Monday, August 28, 2017

The 7-Day (Jazz-Rock) Fusion Challenge

by John Montagna, Culture Sonar:

Weather Report
In the late 1960s rock and funk surpassed jazz as the dominant force in popular music, and many top jazz musicians knew better than to resist this sea change. They embraced the sounds and high energy of rock and funk, but maintained the musical vocabulary and improvisational spirit of jazz. The resulting sound came to be called “fusion,” and it served artists and audiences alike who were seeking a deeper and richer musical experience. Fusion was immediately controversial, and ultimately morphed into clumsy “formats” attempting to marry jazz and pop. But at its peak, fusion incorporated the best elements of multiple genres into something completely new. It didn’t pander to its audience, but it didn’t alienate them either. As a musician living in the internet age of endless choices, I’ve recently found myself seeking inspiration from something both familiar and adventurous. So I embarked on a “7 Day Fusion Challenge,” listening to a different fusion LP in full every day for a week and writing down my first thoughts.
I established some ground rules. First: no Miles Davis, which ruled out the too-obvious choices like Bitches Brew (1970) and In A Silent Way (1969), both considered fusion’s “origin story” LPs. Instead I focused on the “first-generation fusion” cats from the mid-‘70s (although one title from 1981 squeaked onto the list). No “pop” records with “jazz/fusion” players on them (Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell), or “rock” groups with improvisational tendencies (Soft Machine, early Chicago). And I stuck to albums that I already owned, rather than purchasing and/or streaming anything new. This is all music that I’ve heard many times, but to which I hadn’t devoted my full attention for a while. The experience was transformative, and a wonderful exercise in time and energy management that was good for my soul.
Monday: Stanley Clarke’s Journey to Love (1975)
Bass legend Stanley Clarke made his bones with jazz luminaries like Horace Silver and Art Blakey, and he co-founded Return to Forever with keyboardist Chick Corea in 1972. His solo albums effortlessly blend a variety of styles and textures, and Journey To Love is an exciting ride through Stanley’s expansive musical mind. Of course there’s plenty of stunning bass playing, from the percolating electric funk of “Silly Putty” to the masterful acoustic work on “Song to John.” But the true “fusion” happens on “Concerto for Jazz/Rock Orchestra, Parts I-IV” as a hot studio band of Clarke, keyboardist George Duke, drummer Steve Gadd and guitarist David Sancious commingles with majestic strings and dramatic brass stabs. This was the perfect start to my challenge, one of the best LPs from one of the best musicians of the 20th century.
Tuesday: John McLaughlin’s Electric Guitarist (1978)
The English guitarist was a key player on Miles Davis’ landmark In A Silent Way LP, and his sharp improvisational instincts made him Miles’ trusted musical comrade for decades after. On Electric Guitarist, McLaughlin abandoned the eastern-flavored explorations of both his Mahavishnu Orchestra and the acoustic-based Shakti, and surrounded himself with some of the baddest cats in both NYC and LA for some powerhouse jamming. I bought this album as a Berklee student in the ‘90s for one reason: Jack Bruce is on it, fueling an unpredictable and funky trio jam with drummer Tony Williams called “Are You The One? Are You The One?” I’m glad I kept it in the collection: With the electric guitar back in his hands and luminaries like Stanley Clarke, Chick Corea and drummer Billy Cobham egging him on, McLaughlin burns through Electric Guitarist with a fresh intensity. A stunner.
Wednesday: Weather Report’s Black Market (1976)
Saxophonist Wayne Shorter and keyboardist Joe Zawinul founded Weather Report in 1970. Black Market, their sixth album, was made during a transitional period for the band. Both the drum and bass chairs were in flux, and there is great tension and excitement as multiple rhythm sections mark their territory. But Shorter and Zawinul somehow hold it together for a stunningly cohesive LP, with the band’s rich musical and sonic palette “fusing” elements of African music, funk, bebop and electronic sounds. Black Market also heralds the seismic arrival of bassist Jaco Pastorius on two standout tracks: “Cannonball,” Zawinul’s emotional tribute to his late jazz mentor Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, and the ridiculously funky “Barbary Coast” that comes near the end of the album as a release to the tension.
Thursday: Jaco Pastorius’ Word of Mouth (1981)
