The Theme (Version 2).

Personnel

Art Blakey: drums; Wayne Shorter: saxophone; Lee Morgan: trumpet; Bobby Timmons: piano; Jymie Merritt: bass.

Album information

Title: First Flight to Tokyo: The Lost 1961 Recordings | Year Released: 2021 | Record Label: Blue Note Records

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