Shouts on Goal
"Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds that you plant." —Robert Louis Stevenson
Welcome back music lovers. Thanks for stopping by for another installment of Normie Monday, my blog posting that focuses on reviewing music, movies, television, books, or whatever may be capturing my attention at the time. After several articles detailing the work of the innovative fusion guitarist John McLaughlin (including albums by Miles Davis, The Tony Williams Lifetime and McLaughlin’s own solo effort), I’m going to dedicate this week’s article to the group with which McLaughlin is most commonly associated, the Mahavishnu Orchestra. This dynamic fusion ensemble was one of the first groups to take fusion in a decidedly heavier, more frenzied and more “progressive” direction, and the band’s first album The Inner Mounting Flame stands as the finest testament to that.
After recording Bitches Brew with Miles Davis in August of 1969, John McLaughlin spent the next year working as a session guitarist, playing on albums by jazz bassist Miroslav Vitouš, saxophonist Joe Farrell, rock singer Duffy Power and jazz guitarist Larry Coryell. He also recorded his second solo album (1970’s Devotion), contributed to another album with The Tony Williams Lifetime (1970’s Turn It Over) and played a crucial role in Miles Davis’ A Tribute To Jack Johnson. It was through Davis that McLaughlin first met a young jazz drummer named Billy Cobham, a Panamerican-born jazz drummer with a unique open-handed lead style who’d already played with jazz greats like Horace Silver, Stanley Turrentine, George Benson and John Abercrombie. McLaughlin and Cobham made their first recordings together in a November 1969 session with Davis, but the material from this session wouldn’t be released until Davis’ 1974 Big Fun album.
As McLaughlin and Cobham continued to work together with Miles Davis throughout the rest of 1969 and into 1970, the two developed a close working relationship. This was further established when Cobham played on McLaughlin’s third solo album, 1971’s My Goal’s Beyond. By this point, McLaughlin had become heavily influenced by the teachings of the Indian guru Sri Chinmoy. McLaughlin took on the name Mahavishnu, meaning “divine compassion, power and justice” at the suggestion of Chinmoy, and began to explore incorporating Indian forms of music into his own compositions.
After recording My Goal’s Beyond together, McLaughlin and Cobham decided to establish a fusion group together. McLaughlin called upon Irish bassist Rick Laird, an old friend from his session gigging days who’d worked with McLaughlin in Brian Auger’s group. The keyboardist’s chair was filled by a young Czechoslovakian named Jan Hammer, a recent Berklee grad who’d played with the likes of Sarah Vaughan, Elvin Jones and Jeremy Steig. McLaughlin wanted to add another soloist, but didn’t want to go with the more traditional saxophone or trumpet, opting instead for violin. The first quintet was rounded out by violinist Jerry Goodman, a native of Chicago, Illinois who’d played in the jazz-fusion group The Flock before also playing on McLaughlin’s My Goal’s Beyond album. Apparently, McLaughlin had first wanted to recruit French violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, but the U.S. Government would not grant Ponty a work-permit visa, so Goodman was recruited instead. It is interesting to note that all five members of the band are from different countries.
The Mahavishnu Orchestra recorded their debut album, The Inner Mounting Flame, in the spring of 1971. With it, they pioneered a new breed of jazz-fusion that emphasized the energy and power of rock ‘n’ roll, particularly the progressive rock that was coming into vogue in the early 1970’s via bands like King Crimson and Yes. The unusual rhythms and complex time signatures also paid homage to the Indian classical music with which McLaughlin was becoming increasingly interested. The addition of Western classical music harmonic structures and funk rhythms resulted in a type of fusion that was edgier, heavier and more tightly composed than much of the more free-form and ambient jazz-fusion that had preceded it.
The Inner Mounting Flame opens with the high octane “Meeting Of The Spirits,” which begins with about forty seconds of the band hitting bombastic accents and then wringing them out with sheets of manically strummed guitar chords and washing cymbals. After all of this madness, a heavily effected electric guitar begins playing hypnotic arpeggiated chords, soon joined by a quiet drum beat. The violin and bass begin to play a quick ascending-then-descending melody in unison while the organ adds textural chords in the background. As the bass and violin continue their unison melody, the electric guitar jumps in and begins to play a simple three note motif. After a few passes of this motif, McLaughlin takes the electric guitar through a fanciful flight that plummets down to the deepest depth and stretches out to the highest of highs. His solo here is otherworldly, and his guitar tone is light-years ahead of its time. At the end of the solo, he retreats to the three-note motif from earlier before engaging in some breakneck unison riffing with the violin and drums. Then, the band brings it down for a spacey middle section where the guitar and violin play a soaring melody as the other three musicians create a din of ambient noise. I am particularly impressed with the tonal combination of the guitar and violin here, as the two sound slightly out of tune with each other, resulting in a distinctly jarring effect. After this, McLaughlin returns to the hypnotic arpeggiated chords from earlier as Jan Hammer takes an impressive electric piano solo. I really enjoy the tone of Hammer’s keyboards on this album, which is surprising because I find myself to be fairly critical of his later cheesy keyboard sounds. As his solo progresses, McLaughlin and Goodman begin to interject some blazingly fast unison riffs that spiral together dizzyingly with Hammer’s solo. After the solo, McLaughlin begins to play the three-note motif from earlier until, once again, the guitar violin and drums play a breakneck unison riff that leads to a similar spacey section from earlier, complete with soaring guitar and violin. After this comes the end of the song, in which McLaughlin plays the hypnotic arpeggiated chords from earlier and Goodman begins to solo wildly on the violin. The song fades out as the band gradually crescendos.
The next song, “Dawn,” begins as a mellow ballad. After one loud accent right at the start, the rhythm section begins to pad out a gentle beat in 7/8 as the electric piano sprinkles in textural chords. After a bit of this, the guitar and violin fades up with a searing unison melody. While I’m impressed with the saturation of McLaughlin’s guitar here, I find it to be a bit out of place given the delicate nature of the song at this point. This is exacerbated as McLaughlin takes a sizzling guitar solo here that I find to be at odds with the fragility of this song. However, this is soon remedied as the band picks up the tempo and the violin joins the guitar to pluck out some dexterous unison melodies. This gives way to a bluesy violin solo over the newly quickened pace. The violin solo ends with a restatement of the unison melody from the beginning of the solo, as McLaughlin steps back in. At the conclusion of this, the band brings the tempo back to the original gentle feel of the beginning of the song. McLaughlin and Goodman play their searing unison melody from earlier over the mellow backing. The song ends especially gently as the guitar and violin drop out, leaving only the rhythm section and Hammer’s atmospheric electric piano.
The next track, “The Noonward Race,” is one of my favorites on the album. It begins with a frenzied beat from Billy Cobham as McLaughlin strums out some fuzzy electric guitar stabs. The two then engage in some funky synchronized rhythmic riffing before McLaughlin spins off into some dizzying solos. It continues to be only a duet for the first minute or so of the song before the other three join in for some more synchronized riffing. After this, the rhythm section brings things to a slow rolling boil as Goodman takes an impressive violin solo, his violin enhanced with some sort of modulation effect. Cobham is in fine form here as he gradually builds the tension of the beat via quick cymbal work and tasty fills. At the end of the violin solo, McLaughlin jumps in with a nimble little melody that he plays once by himself, then again with the rest of the band. This acts as a transitional passage that signals the start of an electric piano solo from Hammer. His solo here is one of the highlights of the entire album, as it’s effected to sound like some weird alien language. It’s also incredibly agile and utilizes interesting modes and scales. Hammer ends his solo with a restatement of the nimble little guitar melody from earlier. McLaughlin picks up on this and joins in, playing the melody with Hammer twice before launching in to his own solo. His playing here is the usual blazingly fast runs and emotive wails, typically awesome McLaughlin. Again, the solo ends with the nimble little guitar melody, first by himself and then in unison with the rest of the musicians. After the final unison melody, the intro of the song is revisited as McLaughlin thrashes out dissonant chord stabs and Cobham gets a brief moment to shine. He lays down some impossibly fast drum fills as McLaughlin’s stabbing chords churn in the background. After the drum solo, the guitar and drums engage in some more breakneck riffing, and the rest of the band joins in for one more big unison riff to end the song.
Side one ends with the most tranquil song on the album, the gorgeous “A Lotus On Irish Streams,” a trio for acoustic guitar, acoustic piano and violin. This track possesses a delicate grace and melodic beauty that is occasionally interrupted by McLaughlin or Hammer pulling out fiery runs and riffs. However, unlike the needlessly saturated tone on “Dawn,” I don’t feel that these fast riffs detract from the overall serenity of the piece. Based on the title of the song, I view the piece as being programmatic of a flower gently coasting down a stream, occasionally getting swept up in the faster currents and rapids, indicated by the faster riffs. Overall, it is a sublimely moving piece of music that is at once transportative and musically impressive.
Side two opens with “Vital Transformation,” another of my favorites on the album. Cobham kicks things off with a propulsive groove in 9/8, playing by himself for a while until the other members join in with a funky riff. The band keeps vamping in 9/8 until they bring it down to a soaring violin and guitar melody. First it descends, but then it reascends and crashes back into the 9/8 groove. As the rhythm section bubbles and simmers, McLaughlin takes the first solo, weaving a tapestry of distorted notes and fiery runs. Eventually, Goodman starts to interject little violin riffs and chordal vamps, gradually building them until he is fully playing the funky riff from earlier. By this point, Cobham is flailing wildly and thrashing the cymbals, but this quickly gives way to a restatement of the mellow descending-and-reascending melody on the violin and guitar. Cobham then reemerges with the funky 9/8 beat, and the band vamps on this for the last minute of the song, with Hammer throwing in some more of his weird alien keyboard sounds for flavor. The song fades out as the band climaxes the vamp.
Up next is the longest song on the album, “The Dance Of Maya.” It begins with a dissonant melody from the guitar, doubled by the electric guitar and aided by a supportive bass line from Rick Laird. A steady build up on the toms signals the entrance of the drums, which then supply a bluesy shuffle to go with the dissonant melody. The drum beat here is especially strange sounding, as it starts off as a simple 6/8 shuffle, but occasionally adds a couple of extra eighth notes, giving the beat an off-kilter vibe. After the band vamps on this odd shuffle for a bit, the guitar ceases its dissonant riff and begins to play something much more akin to a traditional blues figure (although the odd meter remains). Over this, Goodman takes a bluesy solo, his violin screeching and wailing in agony as he pulls sustained notes out of the ether and turns in lightning-fast runs. As the violin solo comes to a close, Cobham shifts the feel of the drums from the bluesy stomp to a brisker jazz beat (still in the odd meter). McLaughlin begins another rocking guitar solo here, bending and slashing his notes. As the guitar solo ends, Cobham falls back to the bluesy stomp. His ability to seamlessly shift the feel and metrically modulate from slow to fast and back again is simply remarkable. As the guitar and violin play a bluesy riff, the dissonant melody from the beginning of the song begins to slowly creep back into the mix. It becomes more and more prominent, until it is the main feature. The band hits some slowly falling synchronized notes before an energetic rock-out finale signals the end of the song.
The next track is one of the more well known on the album due to it being sampled in recent years by artists such as Massive Attack, Mos Def, Black Sheep and David Sylvian. “You Know, You Know” begins with a mellow guitar arpeggio that gets repeated with ample space left between each restatement. Gradually, the bass and drums are added. Although this song can be thought of as being in straight 4/4, it feels more like a sequence of measures that goes; 3/4, 3/4, 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, 4/4, 5/4. After a while, the violin joins in and begins to play with the guitar, sometimes playing in unison and sometimes pulling out a harmony to the guitar’s mellow arpeggio. Jan Hammer’s keyboard then enters and begins to gently fill and solo between the guitar arpeggios. Right at the 2:18 mark, the guitar throws in one single slashing chord, but then drops back to mellow arpeggios. In the second half of the song, Cobham begins to play a more fleshed out beat and gradually crescendo the drums. The band responds by tossing out some startling accents, with Goodman’s screeching violin quickly pulling upwards. In the last minute of the song, Cobham takes center stage by adding savory drum fills between the guitar arpeggios. The song ends with the band accenting one note together.
The album ends with its shortest song, the raging “Awakening.” Probably the most kinetic and frenzied song on the album, it begins with some unbelievably fast unison riffing from the band, with all members playing at a breakneck speed. As this subsides, the rhythm section falls into a quick groove that has an unyielding intensity. First, Goodman solos with all of his usual awesomeness. Then, the band falls into a cool swaying groove as Hammer begins another of his weird alien electric piano solos. Some more breakneck riffing signals the end of the keyboard solo, which is followed by a fiery guitar solo from McLaughlin. The smoothness of his notes here is simply staggering. Some more breakneck riffing follows, which gives way to a short drum solo (no other instruments involved) from Cobham. After this, the band returns with some more breakneck riffing, ending the song with one last big flourish.
The Inner Mounting Flame was released in August of 1971 and was an instant smash with the critics, who still hail the album as one of the most important entries in the jazz-fusion catalog. It went to #11 in the Billboard Jazz Albums chart and #89 in the Billboard Pop Albums chart, a huge feat for a jazz-fusion album. The original lineup of Mahavishnu Orchestra only recorded one more album (1973’s Birds Of Fire) before dissolving amidst infighting and personal conflicts, the worst of which occurring after McLaughlin read an interview of Goodman and Hammer in Crawdaddy! magazine, in which to two openly expressed their dislike for McLaughlin’s leadership style. The group had been recording their third album at the time, but sessions were aborted and the group decided to release a live album entitled From Nothingness To Eternity (which contained several of the songs from the aborted session) in its place.
After the original group fell apart, McLaughlin reassembled the group twice and continued to release albums under the Mahavishnu Orchestra banner. Three were released in the mid-70’s, and two more in the mid-80’s (one of these later albums even featured original member Billy Cobham on drums). McLaughlin also released several solo albums and albums in collaboration with Carlos Santana, Paco De Lucia, Al DiMiola and many other musicians. The other four original members went on to successful careers in music. Cobham enjoyed a successful solo career, as well as making guest appearances on albums by several notable musicians, including George Duke, Bob Weir, Jack Bruce, Mark-Almond and Stanley Clarke. Rick Laird toured with Stan Getz and Chick Corea, as well as putting out one solo album in 1977 before retiring completely from music in 1982. He now works as a photographer and teaches bass guitar. Jan Hammer released several solo albums, as well as collaborative albums with Jerry Goodman and Neal Schon (of Journey fame). He also worked regularly with Jeff Beck and Al DiMiola, as well as composing several television and film scores, most notably the music for the Miami Vice TV show. Jerry Goodman also found work in scoring films and performing as a session musician, appearing on albums by Hall & Oates, Styx, Derek Sherinian, The Dixie Dregs and Dream Theater. He also released three solo albums in the 1980’s, as well as a sole collaborative effort with Jan Hammer, 1974’s Like Children.
