Posts Tagged ‘fusion’

“Hot Rats” by Frank Zappa (1969)

The weekend of Woodstock, Frank Zappa was a couple of hundred miles to the north, playing gigs with the Mothers of Invention that Saturday and Sunday in Montreal. The band then traveled to Toronto for a television appearance.

Those represented the final outings of the original Mothers – MGM Records insisted the “of Invention” be tacked onto the end – before Zappa decided to break up the group, which started as an R&B outfit called the Soul Giants and evolved into an amalgam of styles that, in the band’s latter stages, was “close enough for jazz,” as the saying goes.

“In 1969, George Wein, impresario of the Newport Jazz Festival, decided it would be a tremendous idea to put the Mothers of Invention on a jazz tour of the East Coast,” Zappa wrote in “The Real Frank Zappa Book” with Peter Occhiogrosso.

The touring package did not carry its own PA. We had to use whatever speakers existed in each of the venues we were booked to play. The hall in South Carolina was rigged with small jukebox speakers, set in a ring around the building. Useless, but there they were. We had to play the show.

Before we went on, I saw Duke Ellington begging – pleading – for a $10 advance. It was really depressing. After that show, I told the guys, ‘That’s it. We’re breaking the band up.’ We’d been together in one configuration or another for about five years at that point, and suddenly EVERYTHING looked utterly hopeless to me. If Duke Ellington had to beg some George Wein assistant backstage for ten bucks, what the fuck was I doing with a 10-piece band, trying to play rock and roll, or something that was almost rock and roll?

The Mothers of Invention had been a groundbreaking act, combining dadaist theatrical elements – a rubber chicken often was involved – with several musical influences: jazz, classical, doo-wop and and some of the hardest rock ever heard to that point. Observers tended to focus on the band’s antics, which in turn tended to obscure the brilliant playing of its members, particularly lead guitarist Zappa.

On the LPs released by the Mothers through 1969, his contributions were rather subdued, but his talent shone through whenever he allowed his guitar to take the spotlight, notably on the tracks “Invocation & Ritual Dance of the Young Pumpkin,” “Stuff Up the Cracks” and “Nine Types of Industrial Pollution.”

So it may have come as somewhat of a revelation to the public at large when Zappa’s first post-Mothers album, “Hot Rats,” hit the shelves in October 1969. Not only was his guitar at the forefront of the record’s rock-oriented songs, but the ones that leaned toward jazz were eminently listenable compared with some of the more challenging MOI work.

The album’s opener, “Peaches En Regalia,” is a prime example. The song builds on a simple six-note theme, one of Zappa’s most recognizable melodies, to explore a series of increasingly complex variations. Zappa took full advantage of 16-track recording technology, then the state of the art, to build layers of music, resulting in a full, rich aural texture.

Most of those tracks featured contributions by Ian Underwood, the sole member of the Mothers of Invention who worked on “Hot Rats.” By all accounts, Underwood should have received co-credit for the album, but he seems to have been content to supply Zappa with virtuoso performances on various keyboards and woodwind instruments.

Providing a driving bass guitar throughout “Peaches En Regalia” is Johnny Alexander Veliotes Jr., known professionally as Shuggie Otis. The son of early rock ‘n’ roll singer-impresario Johnny Otis was just 15 years old when he entered the studio to record with Zappa, Underwood and drummer Ron Selico. Shuggie went on to success as a songwriter – his “Strawberry Letter 23” was a massive hit for the Brothers Johnson in 1977 – and solo artist, although he stopped doing more than session work after his highly regarded 1974 album “Inspiration Information.”

By then, Frank Zappa’s voice had become one of the most widely recognized in rock, but he provides no vocals on “Hot Rats.” Indeed, the album mostly is instrumental, except for the short opening section of the second song, “Willie the Pimp.” The guitar riff-driven composition opens with Captain Beefheart (Don Vliet), with whom Zappa recently had worked on the absurdist classic “Trout Mask Replica,” belting out the short tale of a guy trying to make a few bucks:

I’m a little pimp with my hair gassed back, pair a khaki pants with my shoes shined black
Got a little lady, walk the street, tellin’ all the boys that she can’t be beat
Twenty-dollar bill, I can set you straight, meet me on the corner, boy, don’t be late
Man in a suit with bow-tie neck, wanna buy a grunt with a third-party check
Standin’ on the porch of the Lido Hotel, floozies in the lobby love the way I sell:
HOT MEAT HOT RATS HOT ZITS HOT CHEST HOT RITZ HOT ROOTS HOT SOOTS

What follows is nearly eight minutes’ worth of jamming, with Zappa at the forefront, trading licks with violinist Don “Sugarcane” Harris, who had scored some R&B hits as half of the duo Don & Dewey in the late ’50s. The rhythm section for “Willie the Pimp” is Max Bennett on bass and John Guerin on drums, and Underwood plays his usual array of instruments.

