February 16, 2006

Jazz Fusion


Since the early 1970s, fusion music has served as an appreciable back door for people seeking an entry into the complexities of jazz. The term “fusion” refers to the blending together of jazz, rock, world music, classical, or other influences into a concrete whole. Most often it's applied to a form of music also known as “jazz-rock”, which first gained wide popularity with Miles Davis' electric-jazz experiments in the late 60s. Today there is an earnest resurgence in fusion across America and the world, with a vast number of technically brilliant musicians creating exciting sounds, and classic recordings being reissued in droves. Before dealing with the current scene, however, it's best to begin building a fusion library by heading back to its roots.

Prior to Davis' innovations, a small scattering of jazzmen attempted to fuse jazz and rock. British guitarist Alexis Korner cut his first album of electric jazz-blues as early as 1962, and other British electric-bluesmen (Graham Bond, John Mayall) flirted with jazz inflections throughout the 60s. In about 1966 the Free Spirits (guitarists Chip Baker and Larry Coryell, saxophonist Jim Pepper, drummer Bob Moses, bassist Chris Hills) began toying with a union of jazz and the pop sounds that had set American youth on fire: Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Stones. Unfortunately, the Free Spirits' sole album, Out of Sight and Sound (1966, ABC-Paramount), has been unavailable for decades despite being the true herald of jazz-rock fusion's arrival. The concept was still shaky and Coryell's vocals did little to help matters, but for its landmark status alone it is a valuable record.

Coryell moved on to work with trumpeter Randy Brecker, then with vibraphonist Gary Burton's quartet. In '66 Burton had semi-successfully fused jazz and country on the album Tennessee Firebird (RCA), produced by Chet Atkins. Moving towards rock seemed the next logical step. Albums like Duster (RCA, 1967) followed, utilizing rock rhythms and Coryell's acidic tone to good advantage. Decked out in beaded buckskins, Burton subsequently became a favorite feature of American rock festivals.

Gary Burton: Duster (1967, RCA; reissued 1997, Koch)
Burton's first successful entry into jazz-rock fusion, still more jazz than rock but pointing the way ahead. Compositions by bassist Steve Swallow, Carla Bley and Mike Gibbs are savvily interpreted by Burton, Swallow, Larry Coryell and drummer Roy Haynes. Coryell's sharp tone, deeply inflected by the blues, offers the main rock flavoring on tunes like “Ballet”, “Liturgy”, and Swallow's hippie-esque “General Mojo's Well-Laid Plan”. The album received an astonishing 5-star review from Down Beat upon its initial release.

Following his service with Burton, Coryell joined with saxophonist Steve “The Count” Marcus to form Count's Rock Band. The group was rounded out by Chris Hills and Bob Moses from the Free Spirits, New Zealand-born keyboardist Mike Nock, and percussionist Chris Swanson. Their assimilation of rock elements was more overt than in Burton's quartet. Pop song covers and Nock's kitschy harpsichord assured a young following for Count's Rock Band for a time. The group's self-titled debut album was released in '69 on the Vortex label (an Atlantic subsidiary), concurrently with Marcus' own effort, The Lord's Prayer.

Count's Rock Band/Steve Marcus: Count's Rock Band/The Lord's Prayer (reissued 1999, Collectables Jazz Classics)
This Collectables two-fer combines a pair of Marcus-centered albums from '69 that cross over between jazz and rock with varying degrees of success. There's “hippie” written all over much of this, but in a fairly pleasing way. “Theresa's Blues”, “Scarborough Fair”, Chris Hills' “Ooh Baby”, Bob Moses' lovely ballad “Amy”, Miroslav Vitous' “Hope”, and the lushly orchestrated “T. with Strings” are the high points and well worth the price. The Count's material suffers a bit from questionable accordion sections and puny solo interludes. But despite the featherweight melody, the Stones' “Back Street Girl” is priceless for its headlong leap into free-jazz fury. The Lord's Prayer material is even sketchier: the eight-minute “Hey Jude” plods along like a zombie, drummer Larry Clark thinks far too much of himself, “The Lord's Prayer” doesn't make for good free jazz, and the godawful kid-with-her-recorder rendition of “America” is a national insult. But the myriad faults aside, this two-fer still has some excellent, innovative music to recommend it. For historical purposes, pick it up and then program your player selectively.

From his development of cool jazz in the late 40s on, Miles Davis was one of the most consistently innovative musicians in jazz. His relaxed, Harmon-muted style of bop in the mid-50s gave way to modal scale experiments, ambiguous forms sans chords, tense ostinato pieces, and finally the blending of acoustic and electronic instruments. It's said that Miles' confluence of jazz and rock stemmed as much from Columbia Records' threats to drop him if he didn't produce more hits as from his personal pursuit of innovation. Whatever the cause, Davis brought in a succession of keyboard players who concentrated on electric piano and organ: Joe Zawinul, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett. These fresh sounds added vitality and rich textures to Davis' band, and the music created around the new instruments was like little heard before. His first full-body leap into jazz-rock fusion came with In A Silent Way (1969, Columbia) in close collaboration with Zawinul, who had previously dealt out masterful soul-jazz with Cannonball Adderley's groups. The album was a clarion call to forward-minded players and fans, a firm indication that the new music could indeed be successfully combined with the old.