In summary, The Inner Mounting Flame can be enjoyed by people of vastly differing tastes. Those who are into rock and metal will enjoy the hard-rocking riffs and the saturated guitar tones, those into jazz will enjoy the improvisational nature of the music and the virtuosity of the musicians. All in all, it represents one of the truest “fusions” (for lack of a better word) of jazz and rock. The compositions are tight and perfectly executed, but not so tight as to lose the freewheeling spark that makes it rock so hard. Overall, it is one of my favorite albums of all time, an album that has inspired not only fusion musicians, but bands such as Black Flag, The Mars Volta and Cynic. This is what jazz-fusion can and should sound like, not the cheesy, overly-produced stuff that came in the later 70’s and 80’s, music that was more for showing off skills. The music on The Inner Mounting Flame is raw and powerful, capable of evoking the deepest of emotions. Give it a listen, see what you think.
If you have Spotify, you can listen to the entire album here: http://open.spotify.com/album/6XHQCPGwvSaqv9MZ2tauqr
"Watch out for each other. Love everyone and forgive everyone, including yourself. Forgive your anger. Forgive your guilt. Your shame. Your sadness. Embrace and open up your love, your joy, your truth, and most especially your heart."
Welcome back music lovers. Thanks for stopping by for another installment of Normie Monday, my weekly blog posting that focuses on reviewing music, movies, television, books, or whatever may be capturing my attention at the time. As we find ourselves smack dab in the middle of a series of articles dedicated to the genius of fusion guitarist John McLaughlin, this week we’re going to be exploring what is possibly the most important album on which he ever played. That album is jazz trumpeter Miles Davis’ pioneering effort in the fusion movement, 1970’s Bitches Brew.
By 1970, Miles Davis had made a name for himself as one of the most iconic and revolutionary artists in jazz. Already a 25 year veteran of the jazz scene (cutting his teeth behind such jazz luminaries as Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, as well as leading his own band as early as 1946), Davis had spearheaded not one, but two movements within the field of jazz. The first of these, occurring in the late 1940’s, consisted of the cool jazz movement. Somewhat of a revolt against the frantic instrumental virtuosity of the then-prominent bebop scene, cool jazz is characterized by more relaxed tempos, lighter tones and formal arrangements. Davis’ recordings with his fabled nonet during this period are some of the most iconic recordings of the era (originally released as 78 RPM’s, the tracks were eventually compiled onto the seminal Birth Of The Cool LP in 1957).
After a length and debilitating battle with heroin addiction, Davis put together what has come to be called his “first great quintet” in 1955, consisting of Davis on trumpet, John Coltrane on saxophone, Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on upright bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums (eventually expanded to a sextet with the addition of second saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley). With these musicians, Davis began experimenting with what would become known as modal jazz, a type of jazz that uses modal movement as its main harmonic framework instead of chord sequences, as was the custom of the day. The modal jazz movement is best exemplified by Davis’ 1959 album Kind Of Blue, which is considered by many to be his magnum opus and one of the most important (and biggest selling) jazz albums of all time. Davis spent the first few years of the 1960’s further exploring this modal style of jazz.
By 1963, Davis’ “first great quintet” had fallen apart, and he began assembling a new band. He settled on saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock (replaced by Chick Corea in 1968), upright bassist Ron Carter (replaced by Dave Holland in 1968) and 17 year old drumming prodigy Tony Williams (see last week’s article). This group, dubbed Davis’ “second great quintet” expanded upon the modal approach and featured near-telepathic musical interplay and improvisation. The “second great quintet” recorded several highly regarded albums throughout the second half of the 1960’s. Although the term was not used at the time, the type of jazz that the “second great quintet” played has become known as post-bop, which combined the melodic conventions of bebop and modal jazz with the rhythmic freedom and avant garde abstraction of free jazz.
By the late 1960’s, Davis had begun to develop a deep appreciation for the burgeoning funk and psychedelic rock scenes, particularly the music of James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone and Jimi Hendrix. Davis began using these influences in his own work as early as 1968, particularly on the Miles In The Sky album, which may be the first jazz album to feature electric bass and electric piano. By 1969’s In A Silent Way (considered to be the first true jazz fusion album), Davis had expanded his quintet into an electric octet, featuring three keyboardists (Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Joe Zawinul) and electric guitarist John McLaughlin, who had just moved to America three days prior to the recording sessions to play in The Tony Williams Lifetime. By working with electric instruments, funk rhythms, rock dynamics and experimental studio techniques, Davis had engineered his third new direction of the jazz genre, the jazz fusion movement.
By the time of the recording session for the followup to In A Silent Way, Tony Williams had been replaced by Jack DeJohnette on drums and Herbie Hancock had left to focus on his solo career. Davis took this opportunity to further expand his group into a giant jazz-rock ensemble. Again, Davis found three keyboardists; Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul and Larry Young (all playing electric pianos). To flesh out the rhythm section, Davis hired another drummer, Lenny White, and two percussionists, Don Alias and Juma Santos. Upright bassist Dave Holland is joined by electric bassist Harvey Brooks (whose previous session work included notable contributions to Bob Dylan’s iconic mid-60’s albums). The melodic contributions come from Davis’ trumpet, Wayne Shorter’s saxophone (by now, the only remaining vestige of the “second great quintet”), Bennie Maupin’s bass clarinet and John McLaughlin’s inimitable electric guitar.
The sessions for the album that become known as Bitches Brew took place over three days, August 19th, 20th and 21st of 1969. The sessions were produced by Teo Macero, whom Davis had worked with almost exclusively for the previous decade (and would continue to do so until the early 1980’s). One of the major innovations pioneered during the Bitches Brew sessions can be contributed to Macero, who took the tapes of the musicians jamming and improvising on a basic theme or melody and edited them into epic, suite-like compositions. These drastic edits, tape manipulations and studio effects brought the use of the recording studio to new heights in the jazz world, which had previously been dominated by the ideas that the musicians’ performances should remain unaltered and that the final studio recordings should remain as true to the original performances as possible.
Bitches Brew opens with the side-long “Pharaoh’s Dance,” a piece composed by keyboardist Joe Zawinul and recorded on the third day of sessions. The song begins with a quick shuffle from the drummers fading up in the musical landscape. Macero came up with the ingenious concept of panning one drummer hard left and the other hard right, creating a wide open spaciousness and allowing the listener to discern each performer (Lenny White can be found in the left channel, while Jack DeJohnette resides in the right). A similar approach was applied to the three electric pianists, with Joe Zawinul appearing in the left channel, Chick Corea in the right and Larry Young dead center. After the two drummers enter with the tense shuffle, Zawinul begins stating the songs main musical theme. The other instruments slowly trickle in, creating a dizzying stew of atmospheric noise. As the band bubbles and sways, the drummers repeatedly start and stop, an effect of Macero’s deft editing techniques. Davis makes his formal entry around the 2:30 mark, playing some plaintive trumpet cries. He continues to solo ethereally as the band crescendos around him, his playing showing superb phrasing and restraint.
At about the 5:40 mark, Bennie Maupin’s ghostly bass clarinet becomes the featured instrument.
I’m particularly fond of the sultry sounds of the bass clarinet, an unusual instrument in the jazz world. During this solo, the trio of electric pianos engage in some kinetic interplay, yielding melodic responses from Maupin and McLaughlin. The bass clarinet solo ends as Zawinul begins to restate the song’s main melody and the bass slowly decrescendos. At about the 8 minute mark, the band begins to slowly rebuild the energy via some start-stop dynamics and bigger accents, over which Davis plays some delay-treated trumpet lines. Shortly before the 9 minute mark, Macero takes a one-second sample and repeats it five times, creating a repetitive droning quality. After this, Davis takes another turn in the spotlight, his playing here taking on a slightly terser, more staccato feel. After a while, Maupin joins in, and the two play off of each other for a bit, swapping dissonant runs with the electric pianos.
Wayne Shorter’s clear, airy soprano saxophone makes its first big appearance shortly before the 12 minute mark. Shorter’s style is decidedly quicker and more notey than Davis or Maupin, and his lightning fast sax runs and emotive squeals come at the perfect time to kick the song into a higher gear. After about a minute of wild sax, John McLaughlin takes center stage with a menacing guitar solo, occasionally dueting fiercely with the electric pianos. After the guitar solo, Zawinul restates the song’s main motif once again as White and DeJohnette build their dueling drumsets into a frenzy. The juxtaposition between the two’s playing in the right and left speaker channels is positively dizzying.
At about 15:15, the band brings it down to a simple quarter-note bass groove. The other instrumentalists slowly reenter and build the momentum of the song, with the soloist’s and keyboardist’s parts swirling around hypnotically for one last giant crescendo that peaks around the 18 minute mark. The band uses the last two minutes to cool off before ending the song with Zawinul’s final restatement of the main melodic figure. Overall, “Pharaoh’s Dance” is one of the most original statements of the jazz fusion movement, and certainly one of the most shocking and creatively innovative. Macero’s influential editing techniques, which took their cues from avant garde minimalism, paved the way for similar editing styles in the rock and electronica fields.
Side two of the first disc of music is taken up by another length composition, the equally groundbreaking and challenging title track “Bitches Brew,” recorded on the first day of sessions (before Larry Young had joined the proceedings). At nearly 27 minutes long, “Bitches Brew” pushed the boundaries of the amount of material that could be squeezed onto one side of vinyl (many LPs don’t have much more than that spread across both sides). It begins with a mellow one-note bass vamp (actually, I believe it to be the upright bass and Zawinul’s left hand playing in unison). The bass repeats a gentle syncopated rhythm before the band explodes together on the last beat of the phrase. Each time it repeats this phrase, the last eruption gets bigger and more intense. Davis’ echoing trumpet plays a key role here, floating spectrally through the mellow bass groove and then wailing orgasmically on the big explosion note. This takes up almost the first three minutes of the song.
After this, the electric bass starts playing a new funkier groove. Maupin adds a breathy bass clarinet melody that gets repeated (via Macero’s tape editing) to form the backbone of the next segment of the song. The rest of the band enters and builds a churning, smoldering backdrop for Davis to take an evil-spirited solo. The trumpet solo goes until around the 6:30 mark, when McLaughlin takes over for an equally gnarly guitar solo. During the guitar solo, the rhythm section crescendos and decrescendos several times, occasionally dropping out completely. During this time, you can hear Davis orchestrating the musicians and giving them instructions like, “Oh yeah, keep it like that,” and “Keep it tight.” Zawinul plays some especially neat electric piano runs during this section as well.
Shortly before the 9 minute mark, Davis’ trumpet rejoins the mix and plays some soaring, wailing notes. The band builds the intensity over the trumpet solo until about the 11:30 mark, when the band brings it down to make room for Shorter’s soprano saxophone. However, Shorter’s spotlight shines very briefly (about a minute or so) before the band brings it down again for some nasty electric piano soloing from Zawinul (at least, I think it’s him because it sounds to me like it’s more in the left channel). The dissonant electric piano solo lasts for about two minutes before the band drops back (via tape splicing) to the intro of the song.
About halfway through the track (about 14:30) the intro of the mellow bass vamp with the grandly accented final burst is revisited, creating an air of unity to the seemingly freeform composition. Similarly to before, this gives way to the same funky electric bass groove, which enters around 17:17. This time, however, the upright bass takes the first solo, with Dave Holland working his blazing upright runs into Harvey Brooks’ funky electric bass groove. Maupin also contributes some tasty bass clarinet warbles and trills here, resulting in what is, essentially, a bass trio. This leads into Davis making a grand reentrance at about the 19:20 with some bleating trumpet notes that last about one minute.
The next four minutes (or so) are made up of a long, slow crescendo of rhythmic energy, beginning with some nifty interplay between DeJohnette and White (DeJohnette holds a steady beat in 4/4 in the right channel while White accents a beat in 3/4 with rim clicks in the left). Davis, Maupin and McLaughlin all make some unique contributions here. This groove goes on until about the 24 minute mark, when the band returns to one final restatement of the opening motif, with the mellow bass vamp and accented final note. This goes on for the final three minutes of the song, bringing the composition to a stirring finale.
The second disc of the album opens with “Spanish Key,” another extended composition with a funkier flavor than previously witnessed on the album, recorded on the third day of sessions (once again with Larry Young). It begins with a lopping drum beat that emphasizes the fourth beat. The rest of the band fades up with a simple pedal-tone bass line, chunky guitar chords, dancing electric pianos and noodling bass clarinet. Davis’ trumpet enters and states the main theme, an ascending ethereal melody, before taking the basic theme and running with it, flying off into a soulful solo. McLaughlin’s slashing guitar chords become more prominent as the solo progresses. The band steadily builds throughout the solo until they climax with a bombastic chordal melody that is used to signal the end of a solo from this point on. John McLaughlin’s guitar becomes the main focal point after the trumpet (although the electric pianos also provide some impressive fills), but the emphasis is more on textural vamping than soloing here. Another statement of the bombastic chordal melody ends the guitar solo.
After a quick restatement of the ascending ethereal head melody from Davis’ trumpet, Wayne Shorter gets a turn to solo and his searing soprano sax is in fine form here. He blows sheets of notes that climb to the highest highs and drop to the lowest lows possible on the instrument. The band navigates through some dynamic mood shifts before the bombastic chordal melody signals the end of the sax solo at about the 8:45 mark. The band drops into a bluesy groove here, as Shorter’s saxophone solo trails off. Once again, Davis reiterates the ascending ethereal head melody before we move into another section of intense interplay between the electric piano and guitar, with the two feeding off of each other and working in a call-and-response fashion.
Starting at about the 11 minute mark, the band starts to once again move through some up-and-down dynamics with no one really firmly seated in the soloist’s chair (the trumpet, guitar and electric pianos all seem to receive equal weight), but with more of a focus on textural density. Shortly before the 14 minute mark, the band restates the bombastic chordal melody, which leads to a tasty electric piano solo until Bennie Maupin’s bass clarinet makes its first appearance around the 15:10 mark. He starts subtly, teasing the head melody at a couple of spots early on in the solo, before moving into a more frenzied style of playing, utilizing quick trills and tremolo notes. At about 16:50, the bass clarinet solo ends, and Davis reenters with the ascending ethereal head melody. He restates this a few more times as the band bubbles steadily underneath him. The band starts to slowly bring things down until they fade out altogether to end the song.
The shortest song by far is up next (the only song on the album that’s under ten minutes in length), the four-and-a-half minute long “John McLaughlin, named by Davis in admiration of the young guitarist. Strangely enough, this track doesn’t contain any playing from Miles Davis or Wayne Shorter (the two longest-serving veterans of Davis’ band at this point), and electric bassist Harvey Brooks is also absent. The song begins with a quick drum fill that leads into the electric piano playing a bluesy head melody. McLaughlin adds some spiky guitar fills in between the electric piano melodies. Special mention should be made in this song about the rhythmic interplay occurring between the two drummers. Lenny White seems to hold down a steady driving beat in the left channel while Jack DeJohnette accents more strange beats in the right channel, and Dave Holland plays some impressive bass runs at several points in this song as well, occasionally verging on soloing. Bennie Maupin adds his bass clarinet about halfway through the song, but never contributes more than droning textural notes in the background. The song ends after a return to the electric piano’s head melody from the beginning, with the band dynamically bringing the sounds down to a gentle murmur before ending entirely.
