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Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers: First Flight to Tokyo: The Lost 1961 Recordings (Blue Note)

A review of the previously unissued live recording by one of jazz's greatest bands

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Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers: First Flight to Tokyo
The cover of First Flight to Tokyo: The Lost 1961 Recordings by Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers

Taken from a previously unissued live recording caught at Tokyo’s Hibiya Public Hall in 1961 during the Jazz Messengers’ first-ever tour of Japan, First Flight to Tokyo chronicles a fresh performance by one of jazz’s greatest bands in front of an adoring audience. The release features the legend/leader with the top Messengers lineup of Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter, Bobby Timmons, and Jymie Merritt. Songs include “Now’s the Time,” “’Round About Midnight,” and Messengers standards “Dat Dere” and “Moanin.’” First Flight . . . includes rare photos and new interviews with Shorter, Japanese music critic Reiko Yukawa, and contemporary drum greats Louis Hayes, Billy Hart, and Cindy Blackman Santana. Audio was transferred from the original ¼” tape reels; the vinyl edition was mastered by Bernie Grundman and pressed at RTI, for those concerned with such things.

Previously available live recordings from this Messengers lineup include Meet You at the Jazz Corner of the World, Art Blakey et les Jazz Messengers au Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, and Paris Jam Session (with Walter Davis Jr. and Bud Powell replacing Timmons). High cotton to match, indeed. And this recording does so in several places, including Blakey’s killer solos on “Blues March” and the first of two different versions of “Now’s the Time,” Morgan and Shorter’s individual fireball solos (including some wild Morgan wailing on “Moanin’” and Shorter’s titanic blasts on “Dat Dere”), and Timmons’ nearly blissful work on “Dat Dere.”

The Messengers play superbly throughout, and the packaging is excellent. But owing to the recording methods used—perhaps a single overhead mic?—some tracks or sections of tracks sound subdued, smaller in stature compared to the aforementioned live recordings. Spoiled as we are by the absolute clarity of modern discs, First Flight to Tokyo may require a deeper listen, or at least headphones, to fully appreciate its artistry. But the reward, as with all Jazz Messengers albums, is significant.

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JazzTimes 10: Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers

Ken Micallef

Ken Micallef was once a jazz drummer; then he found religion and began writing about jazz rather than performing it. (He continues to air-drum jazz rhythms in front of his hi-fi rig and various NYC bodegas.) His reportage has appeared in Time Out, Modern Drummer, DownBeat, Stereophile, and Electronic Musician. Ken is the administrator of Facebook’s popular Jazz Vinyl Lovers group, and he reviews vintage jazz recordings on YouTube as Ken Micallef Jazz Vinyl Lover.