The title of the next track led to the oft-repeated story about Zappa that he refutes at the very beginning of “The Real Frank Zappa Book”:

Because I recorded a song called “Son of Mr. Green Genes” on the “Hot Rats” album in 1969, people have believed for years that the character with that name on the “Captain Kangaroo” TV show (played by Lumpy Brannan) was my “real” dad. No, he was not.

Rather, the title was derived from a song on “Uncle Meat,” the Mothers of Invention’s final album before the breakup. For “Son of,” Zappa took the basic theme and stretched it into a nine-plus-minute workout that contains some of the most fluid, inventive guitar of his entire career.

“Little Umbrellas” is styled along the lines of “Peaches En Regalia,” a shorter, jazz-oriented composition relying heavily on Underwood’s various instruments.

“The Gumbo Variations” is the third of the extended jams on “Hot Rats,” with Harris’ violin and Underwood’s saxophones carrying lengthy sections. Zappa’s guitar again is the dominant instrument, providing a monstrous riff over which the other musicians solo.

The final track, “It Must Be a Camel,” features French violinist Jean-Luc Ponty on violin before he became a well-known solo artist in his own right. The most complex composition on the album, it contains several shifts in tempo, a structure Zappa had explored to a large degree on “Uncle Meat.”

“Hot Rats” barely scraped the American charts on its release, but since has become recognized as one of Zappa’s most accessible and accomplished recordings. When it was released in the United Kingdom in early 1970, the album hit the Top 20, Zappa’s all-time best showing across the Atlantic.

Following the “Hot Rats” project, Zappa assembled another version of the Mothers, eventually dropping the “of Invention” and featuring former Turtles singers Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, who developed the persona of Flo and Eddie. For the next couple of years, the Mothers focused on comedy and satire, and it wasn’t until 1972 that Zappa returned to a musical format that somewhat resembled “Hot Rats.” The resulting album, “Waka/Jawaka,” even had the phrase from the previous album emblazoned on its cover.

Speaking of album covers, the woman featured on “Hot Rats,” seemingly crawling out of a crypt, is Christine Frka. She was a member of the GTOs, the band of groupies and nominal musicians that recorded a Zappa-produced album called “Permanent Damage” in the late ’60s. Frka also served as the inspiration for “Christine’s Tune,” the opening track on the Flying Burrito Brothers’ debut “The Gilded Palace of Sin.” Unfortunately, she later had to wear a body cast to try to correct a crooked spine, and she died of a drug overdose in 1972, a few weeks before what would have been her 30th birthday.

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“In a Silent Way” by Miles Davis (1969)

The Miles Quintet of the mid-1960s ranks among jazz’s most heralded aggregations, along with John Coltrane’s Impulse!-era quartet, the Modern Jazz Quartet and Davis’ own five-piece from a decade before.

Miles, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and the late Tony Williams jelled together playing primarily standards and hard bop, as captured on the quintet’s Plugged Nickel recordings from late 1965. But in a manner similar to other musicians of the period, Davis began to shift the emphasis toward harder-edged arrangements, integrating elements that shared structure with rock music.

The release of “Filles de Kilimanjaro” in 1968 showed Davis leaning squarely in that direction, with the compositions “Frelon Brun” and “Mademoiselle Mabry” among the early example of what later would be coined jazz-rock fusion.

As the sessions for “Filles de Kilimanjaro” gave way to those for a follow-up album, Davis began playing with some of jazz’s top names, who would go on to become fusion legends: guitarist John McLaughlin, bassist Dave Holland and keyboard players Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul. McLaughlin had moved from his native England to play in Williams’ group, Lifetime, and Miles was so impressed on hearing the guitarist that he immediately invited him to record.

The results hardly pleased jazz purists, who probably had hoped Davis would stick with bop instead of progressing toward other musical forms, like Coltrane and others had done with “New Thing” free jazz. Miles’ music certainly wasn’t as atonal as the New Thing, but it hardly sounded like what he had done in the ’50s.