Miles Davis: The Complete In A Silent Way Sessions (tracks originally issued 1969; reissued 2001, Columbia/Legacy)
On the ground-breaking In A Silent Way , the acoustic instruments of Davis, Wayne Shorter, Dave Holland and Tony Williams were combined with John McLaughlin's electric guitar, Joe Zawinul's organ, and the twin electric pianos of Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock. Each side of the original LP held a medley of two themes. Miles' 18-minute-plus “Shhh/Peaceful”, dramatically tense, followed by Zawinul's lovely title tune, buoyed by a bass drone and sporadic keyboard pulses. Partway through its proceedings, the more ominous minor theme of Miles' “It's About That Time” emerges, a subtle but telling change of mood. Both sides featured virtuosic playing by all the musicians, particularly the then-unfamiliar McLaughlin. The album has been reissued under the Columbia/Legacy imprint. The three discs in this set contain sessions from a six-month period (September '68 to February '69) when Miles was experimenting heavily with electronic instrumentation in a jazz context. Several of these tracks were originally issued on later albums: Filles de Kilimanjaro ('68); Water Babies ('76); Circle in the Round ('79); and Directions ('81). Other tracks are heard here for the first time. In finally hearing this continuum of music in the order in which the pieces were recorded, the progression from the forbidding modality of the Shorter/Williams acoustic band to the eventual funk-rock mayhem of Bitches Brew is made especially clear. Jack DeJohnette and Joe Chambers each hold the drum chair on certain tracks. This set sheds new light on the directions that Miles was considering in the period, smooths out some rough jumps in his discography, and offers a glimpse at the evolution of these timeless sessions. Essential and simply astonishing.

Miles Davis: The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions (tracks originally issued 1969, Columbia; reissued 1998, Columbia/Legacy)
Davis followed In A Silent Way with a double-disc release that both broke new ground in studio technology and set his course for the next few years. Few albums can claim the controversy of Bitches Brew , recorded in August 1969 and engineered in an unusual cut-and-paste fashion by Teo Macero. Davis and his cadre recorded a huge volume of music over those three days, which Macero then assembled into a shocking collage of funky bass ostinatos, crushingly powerful solo snippets, echo effects, and some of the loudest ensemble work ever recorded up to that time. Wayne Shorter's soprano and John McLaughlin's fiery electric guitar slice furiously through the dance-beat jungle conjured by Chick Corea, Jack DeJohnette, acoustic bassist Dave Holland, bass guitarist Harvey Brooks, and the rest of the entourage. The “Complete” reissue includes alternates and outtakes culled from the mountain of tape Macero initially wove into a frightening masterpiece, some of which were later issued on Big Fun and Circle in the Round. Even if you end up hating it, Bitches Brew is one of those albums that one must hear in order to understand what followed it. Subsequent efforts like On The Corner and Get Up With It (all remastered and reissued by Columbia/Legacy in the past few years) drew from the Bitches Brew formula, until Davis' groove finally seemed to get stuck in a morass of sameness.

The late 60s saw a new vogue in rock bands sporting horn sections, with a few successes and many clones. Blood, Sweat and Tears and Chicago ruled the roost, with Tower of Power stirring in the funk later on. The Ides of March and vibist Mike Mainieri's White Elephant were less prosperous, while Chicago's The Flock have been all but forgotten. More's the pity, since their self-titled album is one of the best of the bunch. Led by guitarist Fred Glickstein, The Flock's ace in the hole was violinist Jerry Goodman, a long-haired wildman whose ferocious improvisations could levitate the bandstand.

The Flock: The Flock (1969, Columbia; reissued 1996, Sony Music Special Products)
A phenomenal release by an underappreciated force in jazz-rock fusion. The opening guitar/violin duo tips us off that this isn't your average album. Guitarist Fred Glickstein's singing and songwriting is reminiscent of the Jefferson Airplane's Marty Balin. Jerry Goodman's violin usually steals the show; his psychotic intro to the ultra-groovy cover of The Kinks' “Tired of Waiting” is a kick in the head. The funky horn line and “yeah, yeah” backing vocals stack up the good, clean fun.

Meanwhile, back in the UK, the members of the so-called “Canterbury school” were fashioning their own fusion hybrid. In 1968 drummer/singer Robert Wyatt, guitarist Kevin Ayres and organist Michael Ratledge formed the Soft Machine, which originally played an extension of the electric blues of Graham Bond and the Cream. Bassist Hugh Hopper joined in time for the band's second album, followed by saxophonist Elton Dean. After a few years the Soft Machine morphed from a blues-rock band into a jazz ensemble with rock undertones. They were one of Europe's most influential crossover bands during their decade of life, inspiring the eventual birth of Gong, Matching Mole, and other units. On the more soulful side of the tracks was keyboardist/singer Brian Auger, whose bands Trinity and Oblivion Express got down and funky for much of the 60s and 70s.

Soft Machine: Volumes I and II (1968-69, MCA; reissued on one CD 1995, Big Beat)
The first two Soft Machine albums, combined on one gloriously strange CD. Robert Wyatt's effeminate falsetto vocals are a stark contrast to Michael Ratledge's abrasive organ tone and Kevin Ayres' shimmering guitar. The music is schizophrenic at times, scooting quickly from tender ballad to rhythmic free-for-all. Psychedelic anthems share space with gentle interludes, white-boy R&B, and “The Concise British Alphabet” (forwards and backwards, yet). Horns are added for the avant-leaning “Out of Tunes” and Mingus-flavored “Orange Skin Food”, increasing the jazz profile. Essential if a tad bizarre.