Side four of the LP opens with possibly the best known song on the album, the 14 minute long “Miles Runs The Voodoo Down.” The only song on the album taken from the second day of the recording sessions, the lineup is the same as the first day except that second drummer Lenny White is absent (maybe he had a previous engagement on that day), so he’s replaced in the left-channel drum set by Don Alias (who only plays congas on every other track). It is Alias that kicks off the track with a languid beat before being joined by a equally relaxed electric bass line. McLaughlin throws in some emotive pulls on the guitar strings as Maupin adds some textural bass clarinet trills. Davis joins the proceedings to take the first real solo, and it’s one of his best on the album. He plays melodically, but reaches for something else, occasionally pulling out squalls of trembling notes.
Shortly after the 4 minute mark, the trumpet solo ends and leaves the guitar and electric pianos to add textural fills and riffs to the mix, with McLaughlin throwing in some lightning fast runs at one point. Shorter’s soprano sax enters at about the 6:15 mark, and he plays one of his typically stupefying sax solos, his blazingly fast modal runs quickly ascending and then just as quickly descending. At about the 8 minute mark, the sax solo gives way to a knotty electric piano solo from Chick Corea. Zawinul plays off of Corea’s leads in the opposite speaker channel, creating a head-spinningly psychedelic effect. The pairing of the electric pianos is simply staggering here, with Corea’s dissonant runs creating an air of suspense and intensity, one of the highlights of the entire album.
At about the 10:30 mark, the band brings it down a bit, and Davis gets another chance to solo, another superlative effort, his trumpet wailing in a combination of ecstasy and agony. The last couple of minutes of this song consist of some more rising and falling dynamics from the band, who highlight the tension of Davis’ thrilling solo. The song ends as the band brings the dynamics down to nothing, ending the song with a bit of atmospheric space.
The album ends with a Wayne Shorter composition, recorded on the first day of recording sessions, entitled “Sanctuary.” It is the only song on the album to feature only one drummer (DeJohnette), and the only song not to feature Bennie Maupin on the bass clarinet. Harvey Brooks’ electric bass is also absent. This track is the most traditional sounding one on the album, featuring a more typical ballad style. It opens with Miles Davis playing a jazzy melody on the trumpet that has a floating, haunting feel to it. The electric pianos add some ghostly chords and arpeggios, soon joined by the drums, percussion and upright bass, which work more to create atmospheric textures than a steady beat. Eventually, Shorter’s soprano sax joins Davis, and the two play the mournful melody in unison, the melding of the trumpet and saxophone creating a slightly disconcerting feeling, as they occasionally play slightly out of phase with each other.
At about the 3:15 mark, the rhythm section begins to play a more steady beat, adding a gently walking bass line and lightly pulsing drums. However, this light pulse slowly builds into a fierce rhythmic climax as DeJohnette pushes the beat and the percussionists (Alias and Santos) respond by adding in frenzied rhythmic touches. The band completely fades out at about the 5:10 mark, only to repeat the entire song again. The actual released version of “Sanctuary” is actually two consecutive takes of the song, placing one right after the other. The second run through seems not to entirely different from the first one, though Dave Holland seems to be playing a little more forcefully during the atmospheric section. Overall, the second take seems a little more heightened than the first, but it still manages to bring the album to a stirring and gentle conclusion (although most CD reissues of the album add a bonus track entitled “Feio,” another Wayne Shorter song, recorded the following January).
Bitches Brew was released in April of 1970 to a mixed reception from the jazz world. Many jazz purists castigated Davis, accusing him of selling out by trying to pander to the rock crowd while others considered the album a work of monumental genius (which has become the predominant view as time has gone by). Whatever the case may be, it became Davis’ biggest selling album since Kind Of Blue, reaching #35 in the U.S. Billboard 200 chart (his only album to break into the top 40) and reaching gold status in 1976 (it is currently at 2x platinum status). It also netted Davis the 1970 Grammy Award for Best Jazz Performance, Large Group Or Soloist With Large Group, his second Grammy (his first was earned ten years earlier for his Sketches Of Spain album, the Grammy Award for Best Jazz Composition Of More Than Five Minutes Duration). The ensuing decades have seen Bitches Brew become a nearly unrivaled classic in the idiom of jazz and (especially) jazz fusion.
Miles Davis continued to explore the fusion of jazz with various rock, funk, world music and even 20th Century classical genres throughout the first half of the 1970’s before deciding to temporarily retire from music. He spent the second half of the 1970’s in near seclusion. He reemerged in the early 1980’s and began to experiment with combining jazz with 80’s-flavored R&B, soul and electronica. He scored a couple of hits with jazz covers of contemporary pop songs, most notably his cover of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” and Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature.” He continued to record and tour sporadically throughout the 1980’s and early 1990’s before suffering a stroke, which took his life on September 28th, 1991. He’s left behind one of the greatest legacies of the jazz world and a 45 year recording career, which is highlighted (in my opinion) by the amazing Bitches Brew.
In summary, I recommend Bitches Brew to anyone that enjoys music that is transportative, trance inducing, ethereal and unequivocally beautiful. It is a perfect album to introduce rock fans (particularly psychedelic rock fans) to the world of jazz. The playing of all the musicians involved is superlative and the mixing and editing work of Teo Marcelo is positively groundbreaking. If pressed, I might pick this as one of my desert island discs. Give it a listen, see what you think.
If you have Spotify, you can listen to the entire album here: http://open.spotify.com/album/3Q0zkOZEOC855ErOOJ1AdO
Welcome back music lovers. Thanks for stopping by for another installment of Normie Monday, my weekly blog posting that focuses on reviewing music, movies, television, books, or whatever may be capturing my attention at the time. Last week, I started a series of articles on the legendary jazz fusion guitarist John McLaughlin with a look at his first solo album, 1969’s Extrapolation. This week, I’m going to focus on the group that became McLaughlin’s main project shortly afterward, The Tony Williams Lifetime, and their 1969 debut album Emergency!, a groundbreaking work of the fusion movement.
By 1969, Tony Williams was already a star of the jazz world (despite his meager age of 23), thanks to the previous six years spent in the Miles Davis Quintet (do the math, that means Williams started playing with Davis at the age of 17), first appearing with Davis on his 1963 Seven Steps To Heaven album. Before that, Williams had cut his teeth with free-jazz saxophonist Sam Rivers (Williams began playing with him professionally at a jaw-dropping 13 years of age) and later Jackie McLean. Throughout the mid-60’s, Williams contributed to several of Miles Davis’ best-loved albums; including E.S.P. (1965), Miles Smiles (1966), Nefertiti (1967) and Miles In The Sky (1968). During this period, Williams also contributed to albums by Eric Dolphy, Kenny Dorham, Grachan Moncur III, Andrew Hill and fellow Miles Davis Quintet alumni Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, as well as releasing two albums on the Blue Note label as a bandleader; 1964’s Life Time and 1965’s Spring.
By 1968, Tony Williams had begun envisioning a new band inspired by the rock ‘n’ roll power trios that had begun to spring up in the couple preceding years (like Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience). Williams wanted to form an organ trio with an electric guitar as the featured lead instrument. At some point, fellow jazz drummer Jack DeJohnette (who was soon to be replacing Williams as Miles Davis’ touring drummer) played Williams a tape of himself jamming with John McLaughlin while he was visiting England with the Bill Evans Trio. Williams immediately saw the potential in the guitarist and offered him the position. McLaughlin accepted the position and moved to New York City in February of 1969, shortly after finishing his Extrapolation album (see Normie Monday ep. 81). Two days after McLaughlin arrived in New York City, he was invited to a jam session at Miles Davis’ house (with whom Williams was still playing), and the trumpeter was so impressed with McLaughlin’s guitar playing that he invited him to the next day’s recording sessions (the sessions that spawned Davis’ seminal fusion album In A Silent Way). Davis enjoyed McLaughlin’s playing so much that he offered the guitarist a position in his band, but McLaughlin turned him down, as he’d just accepted Tony Williams’ invitation and thought that he’d have a better chance of getting his own compositions recorded with Williams, as opposed to Davis.
To form the backbone of the organ trio, Williams brought in an old friend and alumni from the Blue Note label, jazz organist Larry Young, who (in addition to an impressive solo career) had backed up Jimmy Forrest, Grant Green, Etta Jones, Gildo Mahones and Woody Shaw. Young had already proven himself extremely adept at providing organ bass lines with the left hand while comping chords and/or soloing with the right hand, and he was also noted for his inventive use of the drawbars on the organ, pulling and shifting them to achieve ethereal overtones and dynamic textures. These experimental tendencies and otherworldly psychedelic flourishes were exactly what Williams wanted for his new foray into jazz rock. Interestingly enough, Young had also been invited by Miles Davis to join in on the In A Silent Way recording sessions, but Williams declined to let Young play on the sessions, fearing that he’d lose his whole band to Davis.
Williams, McLaughlin and Young (by now, called The Tony Williams Lifetime, named after Williams’ 1964 debut as a bandleader) spent the spring of 1969 rehearsing, hashing out musical ideas and discussing the philosophical implications of the music for which they were aiming. They wanted to make an album that fused the open ended improvisation of jazz with the high energy of rock and the hazy atmospheres of the then-burgeoning psychedelic scene. The trio went into Olmstead Sound Studios in New York City on May 26th and finished the album two days later. The brief sessions were overseen by noted jazz producers Monte Kay and Jack Lewis, with engineering and mixing provided by Gene Radice. The double album set was eventually named Emergency! after its lead-off track.
The titular “Emergency!” (composed by Tony Williams) kicks things off in fine fashion. After a quick drum roll from Williams, the other two musicians launch into a dissonant descending and reascending chord progression as Williams drives the drums into a frenzy of polyrhythmic fills. Williams was known for using an especially small bass drum, which he also left undampened. This resulted in a bass drum tone that was almost more akin to a floor tom, making it harder to differentiate between the feet and hand work during the busier sections. After this introductory section finishes, the drums fall into a more traditional jazz shuffle, with Williams playing an incredibly fast figure on the ride cymbal. McLaughlin takes a kinetic guitar solo as Young provides a jumpy organ bass line with his left hand while comping chords with his right hand. Already, McLaughlin’s playing seems fierier and his tone grittier than what it was on his solo debut four months earlier. After a bit, Williams brings it down a bit, and McLaughlin continues to solo as Young displays his dynamic organ skills, with the constantly shifting tone of the organ creating a drifting quality. The band then builds this quiet section back up until they begin to restate the opening chordal progression of the song. After this, Young takes a minimalistic organ solo while McLaughlin accents strange chordal arpeggios and occasional noisy notes. Once again, the band builds it back up until Young’s organ is screaming in agony and Williams’ drums are crashing furiously around it. They transition (a bit haphazardly, perhaps) back into the opening chord progression and begin to propel the rhythm into a driving bounce as Williams croons and shouts in the background. The song ends as the band dies out and Williams rolls the snare, recalling the first few seconds of the song.
Up next is “Beyond Games” (another Williams composition), and its easily the weakest song on the album. It opens with a lazy groove against which McLaughlin plays a nasty sounding chromatic melody. As the music enters a new section (with an ugly guitar arpeggio and a faster beat on the drums that emphasizes rim clicks), the listener is surprised by Tony Williams’ attempt at vocalization. Surely, this was another aspect of the rock ‘n’ roll idiom that he wanted to bring into his jazz worldview, but Tony Williams’ singing voice leaves much to be desired. “Why don’t you say what you mean, because you didn’t mean what you said?” inquires Williams in a beatnik voice that resembles Bob Dylan at his most uninspired, and the stream of consciousness poetry doesn’t really go anywhere, leaving much to be desired. Fortunately, the vocals are over quickly, and of the three songs on the album that have singing, this track is far and away the worst. After the vocals are over, the band returns to the opening chromatic melody, with Young’s pulsing organ chords creating a dissonant feeling of gritty urban decay. The band brings the sluggish groove through several up-and-down ventures in dynamics, alternating guitar and organ spotlights as they go. After some more embarrassingly bad vocals (delivered with kind of a Christopher Walken-ish phrasing) about sharing, having fun, marriage and standing up for what’s right, the song ends with a particularly forceful restatement of the chromatic melody.
Side two opens with “Where,” one of the highlights of the album. This song was composed by McLaughlin, though for some reason, the original album notes credit McLaughlin with the pseudonym of “A. Hall.” The song begins with a quiet sixteenth note bass drum beat, emphasized by the organ bass. McLaughlin begins playing some spacey guitar harmonics, effected by a wah-wah pedal. Eventually, Williams’ voice enters and sings, “Where are you going? Where have you come from? If anyone asks you, I hope you can say.” I find his singing in this song to be much more pleasing overall as he sings with a bit more finesse, reciting the lines almost meditatively, as if they were a distant incantation. Once the lyrics are done, the band launches into a bubbling groove in 6/8. Young provides a loping, endlessly looping bass groove while McLaughlin’s guitar wails passionately. After the guitar solo, the band starts alternating the 6/8 riff with a similar (albeit faster) riff in 4/8 as McLaughlin’s guitar joins with the bass. After this, the band falls into a more traditional 4/4 groove which eventually gives way to a snaking jazz shuffle. I’m constantly amazed by Young’s ability to play driving organ bass lines while comping grotesque chord sequences at the same time. McLaughlin takes an especially frantic guitar solo here, after which the band falls into the sixteenth note bounce from the intro of the song. Over this, Williams chants, “Where are they going? Where have they come from? If anyone asks them, I know they can’t say.” Then, with the thwack of a tom, the band falls back into the loping 6/8 groove. McLaughlin plays in unison with Young’s left hand while Young’s right hand plays a spiraling, reverb-drenched organ solo. Again, the band moves through its proggy alternating 6/8 and 4/8 measures, after which, Williams moves into a tense, ride-heavy jazz shuffle. McLaughlin lays down some spine-tingling, slashing guitar chords as Young’s organ pulls out some hair-raisingly dissonant melodies. Eventually, the guitar and drums gradually fade out, leaving only Young’s textural organ as the only instrument for a few seconds. The drums eventually fade back up into the sixteenth note groove from the intro, over which Williams moans the final verse, “Where am I going? Where have I come from? If anyone asks me, I know I can say.” After the final words, Williams begins to play some sick syncopated rhythms in unison on the snare and tom, playing against the sixteenth note pulse from the bass drum. After this is done, the sixteenth note groove slowly fades out.
