Moments of Plunder: Recording equipment vs. playback equipment

Epperson, Bruce D.: More Important Than the Music. A History of Jazz Discography. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press 2013. P. 207.

In his book More Important than the Music, Bruce Epperson points out that, interestingly, for decades the technology of recording music – what you could put on a record – was much more developed than the technology to play this music back to the listener. Put technically: The machines couldn’t extract all the sonic data on a record. Put simply: The listener couldn’t hear everything that was on the record, no matter how hard he tried.

This raises a few interesting points. On is mentioned in snippet above: What about the authenticity effect? Should we get worse record players to be able to listen what the early jazz fans fell in love with? Additionally, with newer equipment playing old records, one could hear many „new“ instruments and sound that witnesses and lovers of the old records thought they had been overdubbed. This is a point Epperson raises earlier in the book:

Epperson, Bruce D.: More Important Than the Music. A History of Jazz Discography. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press 2013. P. 82.

Another point raised in the paragraph concers the reliability of „by-ear“-discographies – that is, discographies with information about instruments and musicians that were made accordig to a judgement made by an expert listening. The newer and better playback technology largely renders „close-listening“-calls before the late 1940s fun guesswork for historians at best. It’s a moment of true wonder:

The state of the art in consumer playback equipment took thirty years to catch up with recording technology.

Epperson 2013, 82.

Santana: The World of Santana

Rating: 1.6/10
Rated as
: Bootleg / Live / Archival
Album Status: of Archival Interest
Released: 2001 (1994 Galaxy)
Recorded: ? [1960s/70s]
Specific Genre: Latin Rock
Main Genre: Rock
Undertones: Blues Rock
Label: ZYX Music

CD1: 1.1 Jingo 1.2 El Corazon Manda 1.3 La Puesta del Sol 1.4 Persuasion 1.5 As the Years Go Passing By 1.6 Acapulco Sunrise 1.7 Coconut Grave 1.8 Hot Tamales
CD2: 2.1 With a Little Help from My Friends 2.2 Every Day I Have the Blues 2.3 Jam in E 2.4 Travelin‘ Blues 2.5 Jammin‘ Home 2.6 Jammin G. Minor

Worthless packaging, zero information

This ultra-cheap double-issue is identical to the equally crummy releases Greatest Hits Live Vol 1 and Greatest Hits Live Vol 3 (don’t be fooled, as opposed to the Wilburys, there actually is a Vol 2). The title of these is a complete joke, as this is indistinct live bootleg jamming of what must be late 1960s/ early 1970s recordings. Atrocious sound quality, worthless packaging, zero information, and a totally indiscriminate track selection. If you came here for the novelty of hearing Santana play the Beatles’ „With a Little Help From My Friend“, you’ll get that novelty, but not much more.

Most of CD1 is simply their early 1970s latin rock jams, CD2 is surprisingly blues-tinged, as already indicated by the song titles. That stresses one of Santana’s more overlooked musical sources (B.B. King, for one). Either way, there are numerous bootlegs of exactly these and similar live cuts on the market, and while this isn’t bad music at all, it’s just very uninteresting and badly recorded stuff. Definitely not worth seeking out, even for fans.

Moments of Plunder: Panassié vs. Bebop

Epperson, Bruce D.: More Important Than the Music. A History of Jazz Discography. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press 2013. P. 136.

Another interesting factoid about the development of jazz discographies and the historicity of music categories: Up until the 1950s, there was very serious opposition to include anything into the category of jazz that was, lo and behold, ‚bebop‘ or ‚cool music‘ – in other words, too ‚refined‘ and not „hot“ (by the way, what happened to that ‚hot‘ jazz category? Note to myself for a chapter on this). This opposition was, according to Epperson’sexcellent book More Important than the Music, most prominently held by French discographer and dixieland-enthusiast Hugues Panassié. To say the least, Panassié was a controversial figure. I mean, you wouldn’t expect someone who is most known for, and owes his Wikipedia-article mostly to, the fact that he did jazz discographies to have an entire chapter on that very article called Selected controversies (as of July 2019). Besides being that obnoxiously belligerent kind of journalist, Panassié was politically right-wing, far, far right. But he loved early jazz, which of course matches up to this weird kind of ‚positive racism‘, holding that ‚only blacks‘ can really create hot, swinging jazz – ‚real jazz‘, as Panassié puts it. It’s a kind of deranged and distorted concept of both love and, uhm, ‚primitiveness‘, something that Rousseau and his ‚natural state‘ might have subscribed to:

„Ironically, Panassié was a Bourbonist and an unabashed social elitist who was attracted to jazz primarily because he believed it represented a sharp break with the increasingly homologized, commercialized culture he thought Anglo-American democratic liberalism was imposing on French society.“

(Epperson 2013, 32f.)

The obnoxious line of argument is that only black musicians were really ‚primitive enough‘ to create that kind of ‚rhythmic hot jazz‘ Panassié happened to like. This went both ways: Panassié didn’t like to include white musicians in his ‚hot discographies‘, because white boys can’t jump – except for Milton „Mezz“ Mezzrow, that is, who happened to be an old personal friend of Panassié and about whom Epperson writes:

„The eccentric Mezzrow was Jewish, but he so deeply believed he shared the essence of the American black psyche that he considered himself black, identifying himself as „Negro“ on his passport and other documents.“

(Epperson 2013, 32)

And Panassié excluded any black musician from his discographies that dared to go beyond what Panassié deemed too schooled to fit his liking of ‚primitively‘ swinging dixieland. So some of the work by the likes of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk didn’t make the cut of his 1950s „jazz“ discographies, because their music was either too ‚refined‘ (bop) and/or, god forbid, ‚cool‘ instead of hot. Panassié’s opinion was that these guys basically waste their (acknowledged) musical talent. Panassié’s idea that only black musicians really can play ‚jazz‘ is, if you look at the history, not exclusive to white right-wing fanatics, to put it diplomatically. Of course, nowadays the idea that bebop isn’t jazz seems absurd, but it’s sometimes informative to take a look at how and why some people try to establish categories and boundaries. Unsurprisingly, this ends up being about identity politics, but the identity Panassié had reserved for the producers of his beloved hot jazz was a pretty vile construct.

Captain Beefheart: Grow Fins: Rarities (1965–1982)

Rating: 8.0/10
Rated as
: Archival / Box Set
Box Set Status
: Must for Fans
Released: 1999
Recorded: 1965–1982
Specific Genre: Experimental Rock, Blues Rock
Main Genre: Rock
Undertones: Experimental, Psychedelic Rock, Field Recordings
Label: Revenant