This is my favorite Jaco album. He may have reinvented the bass guitar, but bass was the tip of the musical iceberg for John Francis Pastorius III. His muse was a conduit for anything and everything — jazz, funk, R&B, rock, Afro-Cuban, classical — and it all comes out on Word of Mouth, his second solo album (and his first for Warner Brothers after a lucrative and high-stakes record deal). I could talk about the stellar performances from cohorts like Michael Brecker, Herbie Hancock and a prominently-featured Toots Thielemans, the daring and expansive orchestral writing, and of course the primo bass work. But it’s been well-documented that Word of Mouth was an intensely personal musical statement for Jaco, and he was hurt by the album’s lukewarm reception at Warner Brothers (as well as Joe Zawinul’s tough-guy dismissal of Jaco’s writing as “typical high school big band bullshit”). With all due respect, screw Warner Brothers and Joe Zawinul. If only Jaco had conquered his personal demons and not the other way around, he could have become his generation’s Duke Ellington. As a masterful glimpse of what might have been, Word of Mouth is an emotional listen.
Friday: Billy Cobham’s Spectrum (1973)
Billy Cobham’s “fusion” credentials are rock-solid: top of the NYC jazz and session scene of the late 60s and early 70s, played on Bitches Brew and in the first incarnation of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. His solo debut Spectrum might just be the quintessential fusion LP: the jazz is world-class, the rock is merciless, the funk is 100% stank, and keyboardist Jan Hammer’s synthesizers still sound like visitors from the future 44 years later! Hammer and Deep Purple guitarist Tommy Bolin breathe fire, alternating between blazing solos and simmering support. Cobham’s drumming is an exercise in tension and release with furious fills that always land dead in the pocket, and bass ace Lee Sklar glues it all together. Along with two “jazzier” tracks featuring bassist Ron Carter and saxist Joe Farrell, Spectrum radiates with the fierce energy of 1970s NYC.
Saturday: The Tony Williams Lifetime’s Turn It Over (1970)
Tony Williams was pissed. After jet-propelling Miles Davis’ “second great quintet” with his revolutionary drumming, he formed The Tony Williams Lifetime with John McLaughlin and organist Larry Young in 1969 and doubled down on his former boss’s excursions into rock/funk/avant garde turf. But Williams was frustrated when the “jazz establishment” rejected Lifetime’s “heavy” sound. He lashed out by doubling down again, adding Cream bass guitarist Jack Bruce to the band and recording the brilliant, belligerent, white-hot Turn It Over. From the back cover notes printed in a spiral that can only be read by rotating the cover (featuring the instructions “PLAY IT VERY LOUD”) to Tony’s ill-advised attempts to sing on three tracks, everything about this LP is meant to not make it easy for you. But make the effort: This is some of the most explosive, face-melting music ever made by anyone. The four musicians are thinking and playing with one mind, recklessly pushing the music to its limits but maintaining laser-focus and precision. With Turn It Over, Lifetime hit the “jazz establishment” like the Barzini Family hit Sonny Corleone on the Long Beach Causeway.
Sunday: Herbie Hancock’s Thrust (1974)
If Herbie Hancock’s multi-platinum Headhunters LP is the Thriller of fusion, then Thrust is its Bad: The under-appreciated follow-up that’s leaner and tougher. Funky from the first note, Thrust boils over with thick syncopation from the rhythm section, rich harmonic motion and juicy riffs that hit you from every direction. Herbie’s patented layered synths are otherworldly, but on tracks like “Actual Proof” there’s also death-defying group improvisation that recalls Herbie’s daring work with Miles on Filles De Kilimanjaro(1968). Busier isn’t always better, but getting busy with Thrust (especially with headphones, as I did) is a good idea. The perfect closer to a week of fusion.
So what did I learn? In a recent interview, bassist and producer Marcus Miller pointed out that the best fusion originated from musicians who were already considered the top players in their respective fields, whether jazz (Miles Davis) or rock (Jeff Beck), and were absorbing other influences to create something new. Having immersed myself in “classic” fusion with fresh ears for a week, I agree 100 percent. I’ll even take it a step further. These seven albums contained musicians of every color and ethnicity, incorporating instruments and sounds from around the globe, and evoke the full range of human emotions. Nothing sounded out of place. If we accept Marcus’ definition of this music as the greatest players striving to achieve their fullest potential, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that fusion also demonstrates humanity’s potential for unity and harmony.
PS. Jaco Pastorius features in our post The Best Archival Albums of 2017 (So Far). Plus, you may also enjoy our post In Celebration of Prince’s Multiple Personalities.
Photo: Weather Report, live at Shinjuku Kosei-nenkin Hall, June 11, 1981 (by Jun Tendo courtesy Wikimedia)