The “In a Silent Way” LP features one two-part composition on each side, “Shhh/Peaceful” and “In a Silent Way/It’s About That Time,” with Zawinul sharing songwriting credits with Davis on the latter. Going into the finished product was a great deal of editing by producer Teo Macero, as By Paul Tingen wrote in “The Making of In A Silent Way & Bitches Brew”:

“His influence in Miles’s music can be likened to that of George Martin with The Beatles. Macero was the one who tied the many disparate musical segments together, and edited them into a new whole, in some cases virtually recomposing the music. In A Silent Way, for instance, contained less than 27 minutes of musical material in its pre-edited form, and was cleverly looped by Macero to extend the music to 38 minutes.”

The result is a steadily paced, fascinating flow of music, opening with Zawinul’s electric piano, Corea’s organ and McLaughlin’s guitar setting an easy tone. After a few minutes, Davis plays the main theme of “Shhh,” carefully phrasing the melody on his trumpet as the other musicians continuing in a modal style, with no chord changes.

McLaughlin takes a relatively low-key solo, compared with much of his later work, starting at about the six-minute mark. As Zawinul noted in Tingen’s article: “He (Davis) told John McLaughlin to play as if he didn’t know how to play the guitar. As a result John’s playing was among the best of his career.”

Shorter then takes his turn, overlaying a continuous descending piano pattern, as Williams and Holland maintain the rhythm in an earnest but relaxed manner. McLaughlin returns for some more tasteful guitar before the main theme comes back into play.

The second composition begins with McLaughlin playing an ethereal theme backed by a sprinkling of keyboards and Holland’s droning bass. Davis joins in, playing the same somber style, until the 4:11 mark, when the full band backs a relatively fluid trumpet solo.

The dual composition, and perhaps the entire album, coalesce around 12 minutes in, when Miles blows freely over full-volume accompaniment, demonstration the vast potential for fusion. The piece ends with a reprise of the dulcet tones of the opening, with Davis fully setting the tone with his empathetic work on the horn.

“In a Silent Way” lays the groundwork for a series of Miles Davis recordings that push the envelope, eventually transcending jazz, rock, funk or whatever label you might want to place on his music. By the time he “retired” in 1975, Miles and his band were playing fully improvised shows at blaring volume, with the band leader turning his back on the audience to concentrate on creating new revelations with each performance.

Jazz, in its basic form, is supposed to be all about capturing the moment. And Miles Davis certainly answered the bell in that regard.

“The Inner Mounting Flame” by the Mahavishnu Orchestra (1971)

For a guitarist who primarily did session work in his native England during the mid-‘0s, John McLaughlin’s reputation preceded him.

On March 25, 1969, he sat in with Jimi Hendrix for a jam session at the Record Plant in New York City. An album from the resulting tapes was set to be released in the ’70s but was shelved, one of the few Hendrix recordings that seems to have escaped such a fate!

McLaughlin, meanwhile, had come to America to join Miles Davis drummer Tony Williams in his trio called Lifetime, which also featured keyboard player Larry Young. From there, it was an easy step into session and live work for Davis, who was in the formative stages of his seminal work in jazz-rock fusion.

By 1971, McLaughlin was fronting his own band, which he called the Mahavishnu Orchestra with encouragement from his guru, Sri Chimnoy. Joining him were virtuoso musicians Billy Cobham on drums, Jan Hammer on keyboards, Jerry Goodman on violin and Rick Laird on drums.
The new band followed the general concept developed by Williams’ group, of jazz motifs played at dizzying volumes.

The Orchestra’s debut, “The Inner Mounting Flame,” captured the interest of the listening public, rising to No. 89 on the Billboard 200. McLaughlin was heralded as a new guitar hero, even as he pushed age 30. And Hammer started on a path that would take him to superstardom via “Miami Vice.”

“The Inner Mounting Flame” opens with a prime example of what to expect from the band’s sonic capabilities. “Meeting of the Spirits” features the musicians playing at full tilt, with McLaughlin’s guitar leads surging through a quirky rhythmic structure that puts the power of Cobham’s drumming on full display.

“Dawn,” as the title suggests, calms the proceedings down a bit, with Hammer’s electric piano setting an easy, upbeat pace. Following a Goodman-dominated establishment of the melody, McLaughlin steps up for a guitar solo at approximately the 1:20 mark. The results are astounding, as his fingers glide over the strings of his Gibson at lightning speed, the mastery of which must be heard to be believed.

The metallic overtones return with “The Noonward Race,” as McLaughlin again dominates proceedings with his breakneck runs. Rumor has Laird and Goodman getting into a fistfight during the recording of the piece, as the other members played louder to drown out the sounds of the altercation.