Up next is the group’s cover of a Carla Bley composition entitled “Vashkar.” It begins with Young playing a quick octave figure with his left-hand bass. The band enters, and McLaughlin highlights the lilting jazz melody, one slightly more conventional than most of the rest of the album, while Young comps nasty chords and Williams rattles off some proto-hardcore blast beats. After the head is sufficiently stated, McLaughlin’s guitar spins off into the netherworld with a series of lightning-fast runs. Young approximates the head melody within his chord progression as Williams pilots the group into uncharted territories of intensity with his constantly moving drumming. The guitar solo moves seamlessly back into the head melody, with Young playing it in unison with McLaughlin, until the organ becomes the featured instrument. Young pushes all the right buttons with his dizzying, stomach churning organ solo, playing the “wrong” notes more often than the “right” notes. This creates a disgustingly beautiful din of noise as he peppers his solo with quick staccato chords and swirling arpeggio runs. As Williams brings the dynamics down, Young starts restating the head melody and is soon joined by McLaughlin. The band ends the song unexpectedly, almost like they wanted you to expect more and to feel an unresolved lack of closure upon the group’s sudden withdrawal. This explosive number brings the first disc to a stunning close.
The second disc opens with Williams’ and McLaughlin’s (again, as “A. Hall”) joint composition “Via The Spectrum Road.” Easily the most overtly “rock ‘n’ roll” track on the album, it begins with McLaughlin playing a bluesy figure on the acoustic guitar as Williams slowly builds a mellow drum beat. McLaughlin comes in with some overdubbed electric guitar fills (the only time on the album that he double-tracks himself, I believe) as Young plays some minimalistic left-hand bass and textural organ notes. Williams sings the first verse in a relatively pleasing timbre, pulling out a climbing melody that has a pastoral quality to it. After the first verse, the band starts playing a slightly claustrophobic section, with Williams playing some fast snare figures as the chord progression moves through some tense minor seconds and McLaughlin’s fingers pluck out some unhinged guitar lines. The band quickly moves back to the bluesy feel for the second verse and alternates it several times with the tense claustrophobic section. Sometimes, Williams takes the last words of the verse, repeating the ghostly refrain of “Spectrum road” into the claustrophobic section, creating an uneasy feeling. The song ends with some drawn out textures from the guitar and organ.
The next track is easily the most propulsive on the album. McLaughlin’s “Spectrum” is somewhat of a continuation of the previous track (though it had been released earlier in a much milder form on McLaughlin’s debut Extrapolation, see last week’s article), and it’s a driving bebop shuffle, another of the main highlights of the album. It begins with McLaughlin and Young engaging in some blazing unison lines, interrupted by a burning groove from Williams over which McLaughlin plays some stabbing staccato guitar chords. After this back and forth happens a few times, Williams falls into an intensely fast jazz drum beat. McLaughlin turns in some of his best playing on the album, exploring every inch of the fretboard, as his fingers fly through modal runs and speedy swept-picking lines. Again, Young proves impressive with a speed-walking organ bass line and right hand material that responds to McLaughlin’s solos perfectly. After the guitar solo, the organ joins in to move through the lightning-fast unison head melodies again, which leads into an organ solo. This is one of Young’s best spotlights of the whole album. His solo here is ferocious and terrifying, but I’m pretty sure he quotes a couple of other jazz melodies during it, I just can’t place what they are. He alternates between speedy arpeggios, tasty modal licks and dissonant chordal work until he is joined by McLaughlin to restate the head melody. After this, the band falls into a bluesier feel, anchored by a soulful bass line (sometimes echoed by McLaughlin’s guitar). The band works off this groove for a while, bringing the dynamics up and down as Williams takes some stupefying drum breaks. The song ends as the guitar and organ begin restating the head melody and come to a close on one big accented note.
The last side opens with Williams’ “Sangria For Three,” the longest song on the album at over thirteen minutes. It begins with the band laying down a funky groove while Young plays a simple organ melody and Williams sings along in unison with it using wordless vocalizations. After this introductory passage, the band falls back to the typical tense jazz shuffle as McLaughlin lays down some smoking hot guitar licks. His guitar solo evolves into some thrashing guitar chords before moving into some dissonant bends and wailing repetitive figures. At the conclusion of the guitar solo, the band moves into some spacey territory, as Young pads out the background with his atmospheric organ histrionics and McLaughlin adds some fuzzy guitar textures. The organ/guitar duet continues sans drums for a decent amount of time here. When the drums reenter, Williams once again sings along wordlessly with the simple organ melody until Young gets to solo over the tense jazz rhythm. Young’s solo here is more melodic than the norm for this album, and he pulls out some catchy melodies as McLaughlin plays with a wah-wah pedal in the background. Young’s solo here seems to indicate to me that Emerson, Lake & Palmer keyboardist Keith Emerson was a huge fan of Larry Young, as I hear a lot of similarities between the two in terms of melodic choices and phrasing, especially during this solo. Towards the end of the organ solo, Williams begins to bring the tempo down until the band falls back into ambient space. Young pulls out some drifting moods as McLaughlin turns in some textural guitar noise. In the last minute-and-a-half, the band reenters, and Williams once again sings along with the organ melodies. The song ends with Williams hitting one especially high note as the band wails in unbridled rock ‘n’ roll delight, creating a luxurious din of noise.
The album ends with a Dave Herman composition, “Something Special.” Although this song is called “Something Special” on the cover of this album, when McLaughlin recorded it for his 1971 album My Goal’s Beyond, he called it “Something Spiritual.” I can’t find any info on Dave Herman and what the original name of the song might be, and it’s possible that Dave Herman was another pseudonym being used by McLaughlin, but that’s just speculation. Either way, I find it to be one of the less memorable tracks on the album. It begins with a bit of mellow spaciousness before the band starts playing a funky riff in 6/4. The band goes back and forth between the mellowness (with McLaughlin pulling out some languid guitar chords and spectral arpeggios) and the funkiness a few times before landing on the funky groove more fully. The most redeeming quality of this track is Williams’ bracing drum solo, where he breaks the 6/4 groove down into innumerable polyrhythms and metrically modulates between them with the greatest of ease. All the while, McLaughlin and Young are holding down the funky 6/4 groove until Williams begins to bring it down and focus primarily on the snare. Eventually, he moves back to the toms, after which the band begins to alternate between the spacey textures and the funky riff before ending the song with 45 seconds of noisy din, with McLaughlin tremolo picking one note on the guitar as Young pads some dissonant organ chords and Williams washes the cymbals climactically. The song (and album) ends as the band drops out suddenly.
Emergency! was released later in 1969 and was initially looked upon with scorn by the jazz community, who didn’t appreciate the overt rock ‘n’ roll influences. However, in time, in the album was seen as a monumental effort in the fusing of jazz and rock, despite receiving a mix that nobody in the band appreciated, citing a muddy EQ, oddly balanced instruments and too much distortion. However, some reviewers (myself included) find the rough mixing and edgy distortion to be a vital component of the album, and one of the aspects of the album that truly sets it apart from other early fusion efforts, placing it more towards the “rock” side of things than other similar releases.
The Tony Williams Lifetime released one more album with this lineup in 1970 (albeit with the addition of former Cream bassist/vocalist Jack Bruce) entitled Turn It Over before John McLaughlin left to form his own fusion group, Mahavishnu Orchestra. Tony Williams recruited jazz guitarist Ted Dunbar to record 1971’s Ego album. After Ego, Larry Young also left the group to pursue further solo endeavors. The Tony Williams Lifetime recorded several more albums throughout the 1970’s, featuring at various times such players as Webster Lewis (keyboards), Allan Holdsworth (guitar), Patrick O’Hearn (bass) and numerous other musicians. Tony Williams also continued to make solo non-Lifetime albums and act as a sideman to various other jazz musicians until his untimely death from a heart attack in 1997 following routine gall bladder surgery. He was only 51 years old. Even sadder, Larry Young died in 1978 after being admitted to the hospital for mysterious stomach pains. His cause of death has never been fully disclosed. The only surviving member of the original trio, John McLaughlin, continues to record and tour on a fairly regular basis.
In summary, if you love jazz fusion, but tend to shy away from some of the later jazz fusion that places too much emphasis on virtuosic shredding and not enough emphasis on vibe and emotion, then The Tony Williams Lifetime’s Emergency! is the perfect album for you. It has influenced not only jazz fusion players, but punk, hardcore and metal musicians as well (Tony Williams is considered the inventor of the “blast beat,” a commonly used hardcore drumming technique). Although Williams’ singing definitely leaves a lot to be desired, it is used very sparingly throughout the album, and the musicianship on display is simply staggering. But more importantly, the music on Emergency! has a transportive, ethereal mood that the majority of jazz fusion tends to lack, or just downright ignore. I personally find Emergency! to be an exquisitely beautiful album, one that should be listened to with the lights off and a candle burning. It precipitates Miles Davis’ sprawling jazz fusion double album masterpiece Bitches Brew by several months, and was certainly a big influence on that album. Give it a listen, see what you think.
If you have Spotify, you can listen to the entire album here: http://open.spotify.com/album/1waasXN8fMNbWh4xq7Akeg
Hello music lovers. Thanks for stopping by for another installment of Normie Monday, my weekly blog posting that focuses on reviewing music, movies, television, books, or whatever may be capturing my attention at the time. After concluding my series of articles on Jaco Pastorius last week, I thought that I’d start a series that focuses on another of the most important names of the jazz fusion movement. This week, I’m going to be taking a look at jazz guitarist John McLaughlin and the first album that he released as a band leader, 1969’s Extrapolation.
John McLaughlin grew up in Doncaster, Yorkshire, England within a heavily musical family. Initially learning the piano and violin, he first picked up the guitar at the age of 11 and began to study flamenco, gypsy swing and (later) rock ‘n’ roll. After graduating from high school, McLaughlin moved from Yorkshire to London and began to cut his teeth on the London club circuit. Throughout the 1960’s, he played with various R&B groups including; Alexis Korner, Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames, The Graham Bond Organization (which also featured future Cream members Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker) and Brian Auger. He also managed to find work recording as a session musician, appearing on albums by Twice As Much, Gordon Beck and Sandy Brown. However, McLaughlin found this session work to be tedious and musically unfulfilling, but he admits that it strengthened his playing and put him in touch with influential music industry figures, studio executives and a whole host of other top notch session musicians. He would call upon some of these fellow musicians when it came time to record his solo debut album.
In January of 1969, McLaughlin assembled a small but powerful crew of musicians to record some of his jazz compositions. The drummer’s throne was filled by Tony Oxley, who’d been the house drummer at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club since 1966 and had also played with McLaughlin in Gordon Beck’s band. The upright bass was handled by Brian Odgers (whose name was mistakenly spelled “Odges” on the original album sleeve), who had previously played with Sweet Thursday (a group led by the famed session keyboardist Nicky Hopkins), folk duo Jan & Lorraine and Al Stewart. Providing a counterpoint to McLaughlin’s own solos was a young jazz saxophonist named John Surman who’d previously played with the Mike Westbrook Band, the Peter Lemer Quintet, Graham Collier and Alexis Korner (though not at the same time as McLaughlin).
The album, eventually titled Extrapolation after one of McLaughlin’s compositions, was recorded in one day (January 18, 1969) at London’s Advision Studios. It was produced by Giorgio Gomelsky, one of the great unsung heroes of rock ‘n’ roll. Gomelsky had been the owner of the Crawdaddy Club, where the Rolling Stones had been the house band. He went on to become the manager for the Rolling Stones, as well as The Yardbirds, and he was instrumental in helping develop the early careers of Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Rod Stewart. The one-day session was engineered by Eddy Offord, who would soon gain recognition as the producer and engineer for the progressive rock group Yes during their most productive period.
The album begins with the title track, “Extrapolation.” The rhythm section kicks things off with a languid jazz swing, juxtaposing Odgers’ relaxed bass line with Oxley’s busy cymbal work. McLaughlin and Surman enter and harmonize on a forceful head melody, playing it twice through before launching into a bebop freakout. As the guitar and saxophone work in unison spazz-out mode, the rhythm section picks up into a bustling jazz walk only to retreat back into cool jazz mode just as quickly. McLaughlin takes the first solo, spinning his guitar into webs of dissonant free jazz exploration as the rhythm section alternates between the languid groove and the fast walking rhythm. Surman’s sax solo follows McLaughlin’s, and it’s an equally impressive exercise in creating sheets of atonal notes, taking his cue from Coltrane and Coleman. After the sax solo, the lead instruments restate the head melody a couple times as the song comes to a close and segues seamlessly into the next track.
“It’s Funny” begins with the final bass hit of the previous song. This track is a much more tranquil affair than the previous track. McLaughlin lays down some atmospheric guitar chords over Odgers’ minimalistic upright bass notes as Oxley’s drums work more to provide a background of twinkling cymbals and free rhythms than to keep a steady beat. Surman’s saxophone is the featured lead instrument for the first half of this one, and he plays some smoothly soulful melodies, often relying on a quickly repeating motif. As the sax solo progresses, the rhythm section slowly builds in intensity until falling back to herald the start of the guitar solo. McLaughlin solos at this stage in his career often rely heavily on dissonant chord changes in the upper registers interspersed with blazingly fast atonal licks. Towards the end of the song, McLaughlin and Surman share in a unison statement of a sultry melody before things pick up a bit and Surman takes another quick solo that brings the song to a dramatic ending. McLaughlin creates some interesting textures by sweep-picking some quick arpeggios as the rhythm section winds down at the very end of the song.
Up next is “Arjen’s Bag,” and it’s probably McLaughlin’s best known composition on this album. It was recorded by the Joe Farrell Quartet the following year with McLaughlin as a guest musician (essentially making them a quintet), with the song being retitled “Follow Your Heart.” McLaughlin would himself record another rendition of the tune (under this new title) for his third solo album, 1971’s My Goal’s Beyond. The song begins with McLaughlin strumming out some spacey guitar chords before the band drops in and Surman begins to play a simple, but effective saxophone melody. After the sax head arrangement, Surman takes his playing into an area of freer lead exploration, wailing emotionally over McLaughlin’s textural guitar chords. The second half of the song features the guitar in a subdued lead role, never witnessing any of the frenetic solos that usually typify McLaughlin’s playing. After the guitar solo, the saxophone restates the simple head melody and the song segues deftly into the next track.
