Judging By The Cover: 'United'

Art Blakey.

Great sessions are occasionally hidden under the weight of Art Blakey's massive catalog. Robert Parent/Time and Life Pictures/Getty Images hide caption

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When it comes to artists like drummer Art Blakey, whose catalog is enormous, it can be easy to overlook a classic. Over his long career, Blakey had so many studio recordings and live albums with his seminal group The Jazz Messengers that it can be difficult to parse which are the the ones worth hearing. In cases like these, a cover song can open the door to a new discovery that might otherwise slip through.

This was certainly the situation with "United," a Wayne Shorter tune I first found on Medeski Martin & Wood's first album Notes From The Underground, back in high school. I loved the trio's version so much at that time that I was inspired to hunt down the original, which can be found on Art Blakey And The Jazz Messengers' somewhat lesser-known album, Roots And Herbs.

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"United," from Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Roots And Herbs. Lee Morgan, trumpet; Wayne Shorter, tenor saxophone, Walter Davis Jr., piano; Jymie Merritt, bass; Art Blakey, drums. New York, N.Y.: Feb. 18, 1961.

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Originally recorded for Blue Note in 1961, the record has something of a murderer's row lineup comprised of players from that era: Blakey, Lee Morgan on trumpet, Wayne Shorter on tenor, pianists Walter Davis, Jr. and Bobby Timmons, and Jymie Merritt on bass. Yet despite the accumulated talent, the Roots And Herbs material was, for whatever reason, reportedly shelved* by label co-founder Alfred Lion. It wasn't until 1970, long after this timeless Messengers lineup had disbanded, when the record finally saw the light of day. The record soon went out of print.

*Which was a fairly common occurrence for jazz recordings, even for greats like Blakey. Plus, Blue Note wasn't exactly hurting for new Blakey recordings at that time. The man was awfully prolific.

Along with much of the Blue Note backlog, Roots And Herbs was finally remastered under the supervision of famed recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder, and reissued in 1999. When I first heard it, the album quickly asserted itself, at least in my mind, as one of the standout Blakey efforts, thanks in part to the six compositions by a young Wayne Shorter, including "Ping Pong," "The Back Sliders" and, of course, "United."

The Messengers' version of "United" is one of those typical gritty, hard-bop tunes the ensemble was known for: a simple and memorable melody, a vamping minor key ii-V7-i chord progression, and a sturdy rhythm section propelled by Merritt's ostinato bass. The song soon transitions from straight-forward 3/4 waltz to explosive Afro-Cuban-infused drum feature for Blakey. It's this Latin-esque shift in the back third of the song before the head comes back in that might've inspired Medeski Martin & Wood to tackle "United" years later.

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"United," from Medeski Martin & Wood, Notes From The Underground. John Medeski, piano; Chris Wood, bass; Billy Martin, drums. New York, N.Y. or Hoboken, N.J.: Dec. 15-16, 1991 or Jan. 23, 1992.

Purchase: Amazon.com CD / Amazon MP3 / iTunes

Underground shows the earliest, acoustic stage of the band, well before they went electric and were unfairly saddled with the "jam band" label. Sticking strictly to the traditional piano, bass and drums format, John Medeski, Chris Wood and Billy Martin, found room, even then, for deconstruction and exploration in their distinctive sound.

Medeski Martin & Wood.

Before it was an experimental fusion band, Medeski Martin and Wood was an experimental acoustic band. Robert Parent/Time and Life Pictures/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Robert Parent/Time and Life Pictures/Getty Images

The tune starts with Martin's insane 6/8 Latin funk groove and Wood's own ostinato bass line that grounds the song throughout. In all, it's a fine cover version that establishes Shorter's composition as a great tune with a lot of room for artistic reinterpretation. More importantly, it pointed me to a fantastic record I had never heard.

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Have you heard a group perform a cover song you liked so much that it convinced you to check out the original? Tell us your favorite jazz covers in the comments below.

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