My Alternative Guide to Jazz Rock: Part 1 The Seventies
Jazz Fusion (as it is called nowadays) was originally called Jazz Rock and originated in the 1960s at the same time as rock music developed.
This happened on both sides of the Atlantic, as young jazz musicians emerging onto the jazz scene naturally assimilated the burgeoning rock and pop influences around them.
In the States musicians like Jeremy Steig, Mike Nock, Steve Marcus and Larry Coryell were amongst the first to try and fuse these two styles. Also rock musicians like The Byrds and The Doors brought jazz influences into their music. The point is that the influence of jazz and on rock, and vice versa, happens right at the beginning of the development of rock music
In the UK we see a similar thing happening, there is in the early sixties an explosion of fusion of styles going on in London with artists like Graham Bond, Brian Auger, Alexis Korner and Georgie Fame. When we listen to Cream or Jimi Hendrix we can hear the fruits of all these styles, blues, jazz, folk coming together in their music.
A great album that represents what was going on in the US at this time is:
ELECTRIC BATH by DON ELLIS
This is a monumental album, best described as psychedelic big band jazz rock in weird time signatures. It exerted a big influence at the time, especially on cop thrillers of the seventies. (Don Ellis went onto create the soundtrack for The French Connection 1971) but in recent times this has got a bit forgotten, perhaps because Don Ellis died at the age of 44 in 1978.
Another fantastic album from this early period is:
ENERGY by JEREMY STEIG
This album is by the great flautist Jeremy Steig and features a pre Mahavishnu Jan Hammer who plays some of the best Fender Rhodes ever. Jeremy was later sampled by Beastie Boys on their album 'Ill Communication'
When the Beastie Boys music was used in Shrek III, Jeremy was brought in to play part of the Pied Piper, who speaks through his flute. If this isn't strange enough, Jeremy Steig's father is the man who created Shrek!
Jeremy Steig in Shrek III
In the UK a great album from this time is:
EXTRAPOLATION by JOHN McLAUGHLIN
A veteran of Georgie Fame, Graham Bond and Brian Auger's band, virtuoso guitarist John McLaughlin had been a very important musician in the early development of jazz rock ('Bathed in Lightning' by Colin Harper is a fantastic document of this time)
This album can be seen as not only a great representation of this scene, but it's also one of the great British jazz albums of all time. An incredible debut album from one of the great jazz musicians.
Miles Davis reshaped the course of jazz on more than a few occasions and his importance on jazz rock cannot be overstated. He was not only a jazz rock pioneer, but his status brought a focus on this style and his band acted as a training ground for many jazz rock musicians.
There is a run of now legendary albums that chart the development of jazz rock; these are 'In a Silent Way', 'Bitches Brew' and 'Jack Johnson'. The latter can really be seen as the seal of approval for jazz rock, and many of the elements we know and love are present on these albums.
But the album I'm going choose to represent Miles at this time is:
BIG FUN by MILES DAVIS
I have chosen this as it simply the best Miles Davis album from this time. For me, if I had to choose one track to represent Miles' seventies jazz rock style at it's best it would be 'Great Expectations' which fuses jazz, rock and Indian music. And the track 'Go Ahead John' (at a staggering 50 minutes!) is so far out, and John McLaughlin's guitar solo is simply out of this world. This is music that is at least twenty years ahead of it's time. And unlike some of the albums from this time, this music is expansive and concise.
The musicians in Miles' bands at this time went onto form the most important jazz rock groups of the seventies.
These musicians and their bands would be:
Tony Williams with Lifetime
John Mclaughlin and Billy Cobham with The Mahavishnu Orchestra
Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter with Weather Report
Herbie Hancock with Headhunters
Chick Corea and Lenny White with Return to Forever
None of these bands sound like Miles Davis, each group pioneers a certain aspect of jazz rock. But before they went onto do this they all explored the ideas opened up on Miles seventies albums and these albums are really worth listening to.
John McLaughlin's 'My Goals Beyond' is a very important album, as is Joe Zawinul's 'Zawinul' album and Herbie's three albums he did with his Mwandishi band ('Sextant' is essential listening)
If you are into seventies Miles, check these albums out.
The fusion bands listed above all released incredibly important albums. A little Googling will tell you the albums you should listen to, but I'm going to point you to some alternative albums with a little description why.
TURN IT OVER by LIFETIME (Bill Laswell Remix)
Lifetime made an incredible album called 'Emergency' and then followed it up with a less critically well received album called 'Turn it Over'. The problem with these albums is they are so badly recorded. In 1999 Bill Laswell remedied this by remixing 'Turn it Over'. But I don't think this version was properly released. If you can get hold of a copy you can hear what this band should have sounded like. And they created some of the most vicious, brutal jazz rock ever recorded. Tony and John really live up to their reputation and the underated Larry Young proves yet again that he is perhaps in the top two most important jazz organists ever.