“Pete The Poet” was written in honor of McLaughlin’s friend and former band mate Pete Brown, who had been the leader of a band called The First Real Poetry Band (which featured McLaughlin on guitar, as well as future Gong drummer Laurie Allen). Pete Brown then went on to great commercial success as the chief lyricist behind the supergroup Cream, writing the lyrics for such rock ‘n’ roll classics as “I Feel Free,” “Sunshine Of Your Love” and “White Room.” “Pete The Poet” picks up so suddenly after the previous song, that I’m led to believe that they were actually recorded in one take. The rhythm section picks up into a frantically walking bass line and tense drum beat as McLaughlin dramatically strums some bubbling guitar chords. Then, the band engages in some trade-off riffing, with the rhythm section dropping out as the sax and guitar engaging in some quick unison melodies. Then, the sax and guitar drop out as the bass and drums play a fast bubbling beat. After a bit of this back and forth, Brian Odgers takes a supple upright bass solo over Oxley’s jazzy cymbal work. McLaughlin slowly creeps the guitar back in to end the bass solo, with the guitar and saxophone engaging in some riff trading, quickly alternating short licks with each other. The band continues to build the momentum in this fashion (with McLaughlin turning in some particularly edgy chordal riffing) until Tony Oxley gets a turn in the spotlight. He turns in a drum solo that possesses both the light attack of jazz drumming and the bombastic nature of rock drumming. As the drum solo winds down, Oxley brings back a steady beat and the back engages in some more of the back and forth riffing that characterized the beginning of the song, bringing the song to a climactic finish.
Side one ends with “This Is For Us To Share,” an atmospheric and mellow number. It begins with a brief segment of McLaughlin on solo nylon-string guitar. He finger-picks some ethereal chord changes in a rhythm that quickens and slows freely. As the meat of the song enters, McLaughlin switches from acoustic to electric guitar, but the nature of his guitar lines remain the same. Surman adds some soaring saxophone lines over the textural guitar figures. The rhythm section performs almost more orchestrally in this song, with the drums doing free-time rolls and dramatic cymbal washes, and the bass creating low rumbling notes and occasionally joining the saxophone in dissonant runs. This song ends side one with a free floating feeling.
Side two begins with “Spectrum,” one of the brisker songs on the album. It begins with the sax and guitar engaging in some quick unison melodies as the rhythm section creates a tense jazzy beat. After the unison section, McLaughlin falls into more of a rhythm guitar mode as Surman takes a spiraling sax solo. Halfway through the song, the guitar takes center stage, and McLaughlin gives us a spirited performance, alternating blazing licks with slashing chords. It ends with a quick restatement of the unison melody from the beginning before segueing smoothly into the next song.
“Binky’s Beam” (erroneously listed as “Binky’s Dream” on the original album sleeve) name-checks another of McLaughlin’s band mates from The First Real Poetry Band, this time bassist Binky McKenzie. The longest song on the album (at just over seven minutes), it begins with a mellow guitar riff that arises out of the din that concludes the previous track. As the guitar riff moves through a simple chord progression, the bass accents the root notes as the drums lay down some textural rhythms. Eventually, the sax joins in and begins playing a unison riff with the guitar as the bass starts playing the guitar riff from earlier. McLaughlin takes a guitar solo here that starts fairly subdued, but morphs into one of his fiercest moments on the album. As the guitar solo ends, McLaughlin falls into rhythm guitar mode as Surman begins to wail a frenzied saxophone solo that hits some climactic high sustained notes before falling back to sheets of blown notes. As the sax solo begins to subside, the guitar joins back in, and the two restate the unison line from earlier in the song over the funky bass riff.
The next song also seems to segue out of the previous song. “Really To Know” begins with some moody guitar chords over a melodic upright bass line. Eventually, Surman’s saxophone joins in and begins to play some slow-moving sax lines, soon joined by Oxley’s atmospheric drumming. Towards the middle of the song, the rhythm section takes on a slow shuffle, and McLaughlin responds by moving his guitar playing into more of a bluesy realm. This is short lived, though, and soon the rhythm section falls back to its previous freer nature. Surman plays some soft lead lines which McLaughlin comps some delicate guitar chords until the song ends quietly.
“Two For Two” is up next, and it’s probably my favorite song on the album. It begins with Tony Oxley playing a quick beat on the drums, which is soon joined by a briskly walking bass line. McLaughlin plays a rapidly shifting chord progression as Surman outlines a melody within in. After a flurry of unison notes, McLaughlin engages in some kinetic guitar strumming as the rest of the band drops out. His aggressive guitar strumming here almost resembles Pete Townshend at his angriest (think “Pinball Wizard”). This ferocious playing constitutes the middle of the song, with Odgers occasionally accenting some scarce notes with the upright bass. When the band reenters, Surman begins blowing sheets of notes while the rhythm section engages in some dissonant free rhythm madness. This section is the most intense of the whole album, as every instrument begins to wail dramatically. As the band brings this freewheeling section down dynamically, they engage in one more quick burst of unison riffing before bringing the song to its conclusion.
The album ends with a short solo nylon-string guitar piece from McLaughlin, entitled “Peace Piece.” McLaughlin plays a simple two note bass line on the nylon-string guitar while playing some gorgeous Eastern-inspired melodies on the top strings. This song sounds less like a composed song, and more like a short improvisation on some Eastern-sounding modes that McLaughlin was working on at the time. However, it’s still a supremely gorgeous piece, and points towards the more heavily Eastern-influenced material in which McLaughlin would soon dabble.
Extrapolation was released in 1969 on Giorgio Gomelsky’s small independent label Marmalade Records. Though it did nothing commercially upon initial release, it served to introduce jazz audiences to the budding talents of the young John McLaughlin, who would soon be setting the jazz world on fire with his searing guitar. Shortly after Extrapolation was recorded, McLaughlin moved from London to New York City and accepted an invitation to play in a new band being formed by Tony Williams (the then-current drummer of the Miles Davis Quartet) called Tony Willaims’ Lifetime. This association with Tony Williams led to McLaughlin contributing to several of Miles Davis’ groundbreaking fusion works in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s and starting his own fusion group, Mahavishnu Orchestra, in 1971, but more on these projects over the next few weeks (spoiler alert). In the wake of McLaughlin’s greater successes with Miles Davis and Mahavishnu Orchestra, Extrapolation was re-released by Polydor Records in 1972 and rose to #152 on the Pop Albums chart, no small feat for a three year old instrumental jazz album. McLaughlin would continue with a successful career in the jazz world, both as a band leader, solo artist and contributor to other people’s works.
In summary, while Extrapolation may not be the most varied of releases (many of the songs follow the same formula, and the mood never strays far beyond moody free-jazz fusion), it is a crucial first step in McLaughlin’s career as a prominent jazz guitarist. It can serve as sublimely tranquil background music, but a closer examination of the playing reveals a depth on instrumental know-how from all involved. Certainly John Surman’s playing is of equal weight to McLaughlin’s on this album, and the rhythm section does a magnificent job of remaining understated and musical. Although it doesn’t feature much of the fireworks and musical invention that McLaughlin was soon to display with Tony Williams’ Lifetime and Mahavishnu Orchestra, Extrapolation is still a worthwhile listen for those interested in jazz fusion and (especially) the jazz guitar. Give it a listen, see what you think.
If you have Spotify, you can listen to the entire album here:http://open.spotify.com/album/7rp0ZZsII59m44yGM8X4YK
Welcome back music lovers. Thanks for stopping by for another installment of Normie Monday, my weekly blog posting that focuses on reviewing music, movies, television, books, or whatever may be capturing my attention at the time. This week, I’m going to be wrapping up the series on legendary jazz bassist Jaco Pastorius that I’ve been working on for the past several weeks. After the last two weeks spent discussing a couple of his less “jazzy” contributions (Ian Hunter’s All American Alien Boy and Joni Mitchell’s Hejira), I thought I’d conclude the series with a look at the group for which Jaco is most widely recognized, Weather Report, and their most successful release, 1977’s Heavy Weather.
Weather Report was formed by saxophonist Wayne Shorter and Austrian-born keyboardist Joe Zawinul in 1970 after both musicians had played with trumpeter Miles Davis on his groundbreaking jazz-fusion albums In A Silent Way (1969) and Bitches Brew (1970). However, Zawinul and Shorter had first met and become friends a decade earlier when both had played with Maynard Ferguson’s Big Band. Following this stint, Zawinul moved on to play with Cannonball Adderley’s group while Shorter joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Wayne Shorter then joined up with Miles Davis in 1964 to form Davis’s “second great quintet” (as it’s so called) with keyboardist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams. By the late 60’s, Davis wanted to expand the sound of his group and hired a guitarist (John McLaughlin) and two additional keyboardists (Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul). Zawinul even composed two substantial tracks for Davis during his short residency with him.
When Wayne Shorter’s six-year partnership with Miles Davis ended in 1970, he teamed up with Joe Zawinul and Czech-born bassist Miroslav Vitouš to form Weather Report, a jazz-fusion group that began by continuing to pioneer the avant-garde free-jazz of their previous work with Miles Davis. The group’s first five album’s (1971’s Weather Report, 1972’s I Sing The Body Electric, 1973’s Sweetnighter, 1974’s Mysterious Traveller and 1975’s Tale Spinnin’) saw the band moving through a quick succession of drummers (Alphonse Mouzon, Eric Gravatt, Herschel Dwellingham, Greg Errico, Ishmail Wilburn, Skip Hadden, Darryl Brown, Chuck Bazemore, Leon “Ndugu” Chancler and Chester Thompson) and auxiliary percussionists (Don Alias, Barbara Burton, Airto Moreira, Dom Um Romão, Muruga Booker and Alyrio Lima) as the music moved away from the initial free-jazz sound and more towards funk and Latin jazz, a trend that didn’t bode well for the classically trained Miroslav Vitouš. He left during the sessions for Mysterious Traveller and was replaced by electric bass guitarist Alphonso Johnson (Vitouš had tended to favor the upright bass and was not inclined to play funk).
By the time of Weather Report’s sixth album (1976’s Black Market), the group had gone through so many drummers and percussionists that bassist Alphonso Johnson had become disheartened by performing with the group. He left during the sessions for Black Market and was replaced by the young Jaco Pastorius, who had first made contact with Joe Zawinul after a Weather Report concert in Miami several years earlier. Black Market saw Don Alias return to the percussionist’s chair (for the first time since Weather Report’s debut) in addition to the Peruvian percussionist Alex Acuña. The drumming was handled by Chester Thompson (with help from Narada Michael Walden on two tracks), but he soon found that his style did not mesh well with that of Jaco Pastorius and opted to leave the group. For the subsequent tour, Alex Acuña moved from percussion to drum kit and the group recruited a young Puerto Rican percussionist named Manolo Badrena to replace Don Alias.
The quintet of Zawinul, Shorter, Pastorius, Acuña and Badrena convened in late 1976 to begin recording their seventh album. This recording (eventually titled Heavy Weather) became the group’s first album to feature a consistent lineup with no mid-session change-ups or contributions from extraneous guest musicians. Additionally, Jaco Pastorius brought a new level of compositional, arrangement and production skill to the group (not to mention his otherworldly skills on the bass guitar). In Pastorius, Joe Zawinul found a bassist who was equally adept at laying down blazing funk grooves and virtuosic melodic solos that rivaled those of Zawinul and Shorter. Zawinul, who had pioneered the use of synthesizers in jazz since the group’s third album, brought a groundbreaking amount of ARP and Oberheim synths into the mix, resulting in a contemporary sounding jazz album. The directness of the melodies, conciseness of the compositions and virtuosity of the musicians resulted in jazz that could be enjoyed both viscerally and intellectually.
Heavy Weather opens with what had become possibly Weather Report’s best known composition, the iconic “Birdland.” Written by Joe Zawinul, it opens with a catchy synth bass line from the song’s composer before Jaco enters, playing one of the song’s main head melodies in the upper registers of his fretless bass guitar over Zawinul’s comped piano chords and Acuña’s shuffling jazz beat. After one pass, Jaco moves even higher, playing the melody with pinched harmonics for the second pass. After this, Shorter enters and begins playing another of the song’s main motifs, a tensely shifting chord progression, in harmony with Zawinul’s synthesized brass. This gives way to a mellow vamp that features Jaco laying down some textural bass rumbles and Shorter interjecting some tasty sax fills. At about the two minute mark, the song introduces another of its main head melodies, a joyously sunny motif that is played together by the piano, bass, sax and synths. As the band bounce dynamically between the different head melodies, laying down vibey grooves between each one, they maintain a fairly static rhythmic dynamic, but are constantly adding little melodic flourishes and interesting little solos, culminating in a dancing synth solo from Zawinul that ends as the song slowly fades out. This song was released as a single and became a surprise radio hit, unusual for instrumental music.
Up next is, in my opinion, the low point of the album, “A Remark You Made,” another Zawinul composition. A smooth ballad, this song gets a little too close to Muzak for me to fully enjoy it. It begins with Zawinul laying down textural acoustic and electric pianos over the mellow rhythm section with Wayne Shorter soon joining in to add a sultry tenor sax solo. This is followed by solos from Jaco and Zawinul that never really get past the smooth cheese quality that dominates this song. Shorter and Pastorius do get to play some tasty sax and bass unison lines at one point. At about the five minute mark, Zawinul takes a synth solo that I find to be grossly misplaced, as the lightning-fast runs and jarring intervallic jumps do not jive with the vibe of the rest of the track. The song comes to a close after Jaco restates his bass melody from earlier in the song.
Jaco gets his first spin in the composer’s chair with the next song with his energetic “Teen Town.” It begins with a quick snare fill (Jaco played the drum kit himself for this song) that leads into a quick shuffle on the hi-hat as Zawinul and Shorter harmonize on the song’s main head arrangement, a lilting melody with a slightly disconcerting quality. This is followed by a typically awe-inspiring bass solo from Jaco, whose speedy bass runs are underpinned by thin synth pads from Zawinul. After the bass solo, the lilting head melody is revisited, followed by a groovy bass line. The band falls into a brief vamping section with Zawinul adding some well-placed electric piano chords. Jaco takes a few more blazing bass runs as Shorter begins to edge his way into a short textural sax solo. The song ends too soon, though, as the band quickly restates the lilting head melody and ends with one big accent.
Side one of the album ends with the Wayne Shorter composition “Harlequin,” which opens with simple quarter note chords from the acoustic piano. As the band enters, they lay down some interesting polyrhythms over the straight quarter note piano vamp. As usual, Jaco’s busy bass becomes a focal point as the piano drops into a more abstract role and a lonely synth line becomes the main melodic component. Eventually, Shorter comes in with some soaring soprano sax lines, but his appearances in this song are surprisingly brief considering that he wrote it. The keyboards and bass seems to play more of a central role in this song than the saxophone. He does get to shine for a bit towards the end of the song as the band builds the intensity and his saxophone reaches some new heights of emotional power.
Side two opens with a short percussion and vocal jam, co-composed by Alex Acuña and Manolo Badrena, entitled “Rumba Mamá.” The two composers are the only performers on the track, which begins with Badrena shouting out in Spanish as the percussion begins to accent occasional bombastic beats. The shouting continues as the congas start to play a steady beat. Eventually, Badrena’s timbales become the featured instrument, playing incredibly fast fills before dropping into a funky beat with help from the cowbell. The song ends after one quick section of composed rhythmic unity.