CD 1: Just Got Back from the City (1965–67) 1.1 Obeah Man (1966 Demo) 1.2 Just Got Back from the City (1966 Demo) 1.3 I’m Glad (1966 Demo) 1.4 Triple Combination (1966 Demo) 1.5 Here I Am I Always Am (Early 1966 Demo) 1.6 Here I Am I Always Am (Later 1966 Demo) 1.7 Somebody in My Home (1966 Live) 1.8 Tupelo (1966 Live) 1.9 Evil Is Going On (1966 Live) 1.10 Old Folks Boogie (1967 Live) 1.11 Call on Me (1965 Demo) 1.12 Sure Nuff N Yes I Do (1967 Demo) 1.13 Yellow Brick Road (1967 Demo) 1.14 Plastic Factory (1967 Demo)
CD 2: Electricity (1967–68) 2.1 Electricity (1968 Live) 2.2 Sure Nuff N Yes I Do (1968 Live) 2.3 Rollin N Tumblin (1968 Live) 2.4 Electricity (1968 Live9 2.5 Yer Gonna Need Somebody on Yer Bond (1968 Live) 2.6 Kandy Korn (1968 Live) 2.7 Korn Ring Finger (1967 Demo)
CD 3: Trout Mask House Sessions (1969) 3.1 (Untitled 1) 3.2 (Untitled 2) 3.3 Hair Pie: Bake 2 3.4 Hair Pie: Bake 2 3.5 (Untitled 5) 3.6 Hobo Chang Ba 3.7 (Untitled 7) 3.8 Hobo Chang Ba (Take 2) 3.9 Dachau Blues 3.10 Old Fart at Play 3.11 (Untitled 11) 3.12 Pachuco Cadaver 3.13 Sugar N Spikes 3.14 (Untitled 14) 3.15 Sweet Sweet Bulbs 3.16 Frownland (Take 1) 3.17 Frownland 3.18 (Untitled 18) 3.19 Ella Guru 3.20 (Untitled 20) 3.21 She’s too Much for My Mirror 3.22 (Untitled 22) 3.23 Steal Softly Through Snow 3.24 (Untitled 24) 3.25 My Human Gets Me Blues 3.26 (Untitled 26) 3.27 When Big Joan Sets Up 3.28 (Untitled 28) 3.29 (Untitled 29) 3.30 China Pig
CD 4: Trout Mask House Sessions (Storytime Portion) (1969) 4.1 Blimp Playback 4.2 Herb Alpert 4.3 Septic Tank 4.4 We’ll Overdub It 3 Times
Video 4.5 Electricity (Live Cannes 1968) 4.6 Sure Nuff N Yes I Do (Live Cannes 1968) 4.7 She’s Too Much for My Mirror (Amougies, Belgium, 1969) 4.8 My Human Gets Me Blues (Amougies, Belgium, 1969) 4.9 When Big Joan Sets Up (Detroit, MI, 1971) 4.10 Woe Is Uh Me Bop (Detroit, MI, 1971) 4.11 Bellerin Plain (Detroit, MI, 1971) 4.12 Click Clack (Paris 1972)
CD 5: Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band Grow Fins (1969–82) 5.1 My Human Gets Me Blues (Live 1969) 5.2 When Big Joan Sets Up (Live 1971) 5.3 Woe Is Uh Me Bop (Live 1971) 5.4 Bellerin Plain (Live 1971) 5.5 Black Snake Moan (Radio Phone-In 1972) 5.6 Grow Fins (Live 1972) 5.7 Black Snake Moan II (Radio 1972) 5.8 Spitball Scalped Uh Baby (Live 1972) 5.9 Harp Boogie I (Radio 1972) 5.10 One Red Rose That I Mean (Live 1972) 5.11 Harp Boogie II (Radio 1972) 5.12 Natches Burning (Radio 1972) 5.13 Harp Boogie III (Radio Phone-In 1972) 5.14 Click Clack (Live 1973) 5.15 Orange Claw Hammer (Radio 1975) 5.16 Odd Jobs (Piano Demo 1975) 5.17 Odd Jobs (Band Demo 1976) 5.18 Vampire Suite (Worktapes/Live 1980) 5.19 Melltron Improv (Live 1978) 5.20 Evening Bell (Piano Worktape 1980) 5.21 Evening Bell (Guitar Worktape 1982) 5.22 Mellotron Improv (Live 1980) 5.23 Flavor Bud Living (Live 1980)

I should dip myself into that Coca-Cola

This box set is subject to the box set-curse more than any other I’m aware of. There are musical pearls next to bits recorded from the back of the studio (minutes of mumbling, chair clicking, airplane noises from outside the window), there’s historically indispensable stuff next to, well, just stuff. Also, it manages to seem expansive and inomplete all at the same time: There is so much previously unreleased material here that it doesn’t really leave you asking for even more Trout Mask outtakes or even more radio snippets. But then, this hardly fulfills any criteria of a ‚historically comprehensive‘ box set: It’s just a huge ragbag of anything that could be interesting to the fanatic followers of Beefheart. These, though, will be delighted, because in a sense, this doesn’t plays as a box set but, more fitting, like very precise representation of Beefheart’s career: Full of bursts of energy and brilliance, full of holes and frustration – but extremely rewarding for those that listen closely.

