Miles Davis: Jack Johnson

Rating: 9.5/10
Rated as
: Album
Album Status
: Classic
Released: 1971
Specific Genre: Jazz Fusion, Jazz-Rock
Main Genres: Jazz, Rock
Undertones: Avant-Garde Jazz, Blues Rock
Label: Columbia

1 Right Off 2 Yesternow

The outrageous one

Miles Davis’ fusion albums of the late 1960s and early 1970s form something like the cast boy group of progressive jazz: the chilled-out mysterious one (In a Silent Way), the brainy weird one (Bitches Brew), the wild one (Live-Evil), the aggressively sexy one (On the Corner), and now: the one that everybody wants to hang out with – the outrageous one, the fun guy! In a less moronic way to talk about it, it really seems like Davis had a sort of vision for this period and what to do with the fusion style: though similiar, each of these albums represents one perfect stylistic distillation of what fusion could do.

Jack Johnson, then, is obviously and audibly spliced together from several different jam sessions (this is most notable when a short part of In a Silent Way shows up on side B) – but let’s talk about what it sounds like if you have no edition history to consult.

On the side-long first track (which is what this album is all about) a small raunchy combo kicks it right off with a simple blues rock rhythm, a distorted electric guitar attack, a bass finding its bluesy groove and staying with it – did I mix up records in the sleeve again? No, after John McLaughlin’s hilariously primitive riffs cease for some moments, Davis’ piercing trumpet takes over about two minutes in and it’s simply a ride of a totally loose groovy funky unstoppable jazz rock jam from here on, as the trumpet and the guitar exchange improvised solos and duels without giving it a thought. The soloing in the following ten minutes is just brain-melting, Davis screeches, rocks, and lumbers his way through the blues rock like you’ve never heard him. This part ends about twelve minutes in with some short ambient fusion intermezzo but thankfully immediately returns to the same relentless groove, with Steve Grossman’s saxophone and a new trumpet sound, the band continues to groove even swampier and Herbie Hancock is thrown into the mix. Judging from his performance he must have thought something like: „Okay guys, if you’re not taking this seriously, I’m not“ and plays a totally disastrous solo on some heavily distorted, disastrously sounding organ and the result somehow is instant history. With this completed line-up, they tip the rhythm into even dirtier territories, McLaughlin wraps it all up with a razor-toothed shredding guitar fest à la Hendrix and well that’s that.

Side B is more akin to the calmer, more textured and nuanced fusion sound of Silent Way and Brew, and it’s also a very good track, with calm keyboard layers for Davis to float away on, the typical start-stop bass patterns and heavy editing. It’s a generally more pensive, deliberate affair that gets screechier and decidedly cross-grained in the second ten minutes when keyboard, electric guitar and trumpet are constantly fighting for attention. Good stuff.

Either way, with all the splicing done here, the reduced fusion line-up and the improvised feel to it, this is not a „perfectly executed“ album – but who cares, among Davis’ fusion and jazz-rock albums, this stands as an absolutely unique, unrepeatable jam session that might well become your favourite „rock“ record for a while. Indispensable.

Ballbreaker Ensemble: Töff

Rating: 7.0/10
Rated as:
Album
Album Status:
for Genre-Enthusiasts
Released: 2011
Recorded: 2010
Specific Genre: Jazz Fusion, Experimental Big Band
Main Genres: Big Band, Jazz
Undertones: Jazz-Rock, Avant-Garde Jazz, Chamber Jazz
Label: Unit Records