Brian Auger's Oblivion Express: The Best of Brian Auger's Oblivion Express (1996, Polygram)
Two discs of prime Auger, highlighting two dozen tracks including covers of Eddie Harris' “Freedom Jazz Dance”, Wes Montgomery's “Bumpin' on Sunset”, and Marvin Gaye's “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)”, and originals like “Dragon Song” and “Second Wind”. Auger and friends at their soulful best.

Stateside, John McLaughlin joined ex-Davis drummer Tony Williams and organist Larry Young to form the trio Lifetime. Williams' aggressiveness complemented McLaughlin's acid attack and Young's angular technique in a mind-boggling union of technical expertise. Lifetime debuted on record in 1969 with Emergency! (Polydor), a brilliant showcase for the three men's exceptional talents. McLaughlin in particular barged brashly through the doors that Coryell had kicked open a few years prior, his scathing tone powerful enough to chip paint off the walls. Williams continued his climb into fusion prominence with his next band, Spectrum, while Young moved into free jazz until his untimely death in 1978. And, as he later revealed, McLaughlin had his own tricks up his sleeve.

Tony Williams Lifetime: Emergency! (1969, Polydor; reissued 1997, Polygram)
The incendiary debut of a sensational fusion trio. From the first tense alarum of the opening track, Williams, John McLaughlin and Larry Young stage an unmerciful assault on the status quo of jazz. Young's anxious organ tone is especially disquieting all through the session. The double-tracked blues guitars of “Via the Spectrum Road” are marvelous. The sole downer here is Williams' unconvincing vocals, but they do little to tame the intensity of this unparalleled set.

In the summer of '71 McLaughlin formed his own multicultural group with ex-Flock violinist Jerry Goodman, Czech pianist Jan Hammer, Irish bassist Rick Laird and Panamanian drummer Billy Cobham. The Mahavishnu Orchestra was inspired by McLaughlin's interest in Indian musics and cultures, particularly the teachings of Sri Chinmoy, and the group's almost impenetrably complex music marked a new horizon in fusion's development. Loud volume, lightning speed and exotic time signatures and scales were among the hallmarks of Mahavishnu. For a few years McLaughlin's ensemble represented the pinnacle of fusion, but by 1974 the concept had grown thin and a mid-80s reunion simply fizzled.

Mahavishnu Orchestra: The Inner Mounting Flame (1971, Columbia; reissued 1998, Columbia/Legacy)
The debut of one of fusion's most technically phenomenal bands. McLaughlin and company navigate harrowing original compositions with breakneck speed and unmatched articulation, resulting in music of fresh excitement and constant surprises. The leader's electric guitar is unbearably intense at times, while his acoustic work is gentle as a lamb. This is a band in the best sense of the word, each member contributing complementary parts to the greater whole.

Mahavishnu Orchestra: Birds of Fire (1972, Columbia; reissued 2001, Columbia/Legacy)
Mahavishnu's second effort went gold and rode the Billboard charts for 11 weeks. Some of McLaughlin's exotic spirituality and Hammer's synthesizers seem a bit cloying in hindsight (in what other decade could the tiny noise clusters of “Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love” have been put to wax?) but the unbridled virtuosity and creativity here remain undiminished. The stunning sonic embroidery can still knock listeners flat on their backs, Cobham's insane pace gives veteran drummers pause, and McLaughlin's controlled burblings carry even more propulsive weight in this digital repackaging.

Billy Cobham: Rudiments: The Billy Cobham Anthology (2001, Rhino)
In 1973 Billy Cobham broke from the Mahavishnu ranks and became a bandleader in his own right, crafting some of the most exciting (and occasionally generic) fusion of the 70s and 80s. He started the ball rolling that year with Spectrum , an Atlantic issue which included Mahavishnu keyboardist Jan Hammer, session bassist Lee Sklar, and young guitar wizard Tommy Bolin. Later gatherings under the titanic drummer's leadership featured keyboardist George Duke, bassists John Williams, Alphonso Johnson and Alex Blake, the Brecker Brothers (trumpeter Randy and reedman Michael), guitarists John Scofield and John Abercrombie, and many others. Rudiments collects some of Cobham's best tracks recorded for the Atlantic label, focusing largely upon his amazing drum skills and respectable compositions.

Despite the work of Jerry Goodman and other pioneers, it was Jean-Luc Ponty who almost single-handedly carved a niche for the violin within fusion. From his earliest efforts with Frank Zappa (the wonderful King Kong ) through his mega-hit 1970s albums like Imaginary Voyage , Ponty was the voice of fusion violin for a couple of decades. In the 90s his star faded a bit as he returned to France and took part in specialty projects like The Rite of Strings, with guitarist Al DiMeola and bassist Stanley Clarke, but he quickly returned to prominence in the new century.

Jean-Luc Ponty: The Very Best of Jean-Luc Ponty (2000, Rhino)
A “best-of” that's truly worthy of its title, this release collects sixteen of Ponty's best tracks from his 1970s heyday. He performs on both acoustic and electric violins on favorites such as “Infinite Pursuit”, “Bowing-Bowing” (with guest Patrice Rushen on keys), “Cosmic Messenger”, “New Country”, and “Enigmatic Ocean, Part 3”.

Keyboardist Chick Corea also built a platinum career after his tenure with Miles Davis. After some excellent acoustic albums and a brief dabbling in free jazz with the quartet Circle, Corea went in a completely new direction in 1971 with his band Return To Forever. Originally a mostly acoustic ensemble featuring Brazilian singer Flora Purim and her husband, percussionist Airto Moreira, RTF blossomed into a powerful fusion group with guitarist Al DiMeola, electric bassist Stanley Clarke and drummer Lenny White among its heavies.