This mostly doesn’t make for a coherent listening experience – but just mostly. The five CDs thankfully all follow an at least chronological coherence. This redeems some drawbacks in the sequencing per CD. The true problem is: To issue any of this stuff only makes sense within a larger context. There is no way they could have split the „good stuff“ from the scraps, you have to take in the whole sludged affair or just avoid it.

The first CD is a bunch of early blues rock numbers that never made it on an album (and some that did). The sound is similar to Safe as Milk, and since these are all complete demos or live cuts, you can actually listen through the whole thing with excitement. It’s a primal, terrific version in that rousing mid-1960s style between R&B, psychedelia and deep blues. For Beefheart fans, this first CD is inexpendable. The band is already in full flight, Beefheart is already all there. The sound quality is mostly murky (but the swampy approach lets you accept that), and the band’s playing is basic but they rock hard and fierce. Given that the early cuts are from 1966, this must have been one of the heavier bands at the time – raw, ramshackle. This CD also satisfies the box set-buyer in all respects: You get cuts of later album tracks („Call on Me“, „Yellow Brick Road“), which are inferior to the later album tracks, but interesting from an evolutionary perspective. You get awesomely grooving rhythm/blues/rock numbers that are every bit as good as the ones on Safe as Milk („Here I Am I Always Am“, „Obeah Man“). And finally, you get Beefheart performing numbers of his idols („Evil is Going On“, „Tupelo“, „Somebody in My Home“) – all absolutely terrific swamp blues in imposing John Lee Hooker- and Howlin’ Wolf-manner.

The second CD is in a similar vein, collecting live records from apparently European tours. Manic versions of standards like „Rollin’ n’ Tumblin’“ are here, as well as some Mirror Man-era pieces. Hard, driven, uncompromising blues rock. This is also listenable from beginning to end.

With the third CD, the promised box-set-problems start. The whole CD comprises evidently the leftovers they could find in the trashbin of the studio where Trout Mask Replica was recorded. You start of with fifteen minutes of documentary style noises which seem to stem from a recording device pickin up sounds while the band members were still preparing. Okay, you can skip this, so I don’t mind. The rest is purely instrumental versions of Trout Mask Replica. These are practice runs of the album tracks, there is no ‚evolutionary‘ aspect here. I must say that I like to listen to these compositions bare-boned, without Beefheart’s voice-beef, so to speak. You actually get a very direct approach to their immediate groove and compositional structure. And for these like me which are at least as interested in his compositional skills as the vocals, this remains an interesting listen. So, while this is far too long as a CD (i mean, this basically is all of Trout Mask Replica without the vocals plus some additional scraps and tuning-up), I still am happy with this. For some, this probably is expendable. Why listen to the relatively unedited, non-vocalised version of Trout Mask Replica? Why should I listen to the band tuning up for minutes? I understand the questions. But hey, at least you get to witness how the conversation with the kids who just moved here from Reseda ended up on the album. The most obscure quasi-gem I could find on here is the untitled 29th track – before the band goes to record „China Pig“, you can hear a jam of the blues standard „Candy Man“ for about a minute. Why is this interesting? I don’t know. I just never knew that the Captain had done at least one minute of „Candy Man“ in his life.

Then, CD 4. Just forget the musical aspect: There isn’t any. It’s Beefheart talking, some noises, Beefheart joking about Herb Alpert, and that’s it. 12 minutes of unedited documentary studio babble (incomprehensible for the most part). Don’t get upset though, in the original package, this is actually a VCD. With moving pictures. So, no reason to listen to this on your CD-player. But you do get to see video clips, comprising live versions of songs (2 from Safe as Milk, 3 from Trout Mask Replica, 2 from Lick My Decals Off, Baby and „Click Clack“ from The Spotlight Kid, taken between 1968 and 1973). These are great, the live setting showcasing how musical everybody involved with Beefheart was. You can watch these on Youtube nowadays, of course.