LIVE AT CLEVELAND by MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA
The albums 'Inner Mounting Flame', 'Birds of Fire', 'Between Nothingness and Eternity' 'Apocalypse' and 'Visions of the Emerald Beyond' are absolutely essential listening for the jazz rock fan. But for me, their greatest music was made in concert where the band could go where they wanted. In 1972 they recorded a live concert in Cleveland but decided not release it and it's still apparently in Columbia's vaults. John Mclaughlin has said it's Mahavishnu at it's best, but, I believe, Jerry Goodman was not so happy with his performance and that is why it was never released properly. But it has existed for many years as the bootleg 'Wild Strings'. For those who have only listened to the studio albums need to hear this. This for me really represents this band at their peak. Their contribution to the album 'Mar Y Sol' is also well worth searching out.
SWEETNIGHTER by WEATHER REPORT
In 1977 Weather Report recorded 'Heavy Weather' which became one of jazz's biggest sellers and spawned the hit single 'Birdland'. That along with the charisma and good looks of their virtuoso bassist Jaco Pastorious put this band in the superstar category. The influence of these albums is immense, especially on the TV theme tunes and adverts in the eighties. But for me the best of Weather Report is before this time. 'Sweetnighter' is the album that has the best balance between the freer early Weather Report albums and the tight funk arrangements of the later albums.
And this is possibly their most influential album as later hip hop producers really took their lead from what they do here. I remember once talking with a hip hop producer and he told that this was the only Weather Report he had ever listened to.
VSOP by HERBIE HANCOCK
Jazz rock started out as exactly that, a mix between jazz and rock. Bands like Mahavishnu, Return to Forever and Eleventh House take their influences from Hendrix, Led Zep and progressive rock.
Around about 1973 Billy Cobham introduced funk influences on his 'Spectrum' album and Herbie Hancock scored a massive hit with his Headhunters band. Their first album is essential listening. Here we have the Headhunters band alongside his acoustic jazz quintet. Not only do you get to hear one of the great acoustic jazz groups of the sixties but this seems to inform the Headhunters who lift their improvisations to another level.
ROMANTIC WARRIOR by RETURN TO FOREVER
On leaving Miles' band Chick Corea delved deeper into free jazz and his Circle project recorded some of the finest free jazz on record. He then changed his sound and formed Return to Forever, which was originally a great latin jazz outfit. They recorded two great albums and the first is again essential listening.
Then he heard the Mahavishnu Orchestra and turned up the volume.
Their first album 'Hymn to the Seventh Galaxy' is also essential jazz rock listening. On the second, 'Where Have I Known You Before' he adds synths to the sound. The next album, 'No Mystery' introduces the funk with mixed results. The next, 'Romantic Warrior' goes back the the rock sound with lots of classical motifs and arrangements. This album was influenced by progressive rock groups like Yes and Genesis. It should be a disaster but I think it's one of the greatest progressive rock albums of all time. A last hurrah for jazz rock before disco and funk came along and blanded it all out.
Here are some other great jazz rock albums from this period:
OH YEAH by JAN HAMMER
I discovered jazz rock through the album 'Wired' by Jeff Beck. An album made great by the jazz rock genius, Jan Hammer. On leaving Mahavishnu he made a fantastic album with Jerry Goodman, then he made perhaps the greatest keyboard orientated album ever, 'First Seven Days', and then he made this, which is in my opinion, one of the greatest fusion albums ever made.
But by this time commercial pressures were taking over jazz fusion, which would end with the development of 'Fuzak'; soft, MOR jazz fusion with commercial hooks and light, funky beats.
Jan Hammer was there early on with this album of pop songs:
MELODIES by JAN HAMMER
Yes, I like Jan Hammer a lot. This again should be terrible as his band put aside jazz fusion soloing and write an album of pop songs. But it's just amazing...
Whilst we are talking about Jan Hammer special mention must be made for this album:
TIMELESS by JOHN ABERCROMBIE
On this album Abercrombie, Hammer and Jack deJohnette create a different type of jazz fusion, taking the organ jazz trio and re-inventing it, to create an ethearal, low key sound. The track 'Timeless' is remarkable
But the late seventies it wasn't all bland, middle of the road Fuzak, Ornette Coleman brought his harmolodic, free jazz approach to jazz fusion with a series of amazing (but difficult) albums like this:
OF HUMAN FEELINGS by ORNETTE COLEMAN
Coleman's revolutionary approach was to influence eighties fusion musicians in the same way that Coltrane influenced the seventies musicians. This music is difficult, but it's actually a great starting place for Ornette, as it's so funky. There are basically two bands on here, one playing amazing grooves, somewhere between James Brown and Captain Beefheart whilst the other band plays over the top reacting to the music. From what I understand about Ornette's harmolodic approach, he gives equal emphasis to all aspects of music, not just the harmonic aspects, and he follows the logic of his solo without the restrictions of the harmonic structure of the music. Unlike anything else.
I hope I have pointed you to some great jazz rock albums of the seventies...
Part 2...The Problematic Eighties...coming soon!