Return To Forever: Romantic Warrior (1976, Columbia)
Given the absence of a really good overview of RTF's output (both the Columbia Best Of and Sony's This Is Jazz, Vol. 12 , devoted to the band, are insufficient), this 1976 release is probably the best starting place to appreciate the band in their prime. (Its Grammy-winning predecessor, No Mystery , is ironically unavailable now.) Corea, DiMeola, Clarke and White were at the peak of their group intuitiveness here, and the themes were among the band's most entertaining. The tunes by DiMeola were especially exciting, demonstrating the rock-tinged chops that he later let slide in favor of more introspective forms. RTF subsequently became a “horn band” with Joe Farrell and four other wind-blowers, and the music lost a great deal of its edge. Romantic Warrior was sort of the last hurrah of a truly great concept. Clarke went on to become one of the most inspirational bassists in contemporary music, though a string of poorly executed albums bogged him down in sorry funk and soul gunk.

Al DiMeola: Anthology (2001, Columbia/Legacy)
After departing Return To Forever, DiMeola became yet another of Columbia's shining fusion stars with a series of impressive albums between 1975 and 1983. This collection showcases the best of those discs, centered upon his mind-boggling chops and equal appreciation of Latin and classical forms. His sidemen here include guitarist Anthony Jackson, drummers Steve Gadd, Alphonse Mouzon and Lenny White, bassist Jaco Pastorius, keyboardist Jan Hammer, and even Genesis drummer Phil Collins on one track. Unlike Corea, Clarke, and many of his other contemporaries, DiMeola's recordings from this period tend to sound fresh and exciting even a quarter-century along. “Land of the Midnight Sun”, “Race With Devil on Spanish Highway” Corea's “Senor Mouse”, “Bianca's Midnight Lullaby”, and “Egyptian Danza” are among the high points of this two-disc compendium.

Like RTF, Weather Report began its life as an almost acoustic ensemble. Keyboardist Joe Zawinul and saxophonist Wayne Shorter, two more Davis alumni, formed the band's core for its whole life. The original incarnation of Weather Report, a quintet with bassist Miroslav Vitous, drummer Alphonse Mouzon and percussionist Airto Moreira, released their self-titled debut on Columbia in 1971. A large number of personnel changes then ensued, particularly in the drum and percussion chairs (only Spinal Tap was harder on drummers!) In 1973 Vitous was replaced by the more funk-minded Alphonso Johnson, an highly impressive bassist who was unfortunately overshadowed by his own replacement: Jaco Pastorius. The double-jointed, maniacally animated Jaco soon became the be-all and end-all of electric bass, his stupendous technique and imagination inspiring the next full generation of bassists and almost obscuring his bandmates' contributions to Weather Report's awesome presence. Heavy Weather , from 1977, gave the band its biggest hit (”Birdland”) and a #1 spot on the Billboard jazz chart. After Jaco's departure, Victor Bailey held the bass chair for a few more years until Weather Report folded in 1985, Shorter deciding to move on to new adventures. Zawinul briefly attempted to keep the ship afloat as Weather Update, with guitarist Steve Khan up front, but to little avail.

Weather Report: The Best of Weather Report (2002, Columbia/Legacy)
An excellent collection of mid-period WR tracks, skipping the earliest days with Miroslav Vitous and a few later misses like the band's swansong, This Is This. Produced by Bob Belden, the anthology includes major hits like “Birdland” and “A Remark You Made” along with less-remembered gems like “The Elders” and the Zawinul-Shorter duet “Blackthorn Rose”. About as good as a single-disc collection could be; thankfully, almost all of WR's albums have been reissued on CD so one can fill in the gaps. The double-disc Live and Unreleased (2002, Columbia/Legacy) presents many superior concert performances with few disappointments evident.

Jaco Pastorius: Jaco Pastorius (1976, Columbia)
John Francis Pastorius, the self-proclaimed “World's Greatest Bass Player”, took the jazz market by storm with his 1976 debut album. Filled to the brim with his signature bravado (how many other people would attempt a solo bass version of Charlie Parker's “Donna Lee”?) Jaco set the standard for bassists worldwide with his use of true and false harmonics (”Portrait of Tracy”, “Continuum”), fleet fingerstyle, and wholly original conceptions. Guests include Herbie Hancock and soul singers Sam and Dave.

In the 1980s fusion faced a quick descent from marketplace popularity, as audiences started seeking more personally relative musical and emotional content without all the showy chops that typified what fusion had come to represent. Guitarist Allan Holdsworth was one of the few artists to continue expanding the fusion umbrella without descending into either rock or smooth jazz. The rise of grunge and thrash-metal on the rock side, and glossy-slick contemporary jazz on the other end, meant more nails in the coffins of fusion and its homely cousin, hair-band heavy metal.

Allan Holdsworth: Metal Fatigue (1985, Enigma)
In the period before Holdsworth fell in love with the Synthaxe and completely changed the face of fusion once again, he was one of the most gifted electric guitarists in the business. His fleet, legato phrasing and pinpoint-accurate use of the tremolo bar were but two signatures of his unique and influential style. This head-spinning album features vocalist Paul Williams, bassist Jimmy Johnson, ex-Zappa drummer Chad Wackerman, and some of Holdsworth's most sizzling guitar work. The title track and “Devil Take The Hindmost” are highlights.