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Proof That Michael Bloomfield Is A Guitar God

by Gene Santoro, Music Aficionado:!/article/michael_bloomfields_14_best_tracks_by_genesantoro

When Bob Dylan went electric at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, he made sure he had blues guitar god Mike Bloomfield at his side.
Of course! Bloomfield's fluid, dynamic virtuosity shaped pivotal moments during classic rock's creative surge.

His ear-opening forays with the swashbuckling Paul Butterfield Blues Band forged the template for future superstars like Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. Lyrical, acerbic, exuberant, and aching, Bloomfield's guitar stings with vibrato and channels chromatic flourishes, which have shaped pickers from Duane Allman to Joe Bonamassa.

Bloomfield turned down Dylan's offer to join his road band - take a sec to ponder how that might've changed rock history - to stay with Butterfield. Then, burned out by nonstop touring, he bailed on that outfit, and in 1967, went - where else? - to San Francisco.

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band

Play Playlist
He had a dream: a horn-augmented band roving across America's far-reaching musical realms. The redoubtable Electric Flag was born … and almost as quickly, disintegrated, after wowing the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival.

Then the restless insomniac signed on with ex-Blues Project member Al Kooper for the jazzy jams called Super Session.

But in 1970, he simply stopped playing. You could say the blues' demons had infested his soul, as they did Clapton's: he'd become a hardcore junkie. Over the next decade, he'd come back to perform and record in spurts - until an overdose killed him in 1981.

His vibrant music remains, however - an essential sound in a tumultuous, expansive era. Below are fourteen of the best tracks that make Michael Bloomfield immortal.

"Blues With A Feeling" (1965)

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band

Hear This Track
The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the first serious white electric blues outfit (anchored by Howlin' Wolf's ex-rhythm section), coalesced in 1965. Thanks to the legendary John Hammond, Bloomfield had recorded a few sides for Columbia (only released much later). But Elektra's Paul Rothschild produced this band's debut, after recording their minor hit, Born In Chicago. This cut, originally a hit for Butter's harp idol Little Walter, Muddy Waters' reedman, lets Bloomfield fire off his already formidable chops arsenal. Listen to how his supple riffs respond to Butter's vocals, how he replicates Muddy's stinging Telecaster bottleneck, how his agile timing finesses B.B. King and keeps you on the edge. He was barely 22, but he'd played with Muddy and Wolf, and they'd embraced him. "This was not just another white boy," Al Kooper later explained. "Michael used to say, It's a natural. Black people suffer externally in this country. Jewish people suffer internally. The suffering's the mental fulcrum for the blues." Until it killed him, it made him burn brightly.

"Thank You Mr. Poobah" (1965)

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band

Listen Now
Here the guitar solo pays homage to Buddy Guy, Muddy's "adopted son," whose spiky, stuttering variants of B.B. King's style had developed into a unique voice. Guy was one of the black Chicago bluesmen who treated the rich white boy from Chicago's North Side not as just another thrill-seeking slummer sidling over to the South Side, but as a serious student of the blues. Bloomfield may have lived off his grandfather's trust fund, but his dogged persistence, wide-ranging curiosity, and prodigious natural talent drove him deeper inside the music than nearly all the blues-rockers who followed in his wake—as this cut's riffs and solos demonstrate, lunging, bobbing, and weaving with unexpected accents.

"Tombstone Blues" (1965)

Bob Dylan

Hear This Track
Dylan's band for his electric breakthrough album included Bloomfield and multi-instrumentalist Al Kooper. The galloping track sports Bloomfield's edgy Telecaster runs; and the stinging treble with quivering vibrato ferociously echoes the violent lyrics by stabbing and slashing in response. (You can hear how Robbie Robertson would pick up on all this.) Though almost all other pickers then were going gaga over the new and multiplying effects coming out, Bloomfield rarely used anything beyond his volume and tone controls, some echo, and his surgical touch, which combined to give him the enviably wide sonic range you hear on this track.