Finally, the 5th CD. This is the most imbalanced piece of the whole affair, I guess because they just threw anything on there from his post-Trout Mask Replica period they couldn’t fit anywhere else (with a time span of 1969–1982). So, in no particular, haphazard order, you get a lot of live recordings (nothing exceptional), Beefheart performing short pieces of blues harp and acapella blues on the radio (terrible quality, but cool stuff), some more live recordings which border on performance art or futurism „sound machines“ and were not actually meant for the CD-format, I presume („Spitball Scalped Uh Baby“), and some weird demos for more complex avant-pieces.

And buried in the middle of this looong CD, you get the most stunning record of the whole box set, which is the Captain performing „Orange Claw Hammer“ with Frank Zappa on acoustic guitar for the radio. Zappa’s simple strumming fleshes out that this song follows the actual structure of a sea shanty (which could only be guessed at with the acapella version on Trout Mask Replica), but that’s good, because now we have both: an avant-garde acapella version of a surrealistic sea shanty and a beautiful acoustic guitar version of that same sea shanty. Then the mixed bag continues, many experimental live recordings, Beefheart messing with a mellotron in Sun Ra-manner – with the result that you realise Sun Ra actually could play the instrument. Some of these are improv-sketches, frustrating Beefheart and audiences alike („Sun Ra!“ someone keeps shouting on „Mellotron Improv (Live 1980)“, causing Beefheart to yell at the crowd, violently batter the keys and ask „Who was that, Liberace?“). Some others, though, are quite interesting. I dig both the versions of „Odd Jobs“, while I admit that this is already hardcore Beefheart-ology. Nothing to convert people. The „Odd Jobs“-piano demo is strangely forlorn and beautiful – you find the most realised and best version of that lost piece on the reconstructed Bat Chain Puller album from 2012. Most of this CD, naturally, comes in just about bearable sound quality.

So. What we have here then is a box set which contains enough to make it essential for the fan – both from a historical (CD1 and CD5) and a musical (CD1 and CD5… and partly CD2 and even 3) perspective. Everyone else should stay well away from this. This is the last territory of Beefheart-land one should turn his attention to. If you’re the enthusiastic explorer in the old spirit, you’ll find plenty of adventure and condiment on this wild, wide, dangerous and tedious jungle continent.

Tocotronic: Nach der verlorenen Zeit

Rating: 7.3/10
Rated as
: Album
Album Status
: Genre Recommendation
Released: 1995
Specific Genre: Indie Rock, Noise Pop
Main Genre: Alternative Rock, Rock
Undertones
: Lo-Fi Indie
Label: L’Age d’or

1 Ich muss reden, auch wenn ich schweigen muss 2 Du bist ganz schön bedient 3 Gott sei Dank haben wir uns beide gehabt 4 Ich hab 23 Jahre mit mir verbracht 5 Ich werde nie mehr alleine sein 6 Michael Ende, du hast mein Leben zerstört 7 Ich mag dich einfach nicht mehr so 8 Ich bin neu in der Hamburger Schule 9 Es ist einfach Rockmusik 10 Hauptsache ist

Der da drüben ist jetzt DJ in Berlin

This is a very short, but all the more concise follow-up in the direct vein of their debut Digital ist besser (which was published not even five months earlier the same year): their simple, brash, riff-driven indie rock (with some noise elements) and panache for post-adolescent yearning is still fresh although they’re less eager to impress with pure force and noise experimentation. The lyrics are as clever, but take a notable shift towards a generation in their mid-twenties slowly realising they’re not automatically the youngest people anymore when entering a room.

The thematic choice and the sonic restriction pay off: with a Marcel Proust-referencing title and a runtime of not even thirty minutes, this could have come across as a weirdly uncomfortable, extremely rushed sophomore effort, seemingly just throwing leftover ideas from the debut at the wall. But it’s not! With its rigid structure, the choice of avoiding lengthy guitar thrashing and the lyrical quality, they manage to turn their simple formula into another melancholic but emphatic indie rock burst that expertly thwarts collapsing beneath built-up expectations and self-imposed ambitions.

