Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers-Roots and Herbs.

Label: Blue Note Records (Tone Poet Series).

Format: LP.

Nowadays, many music historians believe that The Jazz Messengers made their live debut in 1954 and a year later recorded At the Cafe Bohemia, Volumes 1 and 2 on November the ‘23rd’ 1955. It featured the original lineup of drummer Art Blakey, bassist Doug Watkins, pianist Horace Silver and a front line of trumpeter Kenny Dorham and tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley. However, this lineup would evolve over the next six years.

On February the ‘18th’ 1961, Art Blakey and the latest lineup of The Jazz Messengers journeyed to the original Van Gelder Studio, in Hackensack, New Jersey. It featured  none of the original lineup. The Jazz Messengers’ lineup had been fluid since then and would continued to be right through until 1990.

One of the new recruits was tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter who had written six new compositions for the Roots and Herbs’ sessions. This included Ping Pong, Roots and Herbs, The Back Sliders, United, Look At The Birdie and Master Mind. They would be recorded by Art Blakey and the incarnation of The Jazz Messengers.

Joining drummer Art Blakey in the rhythm section was double bassist Jymie Merritt. Two pianists were used Bobby Timmons and Walter Davis Jr and the front line featured trumpeter Lee Morgan and tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter. They were about to record two albums The Freedom Rider and Roots and Herbs and were joined by engineer Rudy Van Gelder and producer Alfred Lion. Soon, the Roots and Herbs’ sessions were underway.

Five tracks that showcased Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers’ unique brand of hard bop were recorded that day. Bobby Timmons played piano on two tracks, Ping Pong and Look At The Birdie. Then Walter Davis Jr played on Roots and Herbs, United and Master Mind. By the end of the day Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers’ had nearly finished the album.

There was just one track to be recorded, so on May the ‘27th’ 1961 so Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers made the return journey to Van Gelder Studio in Hackensack, New Jersey. That day, they recorded The Back Sliders with Bobby Timmons on piano. Roots and Herbs was completed and bandleader Art Blakey must have been hoping that Blue Note Records would release the album later in 1961.

Sadly, lightning struck twice for Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers when Blue Note Records decided to shelve the release of The Freedom Rider and Roots and Herbs. This was not uncommon at Blue Note Records where releases were often postponed or shelved. However, it was frustrating for artists. Especially when this happened several times.

It had happened to the same lineup of Art Blakey and the same lineup of The Jazz Messengers the previous year. They had entered Van Gelder Studio on the ‘7th’ of August 1960 to record two albums, The Freedom Rider and Like Someone In Love. They were completed on August the ‘14th’ 1960, and bandleader Art Blakey was looking forward to their release.

The classic album A Night In Tunisia was released in 1961. However, Like Someone In Love was shelved and wasn’t released until 1964. Now it was happening all over again.

When an album was shelved for a number of years artists often worried that the music wouldn’t be relevant. Music was constantly changing and jazz was no different. 

By the late-sixties jazz was no longer was popular as it had been a decade earlier. Comparisons were being drawn with the blues which was no longer as popular and was struggling to stay relevant. Many clubs that had once hosted blues musicians now promoted concerts by rock bands. Meanwhile, a number of well known blues musicians were struggling to make a living and some had even gone back to the 9 to 5 grind. Jazz needed a saviour.

It found it in fusion. The genre was developed in the late-sixties when mucicians experimented with jazz harmony and improvisation with rock music, funk, and R&B. Soon, electric guitars, banks of keyboards and later, synths were used by the pioneers of fusion. By 1970, fusion had grown in and transformed jazz and may well have saved the genre from becoming irrelevant.

Despite the transformation of jazz since 1967, and fusion continuing to grow in popularity, Blue Note Records decided to release Roots and Herbs in October 1970. This was an album of hard bop that had been recorded nine years earlier in 1961. It was a snapshot in time and a reminder of how jazz used to sound.

When Roots and Herbs was released in October 1970, the album wasn’t the commercial success that Blue Note Records had hoped. It seemed to slip under the musical radar. However, the critics that reviewed the album realised that Roots and Herbs was one of Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers’ finest album and a reminder of his inimitable brand of hard bop circa 1961.

That’s no surprise given the quality of the personnel that features on Roots and Herbs. Each member of this all-star band seamlessly unleash stunning solos and deliver a series of energetic performances. Meanwhile, bandleader Art Blakey’s playing was fluid and powerful as his swing beat provides the heartbeat throughout Roots and Herbs. 

There’s no ballads on the album which is bristling with energy as Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers work their way through the six Wayne Shorter compositions. They’re a tantalising taste of what was to come from this talented composer and a reminder of one of the best lineups of The Messengers. 

It’s ironic that Roots and Herbs was shelved by Blue Note Records and never surfaced until October 1970 as the album features a series of peerless performances. So much so, that choosing the highlights isn’t easy. However, Ping Pong, Roots and Herbs, Look At Birdie and Master Mind feature Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers at their very best. 

By the time Roots and Herbs was released, the lineup of Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers had changed a number of times. Bandleader and cofounder Art Blakey wanted to play alongside the best up-and-coming jazz musicians and new names joined the band and others left. This included the five musicians that featured on Roots and Herbs who were hugely talented and all went on to enjoy successful careers. 

There’s no doubt that their time as members of The Jazz Messenger was an important part of their career and they improved as musicians. Art Blakey had high standards and wouldn’t settle for second best. That’s apparent through on Roots and Herbs where they constantly reach new heights. 

Sadly, though, Blue Note Records waited too long to release Roots and Herbs, which was recently reissued as part of their Tone Poet Series. If it had been released in 1960 or 1961 when hard bop was much more popular it might have been a bigger success than it was when it was released in October 1970. By then, fusion was King and hard bop was seen by many jazz fans as yesterday’s sound. As a result, Roots and Herbs passed many record buyers by and it never found the wider audience it deserved. 

Fifty years later and that’s starting to change. Roots and Herbs was until relatively recently one of Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers’ least well known albums, but this oft-overlooked and lost hard bop classic is belatedly starting to find a wider a wider and appreciative audience . 

 Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers-Roots and Herbs.

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