"Highway 61 Revisited" (1965)

Play Track
One of the funniest, most sardonic songs Dylan ever wrote gets the musical backing it demands here: somewhere between vaudeville and corrosive blues. Bloomfield's slide work punctuates Dylan's surreal vocals with that sweeping Elmore James chord that underlines the zaniness; note how he diddles the turnarounds, using the spaces for filigrees to comment on what's preceded. One of the key lessons Bloomfield learned from Muddy and B.B. and Buddy et al. is encoded here: his fills always play off the vocals and lyrics. Too few of the white blues guitarists absorbed that lesson as deeply and meaningfully. Here, dealing with Dylan, he finesses his schooling and combines flash with emotional resonance.

"I've Got A Mind To Give Up Living" (1966)

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band

Listen Now
From the Butterfield band's sophomore outing, this minor-key blues tips its hat to Otis Rush, the great Chicago blues singer/guitarist who penned oft-covered classics like I Can't Quit You Babyand Double Trouble. The southpaw axman made a specialty of burning long, slow notes in minor keys. (Bloomfield later co-produced his 1969 album Mourning in the Morning in Memphis' FAME studio, stirring soul in Rush's blues.) There's only about a year between the group's first album and this follow-up, but comparing this cut to, say, "Blues With A Feeling," it's evident how much Bloomfield has grown in concept and control. Now using a Les Paul and tapping into its different sonic possibilities, he's extended both his tonal and musical range. Those smooth chromatic runs will be a staple of his playing from now on and offset the staccato bursts, slinky note bends, and nonstop riffs that rarely repeat an idea. His inventiveness is as staggering as his technique; at the time, only a handful of black blues guitarists, like B.B., Albert, and Freddie King and Buddy Guy, could outduel Bloomfield's endless bag of tricks onstage—and they'd be the first to admit they had to work for it.

"Work Song" (1966)

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band

Hear This Track
You could call this the first jazz-rock fusion track; it certainly threw open musical doors countless others would later stream through. Jazzman Nat Adderley had a nice hit with this funky blues. These electric blues pioneers plugged it in and whipped and wailed it into a completely different zone that presaged the variegated jazz-rock mixings and minglings soon to start. Maybe what's most astounding is how brilliantly tight they are, how at ease they seem navigating all the twists from section to section, as one soloist succeeds another. Bloomfield shifts how he rides the smooth-flowing rhythms, refusing to stick to a single groove, using triplets and syncopations and bitten-off phrases and running over bar lines with a mastery any jazzer would salute. The finale, where everyone trades fours, a jazz convention, is a marvel itself, but leads to a finale that's as unexpected as it is powerful: that last crying harp riff seals this brand-new musical deal with the blues.

"East-West" (1966)

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band

Listen Now
Where to start?! If this was the only thing Bloomfield—or for that matter, this whole outfit—ever recorded, they'd deserve their spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Here is the moment when John Coltrane first seriously impacted the rock world. Roger McGuinn was recording his Trane-flavored solo for Eight Miles HighThe Grateful Dead were barely starting to mess around with Dark Star. But on this 13-minute cut, Trane's modal excursions found their first true crossover reimaginings, becoming the inspiration for a multipart instrumental portrait of American music that still hits like a piledriver. The arrangement is astounding for that (or really any) time: ranging over half a dozen musical styles or more, the band subtly repaints backdrop colors while soloists fire away, all over a simple bass line whose varied accents give it all the flexibility it needs to accommodate the blasts of change roaring over it. Bloomfield's sheer virtuosity here is, uh, mind-blowing. Sure, others did the fake sitar drone thang, but how many managed the velocity and melodic turns as well? It's impossible to mention everything, so I'll pull this up: the Dixieland concluding section, keying off Bloomfield's lead as other voices gradually emerge from the background, until finally they're all blazing away on the front line in counterpoint or harmony or simply in tandem. Much of the Allman Brothers' concept and catalog—and a lot of Dickey Betts' guitar approach—has its embryonic beginnings right here.

