Roots & Herbs

Art Blakey And The Jazz Messengers

Blue Note, 1961

http://www.artblakey.com

REVIEW BY: Michael Broyles

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 01/08/2009

The painting on the front cover of Roots & Herbs features Art Blakey, sticks clenched comfortably in his hands, sitting behind a drum set while the metallic drum pieces illuminate his face.  The album name, in bright yellow, rests above his head.  Upon first viewing, I got a sense that what followed would be an exploration of those parts of American music that are originally African.  Like a musical version of Alex Haley’s Roots, the album cover implies that the recording is a history lesson on the influence of African rhythms and harmonies in the American musical psyche.  As an exploration of how the roots of African music and the blues became the herbs of jazz, Roots & Herbs succeeds magnificently.

Blakey, one of the originators of modern bebop drumming, chose to feature younger musicians in this 1961 recording, as he often did after his move from sideman with Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell and others to band leader in the early 1950’s.  This time around, Blakey chose trumpeter Lee Morgan, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, bassist Jymie Merritt and pianists Walter Davis, Jr. and Bobby Timmons to be his Jazz Messengers.  Featuring only Wayne Shorter compositions, the album presents a wide range of what bebop has to offer, from the swinging “Look At The Birdie” to the bluesy title track and the Caribbean influenced waltz “United.”  With sing-able melodies, charismatic solos and exciting chord progressions, each individual composition has the ability to instantly capture the listener and enthrall them with musical bliss. 

Take the aforementioned “United.”  The melody is reminiscent of indigenous Caribbean music and African-American spirituals.  The rhythmic qualities created by Blakey slowly transform from an organic, upbeat groove to a traditional bebop waltz.  The solos are dynamic and well-constructed, especially Shorter’s, and the solo section brilliantly concludes with a drum solo in which Blakey moves in and out of complex rhythms and subdivisions while, in legendary Blakey fashion, maintaining a waltz backbeat with his hi-hat.  (To their credit, the Messengers are able to keep a consistent rhythm on auxiliary percussion amidst Blakey’s complexity).  Blakey then methodically eases his way back into the original Caribbean rhythm as the song makes a seamless transition into the melody.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Despite how wonderful the individual compositions and their executions are, the album as a whole is not without its flaws.  The overall flow of the album is somewhat trite and monotonous, probably more so for jazz newcomers than for seasoned listeners.  Recorded in 1961 but not released until 1970, one wonders whether these recordings were picked by Art Blakey or by producer Alfred Lion, co-founder of Blue Note Records.  The album suffers terribly from the lack of a ballad.  Although each composition has very unique melodies and rhythms, they are all relatively high-energy songs with flowing rhythmic variations.  Including a ballad would give the listeners a chance to rest their ears, therefore illuminating the unique nature of all the compositions.  Instead, the album’s repetitiveness tends to override the subtle differences of each song, making this an album that should be listened to in stages rather than continuously.

Secondly, there are major problems with the disc’s production.  Originally produced by Alfred Lion and produced for release by Michael Cuscuna, Shorter’s alto saxophone is perfectly balanced when he and Morgan are playing simultaneously, but loses its zeal during solos. Shorter’s sound is kept far to the right, making his recorded tone thin and distant (all those Weather Report fans out there know that Shorter’s tone is anything but thin and distant).  In contrast, Morgan’s trumpet, kept more towards the center, sounds strong.  The producers should have mixed the instruments differently for each situation, especially when there was remixing for final release in 1970, when it was more plausible to do so. 

Regardless of these flaws, Roots & Herbs is worth purchasing and listening to.  The highlights of the album are the piano solos in the title track and “The Back Sliders,” performed by Davis and Timmons, respectively.  Both solos are ardently bluesy, sounding almost Ray Charles inspired and providing a needed break from the swing and bebop lines employed by the two lead players.  While I would not recommend listening to the album in one sitting, the songs are exciting to listen to in spurts.  And although they bring nothing new to the album’s repertoire, even the alternate tracks included on the 1999 re-release are fine ways to experience Blakey’s musical concoction of roots and herbs.

Rating: B

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© 2009 Michael Broyles and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Blue Note, and is used for informational purposes only.