In the mid-1990s, however, a gradual resurgence of interest began creeping back into the industry. Some musicians who had previously let technical skill take the place of musical quality realized their error and began to temper their performances with moderation and more appreciable tunes. Meanwhile, some listeners who had grown tired of what 1990s radio had to offer — increasingly bare-bones music made by people with little or no formal training but plenty of personality flaws — started craving the sort of visceral excitement they had gotten from fusion in times past. With the establishment of Tone Center, a label associated with the Shrapnel rock/metal umbrella, fusion reclaimed a firm hold on the marketplace. Drummer Steve Smith, formerly of Journey and presently of fusion powerhouse Vital Information, plays a key role in Tone Center's A&R and production. Other imprints like Intuition and Favored Nations (founded by shred-metal star Steve Vai) began turning out excellent fusion-oriented albums by Vital Information, bassist Stu Hamm, guitarists Steve Lukather and Larry Carlton, and other artists. The past few years have seen a consistent number of outstanding fusion releases hit the market running.

Tribal Tech: Rocket Science (2000, Tone Center)
Tribal Tech is one of the most prominent ensembles to come out of the new wave of fusion. Guitarist Scott Henderson, bassist Gary Willis, keyboardist Scott Kinsey, and drummer Kirk Covington skillfully navigate the factors that made fusion great: complex but gripping tunes, the highest level of musicianship and technical prowess, and a good dose of fun. Rocket Science is one of their best offerings yet, giving a good-spirited nod to the cheesy sci-fi soundtracks of yore while ever pushing their music towards new frontiers. Danceable, full of laughs, and awe-inspiring by turns.

Vital Tech Tones: VTT2 (2001, Tone Center)
Another successful team: Tribal Tech guitarist Scott Henderson, drummer Steve Smith, and bassist Victor Wooten of bluegrass-jazz mavens Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. This trio really hit their stride on their sophomore release, blending effortlessly with one another as they pushed their instruments and creativity to the limits. Henderson is simply in a class by himself, a walking textbook of guitar technique and classy note selectivity. .

Gambale/Hamm/Smith: The Light Beyond (2001, Tone Center)
Not to sound like a cheerleader for Tone Center or Steve Smith, but this listing should give you some idea of the high quality of modern fusion under their guidance. This time Smith is teamed with Aussie guitarist Frank Gambale and former Joe Satriani bassist Stuart Hamm on a session marked by startling empathy and exquisite songcraft. Smith's drum layers and Hamm's slaps and pops are sweet complements to Gambale's blissful melodicism.

Vital Information: Live Around The World: Where We Come From Tour 1998-1999 (2001, Intuition)
A two-disc set of hot highlights from VI's successful world tour. Smith, Gambale, keyboardist Tom Coster, and new bassist Baron Browne play an interesting variety of material including John Coltrane's “Mr. P.C.”, Led Zeppelin's “Moby Dick” (which kicks off with a finger-busting solo by Browne), Ornette Coleman's “Happy House”, and Carlos Santana's “Europa” (with co-writer Coster on accordion). Always enjoyable, rarely predictable.

In the long interim after Count's Rock Band and the Free Spirits, Larry Coryell played freely with the Jazz Composers Orchestra, got funky with Herbie Mann, and sailed back into fusion with his own Eleventh House. Later on, after kicking his alcohol habit, Coryell established a reputation as a reliable mainstream jazz guitarist of considerable talent. Saxman Steve Marcus, his erstwhile cohort, spent over a decade in Buddy Rich's band with various other projects on the side. In 2001 Tone Center managed to reunite the two old buddies under the appropriate moniker Count's Jam Band, giving them a chance to revisit older material and craft bright new creations as well.

Count's Jam Band: Reunion (2001, Tone Center)
The long-awaited reunion of Steve Marcus and Larry Coryell, now in the company of Steve Smith and bassist Kai Eckhardt. Excellent alterations of older favorites like “Foreplay”, “Scotland”, and “Tomorrow Never Knows”, a pensive “Ballad for Soprano and Guitar”, and more. Jam-band veteran Jeff Chimenti sits in on piano for a couple of tracks. Marcus has been sorely underappreciated as a soprano saxophonist, and Coryell proves that he has lost little of his grand old fire. An essential document of contemporary fusion.

Jean-Luc Ponty: Life Enigma (2001, JLP Productions)
After a rather quiet period of reflection and experimentation, Ponty re-emerged in 2001 with his own label and this marvelous offering. Life Enigma reconfigures the pop consciousness of his past into a sound more appropriate for the new century, with Ponty's violin sometimes run through a Synclavier for beautiful washes of color and texture

Jazz Masterpieces : The Golden Era

Masterpieces: 1956-1965
From All about Jazz

There are times when you have to hold back and let certain music speak for itself. This list of jazz masterpieces is exactly that kind of music. By definition, these records are without flaw. (Okay, so humans are inherently flawed, but you'll have to get out a microscope to find anything that falls short here.)

If you're just stepping into the jazz world, be assured that these recording signposts mark high points, turning points, and moments of sheer genius. In other words, required listening.

Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers: Moanin' (1958)
Jazz's most explosive drummer debuted his third version of the Jazz Messengers with this instant hard-bop classic. It's way too funky in here, thanks to compositions and performances by Benny Golson, Lee Morgan, and Bobby Timmons (who contributed the famous title track).
Dave Brubeck: Time Out (1959)
What was conceived by pianist Brubeck as an adventure into unusual time signatures ended up one of the most successful records in jazz history, due in large part to its beautiful melodies and the mesmerizing alto work of Paul Desmond.
Ornette Coleman: The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959)
After four decades, this disc remains true to its title. Saxophonist Ornette Coleman solidified his group in 1959 to the working quartet recorded here. They broke convention and provided a major stepping stone on the road to free jazz.
John Coltrane: Love Supreme (1964)
One of Coltrane's most spiritually moving recordings, this disc has been popular among devotees and neophytes alike. It's a heart-felt celebration of divine love, with equal measures of devotion and exploration.
Miles Davis: Kind of Blue (1959)
The best-selling jazz recording of the era (and a perfect introduction for the jazz newbie), Kind of Blue helped introduce a new sound for jazz. Working from relatively simple structures, the musicians here lay out wonderfully lyrical extended improvisations.
Eric Dolphy: Out to Lunch (1964)
Eric Dolphy was always a big fan of bird calls, and much of his playing here reflects that natural sonority. This disc transports a relatively straightahead group into adventurous, inventive territory—with dramatically successful results.
Bill Evans: Waltz for Debby & Live at the Village Vanguard (1961)
The laid-back character of Bill Evans's piano playing here masks a serenely beautiful touch and wonderfully innovative ideas. His inhumanly intuitive interactions with bassist Scott LaFaro remain legendary. This is the best piano trio music ever recorded (and it's all live).
Herbie Hancock: Maiden Voyage (1965)
Pianist Herbie Hancock's best record adopts a nautical angle, with gentle waves of sound surrounding strong, forward-sailing melodies. Maiden Voyage relies upon subtlety, but it features wonderful group interaction and showcases some of Hancock's finest playing.
Thelonious Monk: Brilliant Corners (1956)
Quirky yet rigorously logical, Brilliant Corners is a triumph of composition and performance, a set heavy on Monk originals with Rollins, Roach and Pettiford along for the swing. Even its title describes Monk's angular genius.
Oliver Nelson: Blues & The Abstract Truth (1961)
Some of Nelson's best work - as a composer, arranger, AND saxophonist - features his large ensemble soulfully tight-roping arrangement and improvisation. A genuine masterpiece that has inspired musicians and arrangers for decades.
Sonny Rollins: Saxophone Colossus (1956)
Not just one of Rollins' great moments - one of the great “monster” jazz sessions of all time, and, in “St. Thomas,” one the first crossroads between Jazz and the Caribbean.
Horace Silver: Song for My Father (1963)
One of the first hard bop albums and also one of the greatest, and not just from that title track (honored in “Rikki Don't Lose That Number”) but also his classic “Lonely Woman.”
Jimmy Smith: The Sermon (1958)
A foreshadowing of Smith's awesome Chicken Shack and Midnight Special , and defining moment of organ jazz. Smith, Lee Morgan and Curtis Fuller testify on the side-long title track.

February 14, 2006

New Buzz # Raul Midon

Every few years an artist hits the Soul Music world with advance buzz strong enough to land him a major recording contract and out-of-the-box media interest. One of these stories for 2005 is Raul Midon.

Born in Embudo, New Mexico to an Argentinean professional dancer father and a New York-born mother (who died when Raul was very young), Midon was exposed to music his entire childhood. Despite being born blind, Midon took on multiple instruments early -- first drums, then guitar -- and his fascination with Argentinean percussion and American jazz and blues led to an interesting amalgamation of styles that later crept into his own music as an adult.

Midon attended college in Miami and then began a career as a studio musician and vocalist in the Latin music scene. After self-releasing the album Blind To Reality in 2001, Midon moved to New York and began playing the club circuit. He soon gained a significant following among fans of multiple genres attracted to his powerful live performances that mixed elements of Latin music, R&B and folk, all fronted by his strong, soulful voice. A fantastic video of an August 2003 concert at the Kennedy Center (available for viewing at the Kennedy Center Website) brought music media attention and Midon gained the reputation as the next great unsigned artist. After releasing a live EP in 2004 he was signed by Manhattan Records and spent the next year working on his first major label studio album, State of Mind.

While highly anticipated, State of Mind presents a minor dilemma for an artist who has gained a sterling reputation as a live performer and who has been singing many of the disc’s cuts in concert for several months. Fortunately, working with legendary producer Arif Mardin, Midon has created a studio album that has the feel of a small club acoustic performance. India.Arie popularized the term “acoustic soul,” but her work sounds like Moby compared to Midon’s sparse arrangements. State of Mind is all about Midon’s voice and guitar, with everything else taking a back seat. This works well in highlighting not only Midon’s soulful voice, but also his delightful lyrics, which are at times innocent (“Keep On Hoping,” “Mystery Girl”), at times idealistic (“Everybody,” “Never Get Enough”), and just about always worthwhile.

Musically, State of Mind has the raw but mellow immediacy of Bill Withers’ early recordings, with a combination of soul and latin influences that keep the disc interesting despite its abundance of slow songs. And Midon’s strong performance is buttressed by a sterling set of compositions, including his playful duet with Jason Mraz, “Keep On Hoping,” the soulful ballads “Mystery Girl” and “Suddenly” (which feature Midon’s warm falsetto), and the nice midtempo “If You’re Gonna Leave.” Perhaps best of all is “Expressions of Love,” a cut that sounds like a classic Stevie Wonder slow song, with Wonder even accompanying on harmonica.