Another Wayne Shorter composition is up next, and it’s a more uptempo offering than his first one. “Palladium” begins with a bombastic entrance of the band all at once, highlighting a fanfare type melody in unison. After the band vamps on this composed section for a little bit, the band drops out on a dime, leaving only the ringing of a cymbal to fill the void. The band reenters with a solid groove from Jaco and a syncopated electric piano chords from Zawinul. Shorter enters, playing a staccato sax melody that syncopates the rhythm even further. The electric piano and sax continue to play off of each other rhythmically as the rhythm section slowly builds the intensity, courtesy of Jaco continually pushing the bass line to greater and greater heights. The interplay between the sax and the keyboards is the highlight of this song, though, as they alternate between playing in harmony and playing counter to one another. Towards the end of the song, the sax and synths begin harmonizing on a soaring chord progression as Zawinul takes a spiraling synth solo. The track ends out of nowhere on an odd beat.
Joe Zawinul’s “The Juggler” comes next, and it somewhat recalls the band’s earlier pre-funk days, being a bit more ambient, freer in rhythm and slightly more “classical” in nature than the rest of the album. It begins with a quiet piano figure that is soon joined by a synth line that works to counter the piano. A somewhat militaristic snare figure soon fades up. This song also features Zawinul on the guitar and Jaco on the mandocello, adding some string melodies to the proceedings. The band continues to engage in some intricate harmonic interplay. At one point, a tabla (played by Zawinul) enters, giving the song a slightly Middle Eastern feel. Shorter responds by playing some vaguely Middle Eastern sounding sax melodies. One of the most interesting moments of this song comes towards the middle, when Zawinul begins to play some staccato synth chords that are effected with delay. Jaco responds by playing a bass line that emulates the feel of the delayed synth chords, but without the effect of delay, using only his fingers, a superb testament to the expressive power in his hands. This song is chock full of lilting melodies and atmospheric textures, ending with the militaristic snare figure fading out as Jaco hits one last bass note.
The album closes with Jaco’s composition “Havona,” which begins with a synth pad fading up before starting to play a catchy chord sequence. The band soon joins in, with Acuña laying down a tense jazzy beat as the soaring chord progression continues. As the mood of the song changes, Jaco begins laying down one of his trademark lightning-fast bass grooves with the band comping a slowly changing chord progression underneath. Zawinul and Pastorius engage in some impressive unison runs between the piano and bass at one point that lead into a jumpy piano solo which ends with a restatement of the unison piano/bass runs. This is followed by a typically tasty sax solo from Shorter, during which I swear I hear a tease of Jaco’s song “(Used To Be A) Cha-Cha” from his recently released self titled debut album (see Normie Monday ep. 76) in the bass line. The middle of the song is dominated by a monster bass solo from Jaco, probably his flashiest playing on the album. After the bass solo, Zawinul takes another piano solo that eventually morphs into a climbing wall of dissonant piano noise that brings the song to an intense climax. The song ends with Jaco building the intensity by playing a bubbling sixteenth note groove over one bass note as the other musicians build up an intense wall of noise, until the song ends with a quick restatement of a previous theme.
Heavy Weather was released in March of 1977 and was instantly heralded as a jazz-fusion masterpiece by critics, becoming Weather Report’s biggest selling album. It topped the Jazz Albums chart and even managed to make it to #30 on the Billboard 200 chart, a major feat for a jazz album. After the tour in support of Heavy Weather, both Acuña and Badrena left the group (the former to return to his career as a well-respected session musician, the latter for “non musical reasons”). Weather Report’s next album, 1978’s Mr. Gone, was initially conceived as a solo album by Joe Zawinul, eventually morphing into a Weather Report album. It featured a variety of different drummers, one of which was Peter Erskine who would be recruited as the bands full-time drummer for the ensuing tour.
Erskine would finally bring some stability to the rhythm section, and the core quartet of Zawinul, Shorter, Pastorius and Erskine would continue until 1982 (joined by hand percussionist Bobby Thomas Jr. in 1980). However, Pastorius, Erskine and Thomas left in 1982, and Zawinul and Shorter soldiered on for three more albums with a newly formed group until calling it quits for good in 1986. Zawinul and Shorter both continued on to successful solo careers in the jazz field, with the former succumbing to skin cancer in 2007. He joined his friend Jaco Pastorius in the afterlife, who had been beaten to death outside of a bar in 1987 after years of battling substance abuse, bipolar disorder and homelessness.
In summary, if you enjoy jazz or jazz-fusion, then Heavy Weather is a must-hear album for you. However, it is also thoroughly enjoyable to anyone that prefers rock music or any form of tightly composed music that stresses virtuosic musicianship, but is still melodic and danceable. It can be enjoyed in a variety of settings and situations, and although the overt use of the synthesizers definitely date the album to the mid-70’s, there is a timeless quality to the compositions and the performances that will surely appeal to music fans for generations to come. Give it a listen, see what you think.
If you have Spotify, you can listen to the entire album here: http://open.spotify.com/album/2S2ujEbkeFUblmiNjf1e0f
Welcome back music lovers. Thanks for stopping by for another installment of Normie Monday, my weekly blog posting that focuses on reviewing music, movies, television, books, or whatever may be capturing my attention at the time. Continuing on with the trend of the past three weeks’ articles, focusing on albums featuring the groundbreaking bass work of the jazz bass luminary Jaco Pastorius, this week I’m going to take a look at an album that finds Jaco working in a more subdued setting. Pastorius began working with the iconic singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell in 1976 and continued working with her throughout the 1970’s. The first fruits of their collaborative efforts (and the focus of this week’s article) was Joni’s breathtaking 1976 masterpiece Hejira.
Joni Mitchell was born Roberta Joan Anderson and grew up in the Saskatchewan province of western Canada, with her family settling in the town of Saskatoon (which she considers to be her home town) when she was eleven years old. By this point, Joni had already survived a bout with polio when she was eight. The weakened state of the muscles in her hands were a major contributing factor to her decision to utilize unusual self-designed open guitar tunings when she began learning to play the guitar at the age of 14. Joni spent her high school years playing folk songs and jazz standards in local Saskatoon coffeehouses to make some spare cash.
After graduating from high school, Joni went to the Alberta College of Art and Design in Calgary to study painting, a medium that she intended to chiefly focus her efforts on. However, she found that her more classically figurative style did not jive with the abstraction that was being heavily championed at the time, so she dropped out after only one year. She returned to her love of music and decided to move east to Toronto and try her hand at being a folk singer. Her inexperience and lack of a musician’s union membership reduced her to mostly busking while working at a clothing outlet to pay the bills. At the age of 21, Joni gave birth to a baby girl out of wedlock, deciding to give her up for adoption as she had broken up with the baby’s father. This experience would come to greatly influence some of Joni’s best loved songs, including “Little Green” from 1971’s Blue and “Chinese Cafe” from 1982’s Wild Things Run Fast. Joni would not see her daughter again until 1997.
Shortly after the birth of her daughter, Joni resumed performing at coffeehouses in Toronto, singing more and more of her original material as her songwriting skills blossomed. She met Chuck Mitchell, a fellow folk singer from Michigan, in the spring of 1965 and married him shortly after. The two returned to Chuck’s native Detroit, where they lived and performed as a folk duo for close to two years. The two divorced in 1967, and Joni moved to New York City, touring up and down the east coast as a solo artist. By this time, her songwriting had greatly improved and her melancholic open-tuned guitar tunes and poetic lyrics had been covered by folk artists including Tom Rush, George Hamilton IV, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Dave Van Ronk and Judy Collins.
While performing in Coconut Grove, Florida, Joni was discovered by David Crosby (formerly of The Byrds, and soon to be enjoying immense success as a member of Crosby, Stills and Nash). Crosby brought Joni to Los Angeles, managed to secure her a record deal with Reprise Records and produced her first album, Song To A Seagull, in 1968. While her debut didn’t manage to light the charts on fire (it stalled at the #189 spot) Joni’s unique songwriting skills, ghostly guitar playing, floating piano figures and fragile voice managed to secure her a loyal cult following, priming her next album for more success. Clouds, her 1969 sophomore effort, sold considerably better, reaching #31 in the U.S., and featured her own recordings of some of the songs that had been previously recorded by other artists, namely “Tin Angel,” “Chelsea Morning” and “Both Sides, Now.” Clouds won Joni her first Grammy award, the 1969 Grammy Award for Best Folk Performance. Joni’s next two albums, 1970’s Ladies Of The Canyon and 1971’s Blue, only saw Joni’s critical and commercial success expand, containing such classics as “Big Yellow Taxi,” “Woodstock” (her own recording of a song already enjoying great success at the hands of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young), “The Circle Game,” “Carey,” “A Case Of You” and “The Last Time I Saw Richard.”
In 1972, Joni moved from Reprise Records to David Geffin’s newly formed Asylum Records, which released her For The Roses album, another successful endeavor bolstered by the popularity of the single “You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio.” For The Roses also saw Joni begin to step out of the folk arrangements that had come to dominate her first four albums, featuring jazzy saxophone solos and a tighter rhythmic emphasis than seen previously. This trend continued with 1974’s Court And Spark, Joni’s highest chart placing LP (#2), which also contained three successful singles (including “Help Me,” Joni’s only single to reach the U.S. top ten). Court And Spark also saw Joni begin her working relationship with L.A. Express, a group of noted jazz and session musicians. L.A. Express also toured with Joni (as documented on the 1974 live album Miles Of Aisles) and worked with her on her next album, 1975’s The Hissing Of Summer Lawns. This album saw Joni begin to experiment with world music rhythms and odd synthesizer arrangements in addition to her deepening interest in jazz.
In early 1976, Joni went with some friends on a cross country road trip by car, traveling from California to Maine, then back to California by herself. While on this journey, Joni composed the bulk of the material that would feature on her next album, Hejira. The title of the album came from a transliteration of the Arabic word hijra, which refers to the prophet Muhammad’s journey from Mecca to Medina. As such, the main themes of the album are travel, wanderlust, restlessness, isolation and the assorted occurrences that one encounters while on the road. Additionally, Joni uses lots of imagery that deals with the small towns, lonely highways and winter weather that she encountered on her journey. As the album was written entirely on the road, the piano numbers that peppered all of her previous albums are completely absent on this release, with Joni only playing the guitar.
When it came time to record her new material, she returned to A&M Studios in Hollywood, California (where just about every one of her previous albums had been recorded) and assembled a small but impressive cast of supporting musicians. Returning to the drum throne was L.A. Express drummer John Guerin (supposedly, Joni and Guerin were romantically involved around this time) and L.A. Express bassist Max Bennett (both of whom had worked on Court And Spark and The Hissing Of Summer Lawns). Lead guitar was supplied by session great Larry Carlton, who had recently joined L.A. Express, replacing previous guitarist Robben Ford (though Carlton had also appeared on Joni’s previous two albums as well, in addition to Ford). Percussion was provided by Bobbye Hall, a well known studio session musician who had played with Joni on her For The Roses album, but not since. The most notable contribution on the album, however, comes from Jaco Pastorius, who was just coming into the greater consciousness of the music world when this album was being recorded. Jaco adds his signature bass stylings to four of the album’s nine tracks (Max Bennett only performed on two) and sparked a working relationship that would last for three more albums. Other contributions come from jazz trumpeter Chuck Findley and L.A. Express saxophonist Tom Scott (who play together on one song), clarinetist Abe Most, vibraphonist Victor Feldman, upright bassist Chuck Domanico and Joni’s old friend Neil Young on harmonica (who all perform on one song each).
The main musical components of the album, however, are Joni’s dreamy guitar patterns, Larry Carlton’s textural lead guitar lines, Jaco’s singing fretless bass lines, John Guerin’s steady drum beats and Bobbye Hall’s supportive percussion work. Hejira marks somewhat of a return to the intimate feel and sparse arrangements of Joni’s earlier works (rarely are there more than three or four musicians present on any given track), which had lately been abandoned in favor of bigger band arrangements. However, Hejira possesses more of an open spaciousness than her earlier albums, which tended to have more of an intimate bedroom ambiance. The windswept atmosphere of Hejira was undoubtedly influenced by Joni’s traveling experiences and long periods of loneliness on the open road, which come through in the music in biting detail.
Hejira opens with “Coyote,” probably the best known song from the album and the first and only single released from the album. One of the more uptempo numbers on the characteristically languid album, “Coyote” beings with Joni’s briskly strummed rhythm guitar and Jaco’s stinging fretless bass harmonics. Bobbye Hall provides some funky conga and shaker work and Larry Carlton also adds some atmospheric lead guitar work that blends seamlessly into Joni’s guitar figures. The lyrics seem to tell a story of a one night stand with someone of the rural persuasion. Joni laments on how the two of them “just come from such different sets of circumstances.” Joni then refers to herself as “a prisoner of the white lines on the freeway,” telling of how her wanderlust and traveling will never allow her to settle down with one person for too long. Joni compares the simple rustic natural life of her coyote, as she refers to her temporary lover, and the complex constantly moving big city life of the traveling musician that she is. People have speculated that the person in the story may be playwright Sam Shepard, who Joni was rumored to have had an affair with. “Coyote” was performed with The Band during their The Last Waltz farewell concert, with bassist Rick Danko’s more subdued playing standing in sharp contrast to Jaco’s dancing fretless lines and popping harmonics.
Up next comes my favorite song on the album, and one of my favorite Joni Mitchell songs overall, the gorgeous “Amelia.” Joni wrote the song as a tribute to famed aviator Amelia Earhart, comparing Earhart’s need to achieve something greater with Joni’s own artistic ambitions and life goals. The music of this song features only Joni’s delicate rhythm guitar, some spacey lead lines from Larry Carlton and some textural vibes from Victor Feldman. Carlton’s playing in this song is almost impossibly smooth, hitting soaring notes and subtle bends that seem almost unnatural. Still, the effect is positively spellbinding. This song repeatedly moves from one key to another in an interesting manner that leaves the song always feeling unresolved. The lyrics explore several intensely personal subjects, ranging from Joni’s restless nature, her need to push the envelope and the effect that it’s had on her life, admitting in the climax of the song that, “Maybe I’ve never really loved, I guess that is the truth. I’ve spent my whole life in clouds at icy altitudes.” She concluded every verse with the refrain of, “Amelia, it was just a false alarm,” tying her own experiences in with those of the groundbreaking aviator. The passion, emotional complexity and stunning musical accompaniment of this song make for a wholly thrilling and poignant experience.
The next track, “Furry Sings The Blues,” relates the story of Joni meeting the old bluesman Furry Lewis. Max Bennett plays the bass on this one in tandem with Joni’s textural rhythm guitar and John Guerin’s simple drum beat. Neal Young provides some rustic harmonica on this one, emulating the bluesy harmonica that Joni would have heard on Beale Street in Memphis while she was seeing Furry. This song is not only about the aging blues guitar player, but about the decay of the golden age of the blues in general. Joni sings about the rundown nature of the contemporary Beale Street, once the hotspot for everything blues related. Joni sings of Furry’s weary performances as an old man, pointing out that he only plays anymore so people will provide him with beer and smokes. Furry Lewis went on record as hating this song, feeling insulted and betrayed by the lyrics of this song.
