More “Lost” Jazz Recovered: Art Blakey in Japan


PARKER: Now’s the Time (2 tks). TIMMONS: Moanin’. Dat Dere. GOLSON: Blues March. ANON.: The Theme (2 tks). MONK: Round About Midnight.  GILLESPIE-PAPARELLI: A Night in Tunisia / Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers: Lee Morgan, tpt; Wayne Shorter, t-sax; Bobby Timmons, pno; Jynie Merritt, bs; Art Blakey, dm / Blue Note B003372801 (Vinyl only, but also available for free streaming on YouTube by starting HERE) (live: Hibiya Public Hall, Tokyo, January 14, 1961)

With all of the lost jazz concerts and recordings from the 1950s and ‘60s suddenly being released in recent years—Monk’s soundtrack for Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Tubby Hayes’ Grits, Beans & Greens, the Bill Evans Trio with Jack DeJohnette, alternate takes by Eric Dolphy, the Miles Davis Quintet’s final European tour with Coltrane—the discovery of this lost tape of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in Japan during January 1961 may seem a little tame, since this particular group made commercial recordings as well, but it’s certainly a lively pair of concerts and the late Lee Morgan is in absolutely transcendent form here.

This is also part of my favorite period for Wayne Shorter, the early 1960s through the early ‘70s. In time, his very complex style, which leaned even more heavily on extended chords than Charlie Parker did, would become so moored in that terrain that he sometimes left further explorations of the basic tonality out of the picture, but in those days he moved back and forth between these two harmonic worlds with virtuosity and great imagination.

As for Morgan, I always felt that he played with far more originality in his earlier years, from the time Dizzy Gillespie showcased him in his late 1950s big band until he struck out on his own with The Sidewinder. Even so, his loss to jazz was a sad case and something he could have prevented himself. Bobby Timmons was a good mainstream jazz pianist of the time if not on the high level of a Horace Silver or a Bud Powell, who even in 1961 was still capable of playing at his best on occasion, but his solo here on Blues March is really excellent.

One thing you notice about Blakey’s drumming, if you haven’t listened to it in a long time, is that he was very flashy and powerful—musicians used to say that he kept his “boot up your ass” when he played—but by and large he was not a virtuoso drummer in the way that Max Roach, Kenny Clarke, Buddy Rich, Joe Morello or Elvin Jones were. Yet he had such a wonderful grasp of both swing and bop beats that he was always in demand even before he formed the Jazz Messengers in the early 1950s, although I’m still not sure that his style really complemented the complex pieces that Herbie Nichols recorded for Blue Note in the late 1950s (but then again, no one in the late ‘50s really “got” Herbie Nichols anyway).

I’m assuming, since both sets bear the same date and both contain performances of Now’s the Time, that the pieces played after the first version of The Theme came from an evening concert at the same venue. Not too surprisingly, the group as a whole sounds looser and more relaxed than in the first set, as does Blakey on drums. The shift is fairly subtle, not as obvious as you might expect, but if you’re as sensitive to these things as I am you’ll pick up on it. Both Timmons and bassist Jymie Merritt play looser and more relaxed here but, surprisingly, both Morgan and Shorter play just as well in both sets, as if the slightly stiffer sound of the first set had no negative effect on their own solos. Morgan’s muted solo on ‘Round Midnight (presented here under its alternate title, ‘Round About Midnight) is a good one, channeling his inner Dizzy Gillespie. Shorter also plays on this one, producing one of the most lyrical solos of his entire career.

As good as Blakey’s solo on the opening version of Now’s the Time was, the one he played in the evening set was better; not only did he catch fire, but so did the band as a whole, playing at a slightly quicker tempo and certainly with more energy although, as already noted, both Morgan and Shorter were excellent in both sets. Here, in fact, Shorter’s playing is more in line with the way he sounded about five years later with Miles Davis. Even Timmons sounds better on this version of the Parker tune. The band’s performance of A Night in Tunisia is a really hot one from start to finish, ending with an out-of-tempo extended cadenza by Morgan on trumpet that is simply sensational. Not to be outdone, Shorter has his turn next; he plays a very flashy cadenza of his own, but sorry, folks, it’s not on the level of Morgan’s.

When Art Blakey died in 1990, the world lost an outstanding drummer but also one of the nicest, kindest and most gregarious personalities in the jazz world. He was an indefatigable champion of small group jazz, despite his early affiliations with the big bands of Fletcher Henderson and Billy Eckstine, and would often tell people who attended his concerts, “Go out and buy a jazz record. No, it doesn’t have to be a Jazz Messengers record, just a real jazz record. You need to support all the artists out there and let people know that you know the difference.”

The fly in the ointment here is that if you want a physical copy of this excellent concert to play on your system, you’d better own a turntable and an analog amplifier because it’s only available on LPs. I’ve railed against this nonsensical practice in the past, but from what I understand, there are now basically two kinds of jazz and classical music collectors: those who just download FLAC or MP3 files and play them on their smartphones or computers, and those that have dumb-ass turntables. Those who, like me, still collect CDs and plenty of them are often out of luck. In this particular case, the problem is that the full concert runs about 100 minutes, 20 minutes more than the acknowledged load of a physical CD, but if you can live without the first take of Now’s The Time, excellent as it is, you can fit it onto one CD and not have to waste a second disc for the last 20 or so minutes of the concert.

As a final note, let me inform all of you “vinyl” lovers about a few things. Firstly, “Vinyl” does not produce a warmer musical sound. The “warmth” you hear is just the ambient hum of the vinyl under your needle. Many a sound engineer has proven that, to the human ear, there is absolutely no difference between CDs and LPs of the same record. And secondly, “vinyl” acquires problems that CDs do not have, such as ticks and pops which detract from the cleanness of the sound and, if you happen to be a bit careless with your discs, scratches that cannot be repaired. At least if there’s a scratch on a CD, you can generally retrieve the music by copying the disc and re-burning it. No big deal. But once you’ve committed to buying LPs, your only option is to buy another copy, and modern-day LPs do NOT sell for $5.98 at Sam Goody’s or E.J. Korvette’s like they did in the old days.

Still, a wonderful concert, particularly for Lee Morgan fans.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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