It is unlikely that hip-hop-crazy popular radio will embrace an album like State of Mind, but over the past two years artists from Norah Jones to Gordon Chambers have shown that there is a sizable adult audience willing to bypass radio to satisfy their craving for intelligent, melodic music that is less temporal and more timeless. And State of Mind is an album that could have been made twenty years ago or twenty years from now and still be both relevant and memorable. Hopefully it is also the tipping point for the career of this talented young artist.

U2 Dismantle the Grammys

Rockers upstage Mariah and Kanye at forty-eighth annual awards show

U2 upstaged major nominees Mariah Carey and Kanye West at the forty-eighth annual Grammy Awards, winning five awards, including Song and Album of the Year.

"If you think this is gonna go to our head -- too late," joked the band's singer Bono after accepting the award for Song of the Year for "Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own." Both the song and the album, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, Bono said, were dedicated to his late father, whom he thanked "for giving me the voice and a bit of attitude to use it." The band also won awards for Best Rock Song, Best Rock Album and Rock Performance by a Duo or Group, and colleague Steve Lillywhite was honored as Producer of the Year.

Carey, the comeback diva nominated for eight awards, took home three, for Best R&B Song, Best Contemporary R&B Album and Best Female R&B Vocal Performance. The ambitious rapper West, who also had eight nominations, also won three, for Best Rap Song, Best Rap Album and Best Rap Solo Performance.

Soulful newcomer John Legend took home three awards of his own, including Best New Artist and Best R&B Album. Accepting his award for Best Male R&B Performance for "Ordinary People," he explained that the song came out of a writing session with the Black Eyed Peas: "I kept it, and I'm glad I kept it."

Green Day's "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" beat out both Carey's "We Belong Together" and West's "Gold Digger" for Record for the Year. "Pop radio playing rock music is a very big deal to me," said bandleader Billie Joe Armstrong.

Other winners included Alison Krauss and Union Station, who won three awards, including Best Country Album for Lonely Runs Both Ways. Kelly Clarkson, Damian Marley and Stevie Wonder were among the acts taking home two awards apiece.

Paying tribute to the victims of Hurricane Katrina and the late Coretta Scott King, one of the evening's first presenters Wonder said he hoped the evening's music would "lift us all to higher ground." Some of the performances did manage some lift, including Mary J. Blige's rousing collaboration with U2 on "One" and Christina Aguilera's acrobatic take on "Song for You," accompanied by Herbie Hancock. Carey sang with a huge gospel choir; West faced off against Jaime Foxx in an inventive marching-band-style segment.

Sixty-three-year-old Paul McCartney raised the roof with a raw version of the Beatles' metallic "Helter Skelter," noting that his two-song appearance was his first at the Grammys: "I finally passed the audition," he joked, echoing an old line by his late bandmate John Lennon.

Other performances were less than electric. Madonna, whose much-hyped show-opening slot was rumored to have irritated Carey, briefly shared the stage with the animated characters of Gorillaz. An all-star medley of songs in tribute to Sly and the Family Stone never got off the ground, despite an appearance by the long-reclusive, bleach-mohawked Sly Stone. Presenter Dave Chappelle, speaking from personal experience, made an apt introduction: "The only thing harder than leaving show business," he said, "is coming back."

And McCartney made an awkward encore appearance, joining Jay-Z and Linkin Park to sing the hook from "Yesterday." "Sounds so beautiful, don't you agree?" hollered Jay-Z.

The only political note was struck by Bruce Springsteen, who concluded his solo performance of "Devils & Dust" with three words about the military troops in Iraq: "Bring 'em home."

Country maverick Merle Haggard, rock changeling David Bowie, blues pioneer Robert Johnson, the psychedelic-era band Cream and the late comedian Richard Pryor were all honored with Lifetime Achievement Awards.

Leave the last word, as ever, to Bono, who earlier in the evening compared being in a rock band with running away to join the circus: You think you'll be the ringleader, he said, but sometimes you end up serving as the clown, the freak, "even cleaning up the elephant dirt." But on this night, the veteran rock band swept up a lot more than that.

A selected list of winners:

Record of the Year: "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," Green Day (Rob Cavallo and Green Day, producers; Chris Lord-Alge and Doug McKean, engineers-mixers)

Album of the Year: How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, U2

Song of the Year: "Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own," U2 (songwriters)

Best New Artist: John Legend

Best Female Pop Vocal Performance: "Since U Been Gone," Kelly Clarkson

Best Male Pop Vocal Performance: "From the Bottom of My Heart," Stevie Wonder

Best Pop Vocal Album: Breakaway, Kelly Clarkson

Best Solo Rock Vocal Performance: "Devils & Dust," Bruce Springsteen

Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal: "Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own," U2

Best Hard Rock Performance: "B.Y.O.B.," System of a Down

Best Rock Song: "City of Blinding Lights," U2 (songwriters)

Best Rock Album: How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, U2

Best Alternative Music Album: Get Behind Me Satan, White Stripes

Best Female R&B Vocal Performance: "We Belong Together," Mariah Carey

Best Male R&B Vocal Performance: "Ordinary People," John Legend

Best R&B Song: "We Belong Together" (J. Austin, M. Carey, J. Dupri and M. Seal, songwriters) (Mariah Carey)