“A Strange Boy” is next, and it’s a song about a former lover of Joni’s who was clinging onto perpetual youth. He still skateboards, lives with his parents and is constantly revisiting his school days in conversation. The strange boy asks Joni to be patient with him, but she snaps and yells at him to “Grow Up!” to which he replies, “Give me one good reason why.” This song always hits me pretty hard, as I relate to the person of which Joni is singing about. Musically, the song features only Joni’s delicate guitar parts, subtle percussion accents from Bobbye Hall and a particularly stunning performance from Larry Carlton, whose guitar shrieks, moans and groans in the background, pulling out sublime squeals of surreal delight.
The titular “Hejira,” the last song on side one, sees the return of Jaco, who’s singing fretless lead bass lines are the most noticeable thing about this track. His bass provides melodic solos, textural rumbling foundations and strange sound effects to add to the emotional impact of the song. The only other music in the song comes from Joni’s gently finger-picked guitar and some minimalistic percussion from Bobbye Hall in the background. The highly impressionistic lyrics of this song seem to be about the spiritual nature of traveling and the wonderfully joyous fear that can accompany being away from home for an extended period of time (something that I understand all too well). At one point, Joni paints a picture of herself observing two lovers while the strains of Benny Goodman waft through the air (at this point, Abe Most makes a brief appearance playing some distant clarinet lines). She contrasts the direction of the straight and narrow couple with her own unconventional path through life. The lyrics in this song are simply divine and deserve the deepest of study. The more I read over the lyrics of this song, the more I find choice little lines that almost move me to tears. It is truly a breathtakingly beautiful song.
Side two opens with “Song For Sharon,” an ode to a childhood friend whose life has taken a drastically different path than her own. It begins with Joni talking of taking a trip to the Mandolin Brothers store in Statin Island (possibly part of her trip back to L.A. from Maine) and seeing a wedding dress in a storefront display. Joni begins to reminisce about her days as a youth in Canada and her old friends who went on to marry, have kids and work the farm. Joni also makes a reference to her own first failed marriage, which also ended with her traveling to New York City. At its heart, I think that this song is about facing everyone else’s expectations about what you should do, and choosing to do what you feel is right for your own life. The music of this song is one of the more simpler efforts on the album, only features Joni’s tranquil rhythm guitar, Max Bennett’s supportive bass and John Guerin’s simple drum beat. Bennett plays an odd two note repeating line between the verses that I find particularly interesting. Also noteworthy in this song is the chant-like vocal section that occurs periodically throughout the song, Joni harmonizing with herself on a somewhat tribal refrain.
We get more Jaco next, with the intense “Black Crow,” which is (along with “Coyote”) another of the more uptempo tracks, and probably the most aggressive. It begins with a fiercely strummed rhythm guitar part from Joni, which is soon joined by subsonic bass rumbles from Jaco and edgy guitar feedback from Larry Carlton. Jaco’s bass bubbles and pulses underneath, occasionally popping up with some sparkling harmonics, as Carlton’s fiery guitar (some of his best playing on the album) soars and weaves in between the verses, sometimes enhancing the lyrics. As Joni says, “Diving, diving, diving, diving, diving down,” Carlton’s guitar dives down to emulate the movements of the black crow. The lyrics of this song are some of the more straightforward of the album, essentially just Joni comparing herself to a crow that she observed while traveling. She compares her restlessness and wanderlust to that of the crow, who is constantly on the move and flying, diving down to pick up on any shiny thing.
Up next is one of the most traditionally jazzy songs on the album, “Blue Motel Room.” It features Chuck Domanico on subdued upright bass and John Guerin on mellow brushed jazz drums. Joni plays the spacey finger-picked electric guitar on this one while Larry Carlton plays the jazzy acoustic guitar strumming in the background, probably because it involved more complicated chords than Joni could muster with her polio-stricken hands. Joni sings of sitting in a motel room in Savannah, Georgia and calling a lover back in L.A. to see if he still loves her. Joni knows that her lover has been fooling around with other girls while she’s been gone, and compares the two of them to America and Russia, always keeping score and balancing the power. At the end of the song, Joni agrees to give up the highway if he’ll give up the sneaking around. Although it is an overall pleasant song, I find it to be one of the more forgettable on the album.
The album ends with “Refuge Of The Road,” a song about Joni visiting her friend Chögyam Trungpa, a Buddhist meditation master. She relates the experience of Trungpa putting her into a state of selfless consciousness where she was able to perceive all that was around her in its natural state without her artist’s analytical eye. However, this state soon fades and she is brought back to her old analytical self. Afterward, Joni muses on her ultimate smallness in the infinite cosmos while looking at a picture in a truck stop of Earth taken from space. Joni concedes to go back to the comfort of travel and the refuge of the road. Musically, this song features some neat lead bass work from Jaco and a low-key drum beat from John Guerin (the only song on the album to feature both Jaco and Guerin) as well as some simple harmonized horn lines courtesy of Chuck Findley and Tom Scott. This closing track ends the album on a particularly esoteric and metaphysical note as Jaco’s bass plucks out some closing notes.
Hejira was released in November of 1976 and was a slight commercial disappointment compared to her past couple of releases. It still managed to make it to #13 in the U.S. Billboard 200 pop albums chart and was certified gold, as well as being generally critically acclaimed. In subsequent decades, it has become one of Joni’s most heralded releases and is often viewed as one of the high water-marks of her career. Joni’s next three album’s featured Jaco Pastorius in an even more prominent role and further expounded on her experimental tendencies. 1977’s Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter was a double album features one side-long track and several more highly avant garde numbers. 1979’s Mingus was made in collaboration with the legendary jazz bassist Charlie Mingus, who wrote the music for three of the album’s tracks and died before the album could be finished. Jaco plays all of the bass on those two albums, as well as touring with Joni in 1979 (with old friend Pat Metheny on lead guitar), which resulted in the spectacular live album and video release Shadows And Light. Joni never worked with Jaco again after that, though she continued to release albums throughout the 1980’s, 1990’s and 2000’s, though with a growing infrequence (averaging three per decade). In 2010, Joni revealed that she’s been suffering from Morgellon’s Syndrome, a disorder which causes the inflicted to feel like their skin is infested with insects, parasites and other disease-causing agents. This disorder has severely hampered her recording and performing over the past decade or so, but hopefully we will get to hear some more of Joni’s unique voice and unmistakeable songcraft in the not-to-distant future.
In summary, if you enjoy music that is elegantly atmospheric and sublimely tranquil with lyrics that combine deeply personal sentiments and philosophical musings, then Joni Mitchell’s Hejira is the perfect album for you. It is probably my personal favorite album of hers, as I find it to be a perfect combination of her confessional songwriting and experimentalist tendencies. Several songs on the album almost move me to tears (namely “Amelia” and “Hejira”), while the instrumental work of Jaco Pastorius and Larry Carlton make for one of Joni Mitchell’s most musically rewarding albums. I couldn’t recommend this album any more highly, particularly to those that have been bitten by the travel bug and enjoy close self-examination. Give it a listen, see what you think.
If you have Spotify, you can listen to the entire album here: http://open.spotify.com/album/3Z0qQc09rmk4JYtIaxEx2J
Welcome back music lovers. Thanks for stopping by for another installment of Normie Monday, my weekly blog posting that focuses on reviewing music, movies, television, books, or whatever may be capturing my attention at the time. This week finds me smack dab in the middle of a series on jazz bass legend Jaco Pastorius. After two weeks that emphasized his superb playing in the jazz field (his self-titled solo debut and Pat Metheny’s Bright Size Life), I thought I’d take a look at an album that finds Jaco working in more of a rock ‘n’ roll setting; Ian Hunter’s sophomore solo effort All American Alien Boy.
Ian Hunter (born Ian Patterson in 1939 in Shropshire, England) spent his twenties playing in bar bands (including The Apex Group, Hurricane Henry and the Shriekers, The Scenery and The Young Idea) while maintaining employment in various factories and other industrial jobs. At the well traveled age of thirty, Hunter responded to an advertisement in a local newspaper looking for a singer. The band that placed the ad was called Silence, but soon changed their name to Mott The Hoople after the title of a novel by Willard Manus. Shortly after Hunter joined the band, they recorded their self-titled debut album, which was released in the fall of 1969. Mott The Hoople released three more albums throughout 1970 and 1971, but none of their first four albums managed to garner much mainstream success, never breaking over the top 40 in the U.K., and barely cracking the top 200 in the U.S. The band almost broke up after an impoverished tour at the end of 1971.
However, David Bowie (who’d been a long time fan of the band) offered to give them a song to record upon hearing of their imminent split. He originally offered them the now-Bowie-classic “Suffragette City,” but the band turned it down. Bowie then brought them “All The Young Dudes,” which the band accepted and released in the summer of 1972. It became a U.K. top ten hit, serving as an anthem of sorts for the burgeoning glam rock scene, and revitalized the band, who released three more studio albums (and one live album) in the ensuing three years.
By 1974, Ian Hunter had become disillusioned with the group setting and quit Mott The Hoople (who struggled on for a short time without Hunter before dissolving permanently in the late 70’s). Hunter teamed up with guitarist Mick Ronson (who had recently severed his working relationship with David Bowie) to record his self-titled debut album in 1975. The Ian Hunter album consisted mainly of guitar-driven rock songs that closely resembled Mott The Hoople at their finest. It sold reasonably well, bolstered by the popularity of the lead off single “Once Bitten, Twice Shy,” later covered to major commercial success by the 80’s pop-metal band Great White.
For the followup to his successful debut, Hunter chose to not work with Mick Ronson due to disputes with Ronson’s manager. Hunter produced the album himself and hired an impressive cast of jazz musicians to back him up, including renowned session saxophonist David Sanborn, drummer Aynsley Dunbar (who’d formerly played with John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, Frank Zappa, Lou Reed and David Bowie), the rising star of the jazz bass world Jaco Pastorius and his frequent percussionist cohort Don Alias. Hunter’s main collaborator and balancing force in the studio was keyboardist Chris Stainton, who’d previously worked with Joe Cocker, Spooky Tooth, Leon Russell, Don Nix and The Who. Rounding out the lineup was guitarist Gerry Weens and a slew of guest musicians and singers, including members of Blood, Sweat and Tears on horns and members of Queen on backing vocals. Recording sessions for the album, titled All American Alien Boy (as a play on Rick Derringer’s recently released All American Boy album), took place in January of 1976. The absence of Ronson and the presence of so many jazz luminaries resulted in an album that was much more soulful and jazz orientated than its predecessor and much less guitar driven.
The album opens with “Letter To Britannia From The Union Jack,” sort of Ian Hunter’s state of the union address to his native England, written from the point of view of a British flag. The music is a mellow stew of ambient electric piano arpeggios and textural slide guitar (courtesy of guest musician renowned R&B guitarist Cornell Dupree, his only appearance on the album). The rhythm section of Dunbar and Pastorius is surprisingly supportive with none of Jaco’s usual flash in sight. He lays down a bubbly pedal bass line, emphasizing the tonic (in octaves) over a I-II-IV chord progression for the main head arrangement. However, the bass changes to move with the chords for the second half of each verse, which consists of a iv-iii-IV-I-V-iv-IV-V chord progression. Hunter’s gruff voice possesses a keen emotional impact, especially when he reaches for the upper registers and cracks poignantly as Hunter sings of the combined pride and shame that he feels for his home country.
Up next comes the title track, “All American Alien Boy,” which is one of the more uptempo numbers on the album. It begins with the band laying down a sluggish R&B groove while Gerry Weens takes a ripping guitar solo. The guitar solo then gives way to a soulful saxophone solo from David Sanborn before Hunter enters with the lead vocals. This song seems to be about Hunter’s experiences in America, more specifically his experiences being an Englishman in America. The band plods along over a simple I-IV-V-I chord progression with Hunter ranting out about his American experiences with cynical lines like, “I’ve got sodium nitrate in my guts. My head’s full of ulcers, I got lungs full of butts. My heart wants a transplant, it thinks I’m nuts. My logic won’t open, my eyes won’t shut.” The most noteworthy part of this song, in my opinion, is a ripping bass solo from Jaco after the first two verses, one of the only points on the album that he really gets to shine. The song ends with a long jam out of the basic chord progression with Hunter’s ranting raising in intensity with various humorous non-sequiturs.
The next track, entitled “Irene Wilde,” is a touching tribute to a young girl that Hunter had fancied as a young man. Hunter recounts how Irene had rejected him due to his lack of prospects and social standing. However, Hunter also concludes that it was this rejection that spurned him on to become something greater and, “To be somebody someday.” Hunter seems to be thanking Irene, as he says, “If you hadn’t messed me up I’d still be there.” With the lyrics of this song, Hunter takes aim at the muses that inspire us all to do what we do, whatever that is. The music of this song is a soaring piano-led ballad with some of the most understated bass playing of Jaco’s career (it’s almost hard to believe that it’s him playing). The verse consists of a descending canon-type chord progression, while the chorus has a soaring quality (aided by a choir of background vocals) that lifts the listener up into a state of nostalgic grace.
Side one ends with “Restless Youth,” one of the most straightforward rockers on the album, and the only track on the album not to feature Jaco Pastorius on bass. Keyboardist Chris Stainton provided the bass for this track, as it might have been that Jaco’s playing was too jazzy for the rocking nature of this track. The lyrics tell somewhat of a cautionary tale about a rebellious young man that joins a gang, goes to prison for welfare fraud, gets addicted to drugs upon release and gets killed by the cops during a botched drug deal. The music consists of a sludgy guitar riff and heavy, stomping rock groove. Gerry Weens supplies some sizzling lead guitar work between the verses. Overall, I find this to be one of the more forgettable tracks on the album, as the music is a bit repetitive and the lyrics a little too preachy.
Side two opens with “Rape,” a gospel-tinged R&B waltz about justice and the righting of wrongs. Hunter wails in his best Dylan impersonation about a man who is, “Sick, rich and stoned” that takes advantage of a young beauty, but is acquitted of all charges because he has a good lawyer. The beauty in this song could also be referring to nature, and so the underlying meaning of this song could be about the rich industrialists who seem to go unpunished for destroying the environment. Jaco plays some particularly nifty bass in this song, alternating between supportive R&B bass lines and tasty chordal work. The soulful backing vocals add to the choral gospel feel.