Cobham and Laird take a break for “A Lotus On the Irish Stream,” which features McLaughlin, Hammer and Goodman unplugged. McLaughlin shows his prowess on the acoustic guitar, an instrument he later played exclusively with his late-’70s band Shakti.

“Vital Transformation” picks up the dynamics significantly with Cobham contributing heavy percussion to start the tune, a technique he’d use effectively two years later on his stellar solo debut, “Spectrum.” A long middle stretch has McLaughlin and Goodman playing an adrenaline-fueled lead duet.

“The Dance of the Maya” opens in an unconventional time signature before breaking into a decidedly bluesy motif featuring Goodman’s violin. The song returns to its jazz inflections, with McLaughlin dazzling once more, before returning to the original rhythm.

Perhaps the most interest track on the album, and certainly the most influential, is “You Know You Know.” McLaughlin opens with a moody guitar theme, which eventually is joined by the other musicians and repeated over the course of five minutes, with everyone contributing his own inflections, before Cobham closes with a frenetic percussive run. The theme has been sampled by numerous contemporary artists, including Mos Def, Massive Attack, David Sylvian and Blahzay Blahzay.

Closing “The Inner Mounting Flame” is the relatively brief, full-volume “Awakening,” which also provides a showcase for Cobham’s drumming.

The Mahavishnu Orchestra did even better with its follow-up album, “Birds of Fire,” which peaked at No. 15 in 1972. But that was the group’s swan song, as inner tensions pulled it apart by 1973.

McLaughlin later recorded under the Mahavishnu Orchestra name, and while the results are interesting, they fall short of what the original lineup had to offer.

Of interest: Rick Laird retired from the music business in the early ’80s to concentrate on photography. In 2009, he found numerous photos he’d taken of jazz musicians that never had been seen. His work is featured on jazz.com.

“Head Hunters” by Herbie Hancock (1973)

Traditionalists will hate to admit it, but jazz reached its commercial zenith when combined with elements of rock for a musical style called fusion.

Whether the artistic component matched the sales is up for debate, but fusion still has plenty of fans, even though its viability petered out some three decades ago.

Keyboardist Herbie Hancock had been highly visible on the jazz scene, as a solo artist and as a member of Miles Davis’ band, since he was in his early 20s. By 1973, he was ready to embrace fusion in a manner that combined funky, synthesizer-driven grooves with inflections of traditional jazz.

The result was “Head Hunters,” a wholly accessible album for the average listener when compared with some of Davis’ pioneering forays into fusion. The album quickly raced to the top of Billboard’s jazz chart, hit No. 2 on the R&B chart and, to the great delight of Columbia Records executives, topped out at No. 13 on the Billboard 200.

All that made it the biggest-selling jazz album to date.

Of course, commercial success sometimes runs inverse to the musicianship involved, but “Head Hunters” deserves to be a part of any discriminating listener’s collection. Hancock teams with woodwinds player Bennie Maupin, bassist Paul Jackson and percussionists Harvey Mason and Bill Summers to present a quartet of expertly constructed songs.

Leading off is “Chameleon,” a group composition that features one of the most recognizable riffs of the ’70s. As Hancock and the rhythm section lay down the groove, Maupin overdubs himself to create a horn section that drives the melodic element. Hancock follows with a tasteful synthesizer solo before the song switches gears entirely.

The middle section of “Chameleon” is more reminiscent of Hancock’s highly regarded material he recorded for Blue Note, with his electric piano flowing breezily on top of Jackson’s fluid bass playing, backed by suitable synthesizer flourishes. Then it’s back to the original theme to conclude 15-plus minutes worth of jazz’s most essential compositions.

The album continues with an update of “Watermelon Man,” a song Hancock wrote for his debut album, “Takin’ Off” (1962); it later became a top-10 hit for Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaria. The “Head Hunters” arrangement opens with the unconventional sounds of Summers blowing into a beer bottle before the song heads into more familiar territory, using an arrangements that’s credited to Mason.

“Sly” takes its title from one of Hancock’s prime inspirations for “Head Hunters.” As he wrote in the liner notes:

“I started thinking about Sly Stone and how much I loved his music and how funky ‘Thank You For Letting Me Be Myself’ is. I was hearing that song over and over and over again. Then I had this mental image of me playing in Sly’s band, playing something funky like that. Then the next image that came to me was about my own band playing in Sly Stone’s musical direction.”

The song “Sly” opens in a fairly relaxed manner before picking up the tempo with a section featuring Maupin’s fluid horn playing. Hancock keeps up the pace with an electric piano solo before the song concludes in the way it started.