"Stop" (1968)

Mike Bloomfield & Al Kooper

Listen Now
Al Kooper played with Bloomfield on Highway 61 Revisited, and thought, "Why not do an entire jam album together?" The result: Super Session. "Why not try and legitimize rock by adhering to [jazz] standards?" Kooper later wrote. He argued that Bloomfield seemed "inhibited and reined in" in the studio—a difficult point to make stick, you'd think, in light of East-West, but hey—it was the germ of this meeting. Ironically, Kooper's manifesto outshone some of the music it yielded. But this genial, soulful tune lets Bloomfield's guitar breathe differently and showcase some other angles. Bits of Curtis Mayfield surface; vocalic cries float, echoing those Jimi Hendrix subsumed into his style, then bend into heartache. If you wanna A/B Bloomfield and Hendrix, check out Buddy Miles (see Electric Flag below) singing this same R&B hit with Band of Gypsys.

"His Holy Modal Majesty" (1968)

Al Kooper & Mike Bloomfield

Hear This Track
His guitar voice and vocabulary, by now fully developed and utterly distinctive, is also so subtle you have to be as careful when listening to Bloomfield as to Trane: most of what you think are repetitions of phrases you've heard aren't. So hearing this 'Super Session' cut after, say, "Work Song" could make it seem a bit of a letdown. Maybe one reason is that Kooper's keys meander for too long. But the guitar work doesn't.

"Killing Floor" (1968)

The Electric Flag

Play Track
When this intriguing, suggestive Electric Flag album was cut, President Lyndon Johnson had escalated the Vietnam War to levels few had expected, the country was torn about by riots and demonstrations, Congress was fiercely divided, and the culture wars that still bedevil us were crescendoing into violence in the streets. In that explosive context, Howlin' Wolf's classic blues took on a whole nother meaning. Look, Bloomfield & Co. seem to be saying, THIS is the blues today. Of course, they unveiled this at the legendary 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, which was supposed to launch the next stage of California hippie dreaming. For a while, it almost looked like that might happen against all odds: Woodstock managed to become an instant myth just weeks before the Chicago police riots brutalized or jailed thousands of anti-Johnson protesters at the Democratic presidential convention—including universally beloved newsman Walter Cronkite. A year later, Altamont nailed that dream shut. But the music endures. Listen to Bloomfield's guitar twist and float and cajole and cry over the insistent rhythms, paying homage to Wolf's eccentric guitar monster Hubert Sumlin. And the horns—punching, swaggering, uplifting with all the soul they can muster from the redoubtable head charts dreamt up at Memphis soul studios like Stax. The Flag was meant to be an American music band, tackling the growing possibilities that classic rock's creative surge was unearthing, reshaping, offering. And for an all-too-brief moment, it was one of the best.

"Texas" (1968)

The Electric Flag

Play Track
Drummer Buddy Miles backed Wilson Pickettbefore his crossover break with Band of Gypsys; this was his vocal spot with the Flag. Listen to how Bloomfield can coax unexpected gradations of tone, or just suddenly swerve into a different sound and approach, as he flicks responses at Miles that end up having even greater nuance and vocalic subtlety than the drummer's singing.

"Another Country" (1968)

The Electric Flag

Hear This Track
Singer-songwriter Nick Gravenites, the Flag's co-founder, was Bloomfield's pal for most of their lives. Together, they created the band's visionary aspect, here dramatically expanding and reshaping a Phil Ochs song. Like "Killing Floor," it's both a specific response to the historical maelstrom of that time and a dazzling, transcendent piece of musical reinterpretation that makes vivid the apocalyptic feel hovering everywhere then. And it comes complete with wonderfully shapeshifting guitar sections.

"Hey Foreman" (1976)

Mike Bloomfield

Listen Now
In 1976, Guitar Player magazine recorded 'If You Love These Blues', a disc with Bloomfield that combined performances with mini-lectures about history, techniques, and the like. And so we have this Jimmie Rodgers-style piece, right down to Bloomfield roughly replicating the Singing Brakeman's famed yodeling. A change of guitar pace too: he's playing slide on an acoustic Hilo Hawaiian guitar. Tasty stuff that proves he could still deliver surprises and open ears even during his drug-infested post-glory years.

"Blake's Rag" (ca. 1976-79)

Mike Bloomfield

Listen Now
Another dazzling, unexpected side of the divinely gifted, if humanly flawed, guitar hero: ragtime fingerpicking. This one, from the late 1970s, is a homage to Blind Blake, arguably one of the very few fingerpickers who truly managed to make his guitar the piano's equal. Here Bloomfield shows he too can maneuver this style's pyrotechnics with idiomatic aplomb.