Up next is one of my favorites on the album, the moving ballad “You Nearly Did Me In.” Beginning as a stirring jazz ballad, the piano leads us in, and an ascending bass lick from Jaco heralds the rest of the band. David Sanborn turns in a soulful saxophone solo before Hunter begins singing the somewhat vague lyrics. While I cannot tell for sure what this song is about, it contains some great lines, such as, “If this is being free, I’d rather search for me,” and “I get the urge to run on blindly through the rain, and I fool myself again.” Freddie Mercury, Roger Taylor and Brian May (of the band Queen) join in with their inimitable harmonies as the verse builds triumphantly into the chorus with a chant of, “You nearly did, you nearly did, you nearly did me in.” Queen had opened for Mott The Hoople during their first major tours of the U.K. and U.S. in 1974, so the members of Queen were paying their old friend back for that early support by providing him with backing vocals. At the end of the tightly harmonized chorus, Hunter wails, “I need some place to lay my weary anger down,” while Jaco plays some tasty chordal work on the bass. The final verse of this song finds Hunter imploring, “Whatever happened to dignity? Whatever happened to integrity? Whatever happened to honesty?” in a pained wail. After that, Aynsley Dunbar turns in a death defying drum fill that ushers in the final climactic chorus.
“Apathy ‘83” comes next, and it’s a scornful indictment of the state of rock ‘n’ roll in the mid-70’s. I don’t know what the “’83” really has to do with the song, as the chorus repeats the phrase “Apathy for the devil” in an allusion to the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy For The Devil.” This song features more inspired playing from Jaco, who essentially turns the melodic bass line into the main melodic hook of the song. This song also features some fancy accordion soloing from Dominic Cortese, who takes a spiraling solo before the last verse. Also of note in this song is Don Alias’s funky conga work. This song seems to be taking aim at not only rock ‘n’ roll, but the overall political climate of the mid-70’s, with references to the Nixon impeachment and the apathetic, immoral nature of modern man. “See a president proven rotten, now officially forgotten,” wails Hunter. I’m particularly fond of the bridge of this song, where Hunter spits out, “I just said, ‘Keep your head and your bread well down under them floorboards,” while the band takes a short break, only to reemerge powerfully at the end of that line.
The album ends with the folksy “God (take 1),” the “(take 1)” part of the title coming from the studio announcement at the start of the song. Jaco not only plays bass in this song, but also the simple little guitar lead that appears occasionally throughout the song. The lyrics describe a fictional conversation between Hunter and God, where God tells Hunter that he’s gonna kick his ass for asking too much of him and taking what he has for granted. God and Hunter converse on the topics of mortality, morality, organized religion, the creation of all mankind and other such lightweight topics. The lyrics of this song are exceptionally clever and warrant close examination, and the anthemic folk-rock music brings the album to a stirring finish.
When All American Alien Boy was released in May of 1976, it proved to be a fairly big commercial disappointment for Ian Hunter after the success of his debut solo album. It only made it to #29 in the U.K. (where Ian Hunter had gotten to #21) and a lowly #177 in the U.S. (where Ian Hunter had gotten to #50). Furthermore, All American Alien Boy didn’t contain any successful singles, unlike his first album. Ian Hunter’s next album, 1977’s Overnight Angels, proved an even bigger commercial disappointment, as his record label refused to even release it in America. However, he managed to score his biggest solo hit with his next album, 1979’s You’re Never Alone With A Schizophrenic, which saw him reunite with Mick Ronson and record some of his most timeless tracks, namely “Just Another Night” and “Cleveland Rocks.” Hunter continued to record sporadically throughout the remainder of the ensuing three decades, even reuniting with Mott The Hoople in 2009.
In conclusion, if you like witty, insightful lyrics in the vein of Bob Dylan, but with a decidedly English twist, then Ian Hunter would be someone worth checking out. Furthermore, if you enjoy your rock ‘n’ roll with a dash of jazz musicianship and soulful arrangements, then All American Alien Boy would be a good place for you to start on the journey through Hunter’s discography. Bassist Jaco Pastorius turns in some of the most tastefully restrained playing of his career, but manages to shine when given the opportunity. Also, it’s a total trip to hear Queen’s signature vocal harmonies in the same song as Jaco’s signature bass stylings. That alone is worth the price of admission. The album as a whole stands out as a bit of a direction change for Hunter, and although some of his more rock-centered fan base found the album too lightweight and too jazzy, people who enjoy expertly performed, soul stirring music should find much to enjoy. Give it a listen, see what you think.
You can listen to the entire album on YouTube here: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL26h-e6UmSZ-Eqhla3PkEASHChtZggpSR
Welcome back music lovers. Thanks for stopping by for another installment of Normie Monday, my weekly blog posting that focuses on reviewing music, movies, television, books, or whatever may be capturing my attention at the time. Last week, I started a series on legendary jazz bassist Jaco Pastorius with a look at his classic self-titled debut album. This week, I’m going to step slightly backwards in time and take a look at one of Jaco’s first commercially available recordings, jazz guitarist Pat Metheny’s debut release Bright Size Life.
Pat Metheny grew up in Missouri where he showed an amazing aptitude towards the guitar from a young age, winning a one-week scholarship to a jazz camp at the age of 15. After graduating high school, Metheny attended the University of Miami, but he was such an advanced player by this early stage that he was quickly offered a teaching position at the school. While at the University of Miami, Metheny made many important musical connections, most notably bassist Jaco Pastorius who was teaching bass at the university around the same period. The two quickly became close friends.
After his time at the University of Miami had run its course, Metheny went to Boston to take a teaching assistantship position under noted jazz vibraphonist Gary Burton. During this time, Metheny made his official recording debut via a collaborative album between himself, Jaco Pastorius, drummer Bruce Ditmas and pianist Paul Bley. This record, originally titled Pastorius/Metheny/Ditmas/Bley but renamed simply Jaco in the wake of the bassist’s success in the jazz world, would be released by Bley on his Improvising Artists label in 1974. Shortly after recording these tracks, Metheny was invited to join the Gary Burton Quintet, making his first recorded appearance with this group on 1974’s Ring album, which also featured drummer Bob Moses. Metheny would record two more albums with the Gary Burton Quintet; 1975’s Dreams So Real and 1976’s Passengers (an album that highlighted Metheny’s compositional skills).
His work with the Gary Burton Quintet garnered Metheny a considerable amount of exposure and praise in the jazz world, so much so that ECM Records (the label that was releasing the Gary Burton Quintet material at that time) offered to sign Metheny as a solo artist. When it came time for him to record his first solo album at the end of 1975, Metheny called on his old friend Jaco Pastorius to fill the bassist’s chair and brought drummer Bob Moses over from the Gary Burton Quintet. The album was recorded in Ludwigsburg, Germany at the Studio Bauer, (the Gary Burton Quintet were recording their Dream So Real album in the same studio at about the same time). Also like Dream So Real, it was produced by Manfred Eicher. The album, named Bright Size Life after the opening track, is a showcase for Metheny’s pillowy guitar tones, ambient guitar atmospherics and fluid jazz runs. Pastorius and Moses prove to be an adept rhythm section, highlighting the more ethereal and melodic side of Jaco’s playing, as opposed to the more aggressive funk and Afro-Cuban inspired grooves that he’s also known for.
The album opens with the titular “Bright Size Life,” probably the best known composition on the album, having become somewhat of a lesser jazz standard. It opens with a quick modal run from Metheny before the band enters with quick cymbal work from Moses and a melodic, jazzy bass line from Pastorius (complete with some of his signature harmonic chords). The rhythm section continues to vamp as Metheny continues to restate and expound upon the main head arrangement, a jumpy yet tasty guitar melody. Metheny’s warm velvet guitar tone and inimitable phrasing are on display here, and the overall feel of the song walks a fine line between airy lightness and hair raising intensity. The intimate quality of the trio format gives the musicians ample room to stretch out, with Bob Moses often abandoning straightforward grooves in favor of rapidly shifting meters, adding to the dreamy nature of the music. After the first half of the song highlights Metheny’s smooth lead lines, Jaco takes a lyrical bass solo while Metheny quietly comps chords in the background. Jaco’s solo dives and swoops, alternating between singing notes and lightning-fast runs. Pastorius’ tone blends perfectly with Metheny’s, as both musicians tend to favor a rich texture that makes great use of chorus and reverb. After the bass solo, the guitar takes the front once again to restate the main head arrangement, ending the song with a quick decelerando.
Up next is “Sirabhorn,” a song that features Metheny on the 12-string electric guitar. It opens with a floating chord progression on the 12-string that has a descending quality, giving the listener the feeling of gently coasting down upon a falling autumn leaf. As the rhythm section enters, Jaco begins playing a melodic bass line that accents the chord progression in triads. Eventually, the 12-string guitar gets lowered in the mix as Metheny overdubs a 6-string lead guitar line that darts and weaves throughout the chord progression. His smooth guitar runs are always inviting and warm, never jarring. There’s a certain pastoral nature to Metheny’s playing and composing, perhaps owing to his rural Midwestern upbringing. The imagery conjured up (to me, anyway) is that of spacious green fields and endless farmland. Once again, Jaco gets a bass solo towards the middle of the song, this one being more subdued than the one in the first track. After the bass solo, the 12-string guitar becomes prominent again as it restates the main chordal motif. Bob Moses provides some nifty brush work throughout this song, culminating in a bit of a rhythmic crescendo towards the end.
“Unity Village” is a self-duet for Metheny, who provides two guitar parts for the song. The guitar in the right channel speaker comps spacey chords in a finger-picked style that provides a bass line as well as chords. The guitar in the left channel engages in some melodic soloing that perfectly highlights Metheny’s distinctive tone more than anywhere else on the album. This track has a soothing quality that would work perfectly as a lullaby.
The last track one side one is “Missouri Uncompromised,” a tribute to Metheny’s home state. This track finds the band in a more uptempo mood than most of the rest of the album (though that’s still relatively tranquil). The track kicks off with all three players going at it, with Moses playing some brisk cymbal patterns and Pastorius providing some subsonic bass chords while Metheny exercises his fingers with some nimble soloing over a loose head melody. At about the one minute mark, Jaco begins to play a more traditional walking bass line, giving the song a more propulsive jazz groove than much of the rest of the album. As the song progresses, Moses’ drum work becomes slightly more frenzied as Jaco begins taking the bass into the upper registers as Metheny deftly solos over the slightly chaotic backing. Shortly before the three minute mark, Metheny quotes something, but I’m not sure what it is (jazz fans, help me out here). The song ends with the trio accenting one big chord together.
Side two opens with one of the more atmospheric numbers on the album, the mellow “Midwestern Nights Dream.” It begins with a pair of Metheny’s chorus-laden guitars pulling out ethereal chordal melodies in the left and right channels. After about 70 seconds of this, the bass enters and adds rumbling notes to the right channel and Bob Moses adds textural cymbal washes. As the song progresses, the drums take on more of a slow, mellow rhythm while the guitar and bass accent a two-chord progression. Occasionally, the two chords fly off into a lifting chord progression that escalates into some ethereal plane. In the last couple of minutes, Jaco takes a bass solo that is a little more impressionistic than his others on the album. It is more heavily effected with chorus and plays more of a melodic role than the rest of his solos. The bass essentially becomes the lead instrument here as the solo evolves into Jaco pulling out a simple melody over the spacey guitar chords. This ends the song as it slowly fades out.
The next track finds the band engaging in some intricate shifting meters over a rapidly changing chord progression. The chords seem to change without any regard to rhythm, yet the trio accents them all together. After the chord progression climbs up and down, Metheny overdubs a spiraling guitar solo over the tricky chord progression. Another of the more uptempo tracks on the album, Moses’ drumming is dynamic and intense on this one, making great use of the cymbals (as he always does throughout the album). Some of my favorite soloing from Metheny can be found in this song, as his liquid runs dance up and down the fretboard. The song ends with the trio restating the tricky chord progression in a more forceful manner. This song, the shortest on the album, is the album’s closest thing to a burst of energy.
Up next is “Omaha Celebration,” another song that makes light of Metheny’s Midwestern roots. This song comes dangerously close to Muzak with it’s peppy chords and smooth jazz qualities, but it’s saved by some fierce be-bop guitar runs towards the middle of the song. I also like when Bob Moses changes his cymbal of main interest at one point, drastically altering the spacial landscape of the recording. After the flighty guitar solo in the middle, the band returns to restate the peppy Muzak chords, ending the song in a predictable fashion.
The album ends with a medley of two Ornette Coleman songs, “Round Trip/Broadway Blues.” Accordingly, it possesses slightly more of a traditional jazz feel than much of the rest of the album. Both compositions were originally featured on Coleman’s 1968 New York Is Now! album, a work that Metheny has claimed to be a major influence on him. It begins with Metheny and Pastorius playing the tricky head arrangement of “Round Trip” in unison while Moses sizzles the cymbals underneath. After the guitar and bass depart from their unison riffing, the bass takes on a more traditional walking role while the guitar solos briskly. Metheny is able to accurately translate Ornette Coleman’s wailing atonal saxophone free-jazz style on the electric guitar. After the angular guitar solo, the guitar and bass restate the head melody in unison, after which the rhythm section gets a little showcase. Metheny drops out as Moses begins playing fast syncopated rhythms on the drums and Pastorius responds accordingly with blazing bass riffs. The two feed off of each other, each responding to the slight nuances of the others’ playing. After the duet, the drums settle down a bit as Metheny and Pastorius launch into a quick coda of the “Broadway Blues” head arrangement in unison, ending the album on an uptempo note.
Bright Size Life was released early in 1976 and managed to become fairly successful, reaching #28 in the Billboard Jazz Albums chart. More importantly, it served to introduce much of the jazz world to the fresh young faces of Pat Metheny and Jaco Pastorius. Metheny would go on to a successful solo career as a jazz guitarist, forming the Pat Metheny Group in 1977 (often in collaboration with keyboardist Lyle Mays). Metheny has collaborated with some of the most important names of the jazz and classical worlds, including; Charlie Haden, Michael Brecker, Jack DeJohnette, Chick Corea, Ornette Coleman, Steve Reich, Herbie Hancock, Dave Holland, Sonny Rollins, Dave Liebman, Dave Brubeck and John Scofield. His only other collaboration with Jaco Pastorius would be on Joni Mitchell’s Shadows And Light tour and live album (which also featured Lyle Mays, Michael Brecker and Don Alias). Pat Metheny continues to record and innovate to this day.
In summary, if you enjoy jazz that is pastoral and ethereal, not necessarily hard-driving and groovey, then Bright Size Life is an album for you. It perfectly captures one of jazz’s great guitarists at an incredibly young age (can you believe that he was only 21 when he wrote and recorded this album?) as he was taking his first big steps into the world of jazz. Also of note is the not-quite-as-young-but-still-pretty-young Jaco Pastorius, whose textural bass lines perfectly compliment Metheny’s languid guitar passages and smooth chops. It is the perfect album for relaxing on a quiet Sunday afternoon, lying on your back and looking up at the clouds. It’s one of my favorite jazz records, and it could be one of yours as well. Give it a listen, see what you think!
If you have Spotify, you can listen to the entire album here: http://open.spotify.com/album/35rA0opcShJjmunjHjOMRL