1 Angry Angus 2 Rebellion 3 Pagliatelle 4 Phazor One 5 Eintagsfliege 6 Reboot 7 Eruptio 8 Das Begräbnis des Herrn W.

A culmination and synthesis of a lively, bubbling progressive fusion jazz scene

A 13-piece-big band born out of the Jazzwerkstatt Bern, this record features almost an overabundance of Swiss jazz talent. While the Jazzwerkstatt lives off spontaneous one-off projects, this album was recorded by a proper band consisting of regulars. It’s clearly signalled as a collective effort: no ‚band leader‘, no ‚leading instrument‘ taking the spot, each composition by a different mastermind. It’s still a consistent album, as these people worked together in many other circumstances. But the sound is not necessarily what each composer or musician plays in their other projects, making it a unique album within the scene: with their dramatic, cerebral experimental big band mixed with the electric jazz-rock approach of, say, Frank Zappa’s The Grand Wazoo, the Ballbreaker Ensemble delivers a stormy album full of wild horn-section freak-outs, roaring statements of mischief (to compare Colin Vallon’s thunderous „Reboot“ to his out-of-sight-quiet ECM-albums is almost hilarious), academic, skippy ruminations („Rebellion“, „Phazor One“, ) and exuberant, balkan-esque tour de forces like Andreas Schaerer’s „Angry Angus“, whose playfulness is thwarted by a menacing electric guitar tone and funereal slower horn intersections in the middle – and so on, every piece is of note, as the pressing performances are on spot every time.

It remains this particular constellation’s sole effort (although single pieces would appear on some of the Jazzwerkstatt anthologies), probably because it’s hard to get thirteen musicians (who are all busy playing for several other outfits) and composers under one umbrella on a regular basis. The album’s status suffers somewhat from this as it comes across as a side project, presumably worth less attention than the ‚actual‘ other projects each of the participants has. This is a shame, because this can easily be seen in a very different light: A culmination and synthesis of sorts of a lively, bubbling progressive fusion jazz scene whose more prominent talents started to get international recognition right around the time this appeared.

Herbie Hancock: Mwandishi

Rating: 7.4/10
Rated as: Album
Album Status: Genre Contender
Released: 1971
Specific Genre: Jazz Fusion, Avant-Garde Jazz
Main Genre: Jazz
Undertones: Jazz-Funk, Spiritual Jazz
Label: Warner Bros.

1 Ostinati (Suite for Angela) 2 You’ll Know When You Get There 3 Wandering Spirit Song

From funkified electric grooves to pure introspective meditations to free form

As the first record on which Hancock consequently combined the electric, free-floating approach taken from Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and his already heavy funk leanings, Mwandishi is the essential starting point for what Hancock would be doing the larger part of the remaining decade. While its follow-up Sextant is more manic and spaced-out, and Head Hunters is a lot funkier, Mwandishi holds its own quality against these two. Only the first track cooks heavy in its own relentless groove, while the second and third track (the latter taking up the whole of side B) explore a much looser, more cautious and introspective „inner space“ sound, not unsimilar to what Chick Corea’s Return to Forever would be doing in their quieter, relatively ostinati-free moments.

The sound of these latter two thirds of the record is at times so meditative and relaxing it becomes almost elusive (in a good sense). Just a tingle of the percussion there, some tentative electric keys thrown in there, then the louder riff of the horn section, full stop – and back to searching, echoing keyboard strokes. The „Wandering Spirit Song“ taking up Side B goes from that ‚inner space’ calmness with just a little groove to complete free form halfway through. But even the free jazz section doesn’t sound wild or unrestrained, but rather poised – this isn’t the kind of gloriously chaotic, outrageous free jazz Sun Ra would be doing those years. It’s, so to speak, ‚Apollonian’ free jazz, used for dramaturgical and deliberate reasons. And brilliantly so: The different steps on the whole album, from funkified electric grooves to pure introspective meditations to free form – and right back to calm weather after having stirred the ocean a bit works perfectly, like different acts guiding the listener through the experience.

Having said that, it isn’t a personal favourite as it is ultimately less extreme than other works by Hancock. It is nonetheless essential for anyone interested in Hancock’s musical development as well as in the greater 1970s context of jazz and fusion. Besides paving the way for his future output, it stands as a testimonial witnessing that in those years, there was no one else who could pick up the vanguard sounds of the era quite like Hancock and channel them into something that could serve as the perfect introduction for the uninitiated to exactly that vanguard.

