Jimmy Smith Live!: Root Down

Root Down

It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that I love the funk. Can’t get enough of that funky stuff, as the man says. So I’m past due in reviewing Jimmy Smith‘s fantastic album Root Down, recorded live on February 8, 1972. Normally, I try to write these articles based on an LP’s release date, but so often with jazz albums, especially live takes, it’s the recording date that is noted for posterity, not the release date.

While this is very much a Jimmy Smith document, it also serves to highlight the musicians he recorded with that night. Though they all shine in their own right, it is Wilton Felder‘s bass work that anchors the performances throughout. Seldom flashy, it is nonetheless omnipresent, chaperoning all of the other instruments through their grooves and solos. Felder works in a funky, bluesy style that perfectly accompanies Smith’s electrifying B3 showcase in such a way that it’s difficult to imagine another musician taking his place on this set.

Among the other side players, Arthur Adams lays down a spectacular guitar solo in Avery Parrish’s classic “After Hours” accented by Steve Williams‘s unobtrusive harmonica accompaniment. The whole band is propelled along by Paul Humphrey‘s signature drumming and Buck Clarke‘s percussion work.

I’ll admit that I came to this record via the Beastie Boys‘ single of the same title, and nowhere is the band tighter and the rhythm section on better display than on the title track. It is still impossible for me to hear “Root Down” without hearing the echoes of Mike D, Ad-Rock, and MCA rhyming over the cut. But while the sampling of this number was an inspired choice, the live version here goes so much deeper – and is so much more impressive – than the chopped up and edited version that ended up bringing this recording back into the light.

The band brings the tempo down a bit on numbers like “For Everyone Under The Sun” and their cover of Al Green’s soul classic “Let’s Stay Together,” but even on these somewhat quieter cuts, there is a joie de vivre underlying that whole production that will have toes tapping and folks smiling. “For Everyone Under The Sun” is a swinging major key affair with an underlying bounce that brightens the day like the celestial body for which it’s named. “Let’s Stay Together” features Jimmy Smith on the lead melody while the whole band rocks a solid groove behind him. Even without the Reverend’s vocals, I’d say this version gives the original a run for its money.

Finally, the album is bookended by the Sagg numbers, “Sagg Shootin’ His Arrow” to open the program and the misnomered “Slow Down Sagg” to close it, the latter the most frenetically funky take on the record, featuring an astounding bass solo by Felder. In addition, percussionist Buck Clarke is a madman on the congas here. I don’t know who Sagg was, but the dude had to have been significantly groovy to have both of these songs named for him.  (In full disclosure, most commercially available versions today have an alternate take of the title track closing the disc but, while I appreciate its inclusion, I still prefer the original running order).

There are a lot of great funk records out there and a lot of great jazz records; this album deserves inclusion in conversations about either and is among the forerunners when you’re talking about jazz-funk as its own separate category. I’d go so far as to call it essential listening even for those with a passing interest in hip-hop history given that such monumental forces as the Beastie Boys and Jurassic 5 have liberated grooves from this recording. And if you’ve never heard it, you’re missing out on a full life. Follow the link up top and get a copy yesterday!


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