The final track, “Vein Melter,” wraps up the album in a slow, steady rhythm that allows soloists Maupin and Hancock to play some of their most expressive melodies. Columbia released an edited version of the song as a single.

“Head Hunters” is in the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry, a fitting place for an album that stands as perhaps fusion’s defining moment.

“Spectrum” by Billy Cobham (1973)

The first major jazz artist to incorporate rock elements into jazz playing was Miles Davis, whose “Filles de Kilimanjaro” in 1968 hinted at what would become one of his greatest achievements, the following year’s “In a Silent Way.”

Davis’ floating cast of musicians served as the proving ground for what would become the Who’s Who of jazz-rock fusion, including Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams, Chick Corea, Jack DeJohnette, Airto Moreira and British guitarist John McLaughlin.

Columbia Records, Davis’ label, was quick to sign the band McLaughlin founded in 1971, the Mahavishnu Orchestra. The quintet he formed – with Jan Hammer on keyboards, Jerry Goodman on violin, Rick Laird on bass and Billy Cobham on drums – played astonishingly intricate instrumentals at a volume associated more closely with Blue Cheer or Black Sabbath than anything having to do with jazz.

The original Mahavishnu Orchestra, unfortunately, lasted only a couple of years, and toward the end of that run, the percussionist recorded his first solo album.

“Spectrum” is one of the crowning achievements in fusion, with Cobham choosing wisely for his fellow musicians: Hammer, Lee Sklar on bass and the late Joe Farrell on woodwinds.

On guitar was a kid who’d started in the rock ‘n’ roll milieu, the late Tommy Bolin. The Sioux City, Iowa, native had played in a Colorado band called Zephyr before forming his own fusion group, Energy. He later replaced Domenic Troiano (who’d replaced Joe Walsh) in the James Gang.

Bolin met Cobham through former Jimi Hendrix producer Eddie Kramer at Electric Lady Studios in New York City. And the guitarist, just 22 at the time, met the expectations Billy had come to expect by working with McLaughlin.

Chris Jisi and Mark Bosch wrote about the resulting collaboration in a 1988 article for Guitar World magazine:

“‘Spectrum’ was, according to Hammer, an almost completely spontaneous jam. For Bolin, it turned out to be much more than that: It earned him long-desired recognition and is probably his most widely known recorded work. An integral stepping stone in intertwining the rock and jazz idioms, ‘Spectrum’ struts with smoky jazz/rock/funk grooves, setting the pace for Bolin’s white-hot guitar excursions. Although Cobham handed out charts, Bolin did not read music. Instead, he was told chord changes and fed melodies off of which he and Hammer played. As a result, his raw energy blends effectively with the technical parts played by the other musicians.”

OK, that’s the guitarist’s standpoint. The project belonged to the percussionist, though, and he responded with a songwriting and instrumental effort that solidified his reputation as fusion’s pre-eminent drummer.

The six tracks on “Spectrum,” three of which open with fluid percussion solos, are uniformly listenable, unlike some of the more esoteric elements of jazz-rock at the time. For example, the opener, “Quadrant 4,” remains one of the best-known exercises in fusion, with Bolin’s scorching guitar duetting with Cobham’s high-energy drumming to lead into a memorably stuttering melody augmented by Hammer’s keyboards.

The album reaches its summit, as does possibly fusion in general, with “Stratus,” the most nearly perfect marriage of jazz and rock. The song became a staple in Bolin’s repertoire for the three years he had remaining after the release of “Spectrum.”

Unfortunately for its fans, “Spectrum” turned out to be purely a one-off collaboration. Cobham later joined forces with keyboard player George Duke, fresh from his stint with Frank Zappa’s band, for some enjoyable mid-’70s recordings. Hammer teamed up with Jeff Beck for the height of the legendary guitarist’s fusion period, and in the ’80s, the Czech keyboardist became a full-fledged star with his theme song for the hit TV series “Miami Vice.” (For the record, I have yet to see an episode.)

Bolin eventually replaced Richie Blackmore in Deep Purple, then OD’d in Miami after opening for Beck.

The fusion of jazz and rock peaked shortly after the release of “Spectrum.” The genre still has many adherents to this day, but they’re going to have to search long and hard to find something as listenable and enjoyable as Billy Cobham’s debut.

I’ve been collecting music for nearly 40 years. I’ll admit to having more music on various media than I’d ever be able to listen to the rest of my life. But I’m trying …

Following are some titles from the past half century, presented reverse chronologically and kind of at random, that I’d recommend as decent listens. That’s assuming, of course, that I’ve actually listened to them!