Art Blakey: Flight to Tokyo

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In January 1961, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers were on their first tour of Japan. That year, the Messengers consisted of a tough bunch of signature players—Lee Morgan (tp), Wayne Shorter (ts), Bobby Timmons (p), Jymie Merritt (b) and Blakey (d). This particular line-up of Messengers had been together since early 1960, when they recorded The Big Beat for Blue Note. The fact that Blakey was able to assemble and unify so much jazz firepower was a testament to his leadership skills and his taste in music. Blakey had his finger on the pulse of what foreign and young jazz listeners loved—energy and a solid beat. In Japan, the group toured several cities, receiving thunderous applause at each venue.

Tape of the Jazz Messengers' concert at Tokyo's Hibiya Public Hall (above) on January 13 and 14 surfaced only recently. Zev Feldman—whose very name has become synonymous with analog archeology and the exhuming of important rare jazz tapes that have never seen the light of day after they were made—found the Tokyo recording in the hands of a Japanese collector. Here's Zev writing in the liner notes about his discovery: 

“I first heard about these lost Art Blakey recordings on a trip to Japan in 2017. I was told that a gentleman, Ryuichiro Nemoto, had in his possession never-before-released recordings of the Messengers’ first Japan tour in January of 1961... When we received the tapes, they had been assembled on five quarter-inch tape reels. There were a number of incomplete tunes among the recordings and my co-producer, David Weiss, and I decided to leave those off of this release. Given our decision not to include the incomplete tunes, plus our uncertainty about the actual order in which the tapes were labeled, we decided to sequence the release in a way that, to us, best enhanced the overall listening experience."

We're fortunate that Zev and his co-producer made that decision. Nothing is more annoying to the average jazz fan than the inclusion of partial songs. On the newly released Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers: First Flight to Tokyo, the Lost 1961 Recordings (Blue Note), there's much to love. Blakey and the Messengers were tightly arranged on songs but freewheeling and hypnotic. The players also were more expressive, as the nine tracks featured show. Morgan is blistering but tender in places, such as 'Round Midnight. Shorter is thrashing but also introspective, especially on Now's the Time, Blues March and A Night in Tunisia. The high point for me is Timmons's Dat Dere, which features spectacular solos by Shorter and Morgan capped by a barrelling solo by Timmons. Throughout the recording we find Blakey's impatient and hectoring drums lovingly driving the musicians and keeping everyone on their toes with military precision. After this group recorded The Freedom Rider in the studio in May 1961, Freddie Hubbard replaced Morgan, trombonist Curtis Fuller was added and Cedar Walton replaced Timmons. And back on the road the Messengers went.

The reason this new album is so important is that it cleanly documents, with superb sound, a group made up of dynamic players who would soon go on to spectacular careers. In Japan in 1961, just days before John F. Kennedy was sworn in as president, the Jazz Messengers were abroad representing the best of America. They were guests in a country that just 16 years earlier had been ruled by a murderous, fascist regime during World War II. In Japan, audiences born under a brutal dictatorship were liberated and we hear them exhaling while enjoying a quintet that embraced improvisation, independence and freedom. They also recognized that the Messengers were exponents of a new sophisticated, optimistic sound that they had heard only on albums. A hopeful generation was emerging, and this music expressed how it felt to be free in Japan and almost free in the U.S.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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