Grant Green: Idle Moments

Rating: 8.2/10
Rated as: Album
Album Status: Genre Classic
Released: 1965
Recorded: 1963
Specific Genre: Hard Bop
Main Genre: Jazz
Secondary Genre: Cool Jazz
Label: Blue Note

1 Idle Moments 2 Jean de Fleur 3 Django 4 Nomad Bonus Tracks: 5. Jean de Fleur [Alternate Take] 6. Django [Alternate Take]

Awesomely suggestive exercise in good taste

Stellar jazz guitarist Grant Green and stellar vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson join forces for this terrific workout in nocturnal, silky hard bop that avoids being listlessly smooth, but is elegant, soothing and occasionally brooding. The opener „Idle Moments“ is fifteen minutes of low-key barroom depression à la grandeur. Slow, languid and winding, Green, Hutcherson and Joe Henderson take off from the beautiful motif opening and closing the number with inconspicuous but effective solos – perfect for long lonesome cognac nights. The up-tempo „Jean de Fleur“ swings hard and wouldn’t be very interesting if not for the amazing interplay between all the quartet’s members (plus soloists Hutcherson and Henderson) – there’s scarcely another formation playing as democratic, tightly balanced and hypnotising as Green and his colleagues. Green knows that solos are only as interesting as their frame and his quartet is all about this framework. The structure is the same as before, with a catchy riff starting and ending the piece, swinging solos in between.

Green’s down-tempo version on „Django“ takes its time building up and kicks into mid-tempo gear almost two minutes into the track, with another splendidly understated statement by Grant’s guitar on top of the sax-supplied riff. In its strongest moments, Idle Moments sounds like a soft-spoken but confident answer to Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue. „Nomad“ plays like a mix of the opening track and the faster swing of its followers, a fascinating twelve minutes of gentleman-bop, borrowing and quoting details of „Idle Moments“, creating a feel of careful coherence for the album.

There are no standouts in the traditional sense to speak of, because nothing sticks out of the overall quality. „Idle Moment“ is the deepest and most effective track, but the musicianship creates varieties of similar moods that invite you to rest and dwell in, each like the cool part of a pillow before you have to turn over. I couldn’t say that Hutcherson „shines“ on here for example – he just blends in perfectly, supplying even more subtle nuances to Green’s own subtle nuances. The album is really about letting yourself sink into the incessant swing these guys put down, not about the single tracks. Don’t make the mistake to dismiss this as too smooth or easy-listening – this is an awesomely suggestive exercise in good taste.

Billie Holiday: The Silver Collection

Rating: 6.0/10
Rated as:
Anthology
Compilation Status: Obsolete
Released: 1985
Recorded: 1956–1957
Specific Genre: Vocal Jazz
Main Genre: Jazz
Undertones: Swing
Label: Verve

1 I Wished on the Moon 2 Moonlight in Vermont 3 Say It Isn’t So 4 Our Love Is Here to Stay 5 Darn That Dream 6 But Not for Me 7 Body and Soul 8 Comes Love 9 They Can’t Take That Away From Me 10 Embraceable You 11 Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off 12 Gee Baby Ain’t I Good to You 13 All or Nothing at All 14 We’ll Be Together Again

Half a love, never appealed to me

This compilation combines songs from the 1957 studio album Body and Soul and 1958’s All or Nothing at All. Many of the late 1950s recordings by Holiday which were issued as albums between 1957 and 1959 come from these same sessions (from 1956/57). No surprise then that nowadays, you can buy a double disc compilation also called All or Nothing at All (as part of the Billie Holiday Story, Part 7) which contains all the songs of the two mentioned albums as well as the whole Songs for Distingué Lovers album from 1957 (same session as for Body and Soul) – that’s all of the 1956/57 session recordings that were seperately issued on said three albums.

Anyhow, as an early single-disc-compilation compiling the alleged highlights of two late 1950s albums, this does a respectable job. Late night vocal jazz with subtly swinging arrangements and, compared to the 1930s takes, a much more foregrounded, if subdued, horn section showing up now and then. Many nice standards, but Holiday had a softer and more professional tone at this stage of her career – personally, I prefer her more emotionally aggressive tone from earlier on.

Of course it’s about the vocals from start to finish, but I don’t see anything specific about the compilation: either you already have the original albums, or you should buy the mentioned reissue of All or Nothing at All which gives you the complete picture. But actually, you should get the box set The Complete Billie Holiday on Verve: 1945-1959 which gives the total overview. Or you haphazardly got a hold of this, like me.

1, 3, 4, 6, 13, 14: All or Nothing at All (1958)
2, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12: Body and Soul (1957)

Trivia: Note the compilation cover: „Over 60 Minutes of Music“. Can you remember a time when this was a selling point? Anyway, all the more reason to get the double disc with all the sessions.