Best R&B Album: Get Lifted, John Legend

Best Contemporary R&B Album: The Emancipation of Mimi, Mariah Carey

Best Rap Solo Performance: "Gold Digger," Kanye West

Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group: "Don't Phunk With My Heart," Black Eyed Peas

Best Rap/Sung Collaboration: "Numb/Encore," Jay-Z featuring Linkin Park

Best Rap Song: "Diamonds from Sierra Leone" (D. Harris and K. West, songwriters) (Kanye West)

Best Rap Album: Late Registration, Kanye West

RS Site

Teens Save Classic Rock

Teens Save Classic Rock
A new generation of fans turn to Hendrix, Floyd and Zeppelin

Like countless parents before him, Steven Tyler is shocked at the music that's been blaring out of his fifteen-year-old son's bedroom lately. But the Aerosmith frontman can hardly disapprove. "I walk by at night and my son is listening to Zeppelin stuff, like 'Black Dog,'" Tyler says. "He's turned all his friends on to Cream, and they're all into [Aerosmith's] Toys in the Attic. I told him, 'I can't believe you're listening to this.'"

Though classic rock is in no danger of edging out emo and hip-hop on most teenagers' playlists, a growing number of kids are also making room for Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles. At the same time, electric-guitar sales are soaring, with the cheapest models nearly doubling in sales from 2003 to 2004. "Kids go through hard rock, hip-hop and pop very quickly, and then they're hungry for something else," says E Street Band guitarist and garage-rock DJ Steven Van Zandt -- who gets hundreds of e-mails from teens thanking him for introducing them to bands like the Kinks. "They always end up coming to [classic] rock & roll."

Nine percent of kids ages twelve to seventeen listened to classic-rock radio in any given week in 2005 -- marking a small but significant increase during the past three years -- with a total of 2.3 million teens tuning in each week, according to the radio-ratings company Arbitron. And some markets have seen more dramatic growth: Teen listenership at New York's Q104.3, the nation's largest classic-rock station, has jumped twenty percent since fall 2002. "It really started in the past five years," says Q104.3 DJ Maria Milito. "You get these boys calling to request Hendrix whose voices haven't changed yet." Van Zandt's Underground Garage, heard on 140 radio stations across the country on Sunday nights, draws a third of its audience from listeners under twenty-five.

For teens, not all classic rock is created equal. According to the market-research firm NPD, kids ages thirteen to seventeen bought twenty percent of all Floyd and Zeppelin albums sold from 2002 to 2005, and seventeen percent of Hendrix and Queen discs but accounted for just three percent of Creedence Clearwater Revival sales, six percent of Rolling Stones sales and a paltry one percent of Cat Stevens sales. "There's such a force and power to a band like Zeppelin," says Rhino Records marketing vice president Mike Engstrom, adding that young buyers drove sales for the label's 2003 DVD collection of live Zep.

Young fans' enthusiasm helps evergreen discs such as Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon and AC/DC's Back in Black sell thousands of copies a week. "Week after week, a whole new group of people are discovering these albums," says Jeff Jones, executive vice president of Sony BMG's reissue label Legacy Recordings.

Veteran artists are also seeing a surprising number of young faces at their concerts; at one Tom Petty show at New York's Jones Beach last June, kids as young as fourteen showed up in packs and sang along fervently. "I don't know how to explain it," Petty says.

"We're now seeing an audience that goes from sixteen to sixty," says Allman Brothers manager Bert Holman. "Kids feel they're seeing something legendary and special." Classic-rock mainstay George Thorogood, meanwhile, has had to change his set lists to accommodate the growing number of kids at his shows. "I've had to clean it up a little bit," he says. "It's like, 'Cocaine Blues'? Maybe not."

Why would kids born in the Nineties turn to timeworn guitar anthems? For all of the vibrant rock recorded in the past ten years -- from pop punk to neogarage to dance rock -- no new, dominant sound has emerged since grunge in the early Nineties. "I can't think of a record recently that blew people's minds," says Jeff Peretz, a Manhattan producer and guitar teacher. "And there aren't really any guitar heroes around anymore. Kids don't come in and say, 'I want to play like John Mayer.'"

"There is such a drought that kids are going back and rediscovering the Who and Sabbath," says Paul Green, who runs the Paul Green School of Rock Music, which has expanded from a single Philadelphia branch in 1998 to schools in twelve other cities.

At the same time, the Internet has made forty-year-old hits as accessible as current chart-toppers. "I started to see this as a real trend when Napster started around 1999," says Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry, who has two teenage sons. Last year, teens even started believin' again in Journey's power ballads: They pushed the band's 1981 song "Don't Stop Believin' " into iTunes' Top Ten after it popped up during a romantic moment on MTV's wildly popular reality show, Laguna Beach. It has since sold more than 200,000 digital singles. "It makes me so happy that a new generation would embrace something we believed in," says former Journey singer Steve Perry. "Back when we were first successful, we were dissed -- but time has told a different story."

Old rock has become fashionable, too. The years-old couture and thrift-shop vogue for vintage rock T-shirts recently trickled down to mall retailers catering to teens, with Doors and Rolling Stones shirts selling fast at stores such as Hot Topic.

"It's almost a cyclical thing -- as music ages, it can become cool again," says Rilo Kiley frontwoman Jenny Lewis, who covers the Traveling Wilburys' "Handle With Care" on her new solo album, Rabbit Fur Coat. But Lewis also sees a simpler reason for the trend: "It's called classic rock for a reason -- it's classic. It's just really great music."


Posted Feb 09, 2006 10:43 AM