Hildegard lernt fliegen: …vom fernen Kern der Sache

Rating: 8.7/10
Rated as
: Album
Album Status
: Genre Contender
Released: 2009
Specific Genre: Avant-Garde Jazz
Main Genre: Jazz
Undertones: Chamber Jazz
Label: Unit Records

1 Lanjusto 2 The Arrival of Lee Pershn Sirgal 3 A Tale from the Forest 4 Vom fernen Kern der Sache 5 Knock Code 3 6 Seldom Was Covered with Snow and Old Oak 7 The Angry Man 8 Sad Lily

There is too much water in the sea

While the debut Hildegard lernt fliegen (2007) of Andreas Schaerer’s brainchild already impressed with originality and freshness through jester-like flirtation with the ridiculous in a chamberesque avant-jazz context, its follow-up is the six piece avant-combo’s fully realised form. The composition are as unpredictable yet easy to follow, there’s a larger amplitude of moods – compare the histrionic showtune extravaganza of „The Arrival Of Lee Pershn Sirgal“ with the almost Ellingtonian melancholy of the double-bass-reliant piece „Sad Lily“ – and, yet again, outrageous vocalist Schaerer is in full flight: his voice cajoles, careens, scats, doubles as a trombone and does all the silly tricks you would expect from a vocal acrobat. The difference is, though, that it doesn’t come off as a pure joke, his voice is implemented as an additional instrument.

The compositions, though having an earnest bend towards Mingus and avant-prog, owe a larger part to Zappa’s big band experiments (don’t pay too close attention to the lyrics though, they are pretty clearly just syllables meant to match up a former scat in dadaist/Eno-manner). While Schaerer is the brain and heart of the project, one should listen very, very carefully to the band – whipped into shape with the precision of a workaholic, they still all find little niches, cracks and alcoves to make the whole affair conversational instead of stubborn, open-ended instead of constructed (when a featured typewriter provides the beat, you hardly notice for how naturally it fits in). Probably the band’s masterpiece, as Hildegard goes flying like a weird, boney, flapping and yapping wayward mechanism through some Dali-painting’s sky. Be sure to pick this one up if you’re interested in the theatrical side of contemporary avant-jazz, where Zappa’s shadow stops looming and things turn bright again.

Dollar Brand: This Is Dollar Brand

Rating: 6.1/10
Rated as:
Album / Archival
Album Status:
for Fans
Released: 1973
Recorded: 1965
Specific Genre: Cape Jazz, Piano Jazz
Main Genre: Jazz
Undertones: Third Stream
Label: Black Lion

1 Little Niles 2 Resolution 3 Which Way? 4 On the Banks of Allen Waters 5 Knight’s Night 6 Pye R Squared [Medley 7–9:] 7 Mood Indigo 8 Don’t Get Around Much Anymore 9 Take the „A“ Train

A good but in no way essential addition to Brand’s early work

Originally recorded in 1965 (but not released until 1973), this is early Brand. It doesn’t sound unfamiliar, but Brand displays neither his sprawling african piano swirl, nor does he go into his Ellington-musings too often (though he does, of course: the last three tracks here are an Ellington-medley).

No, in this London solo-session (Pye Studios), he explores pieces which are slow and abstract, with some of his signature clusters and fast little dissonant attacks thrown in, but he never sets into the relentless groove familiar from his works from the later 1960s. His tone is harsh and direct here, the abstract pieces sound pleasingly pensive and alienated, and the Ellington-pieces sound, well, also pleasingly pensive. Abstract Brand plays some abstract Ellington, both survive. The songs are not very constructed but do follow Brand’s idiosyncratic logic of structure which is always borderline improv.

Of most interest is the display of an additional side of Brand in 1965 – his published works, like the trio-session Duke Ellington Presents the Dollar Brand Trio, retained more of a swing feel, while the live set Anatomy of a South African Village was already introducing his mobile, sprawling „cape jazz“. This, on the other hand, is Brand displaying his stark, slightly avant-garde leanings. Without the soft touch, though. If there ever was a great pianist who didn’t care about the „soft touch“, that is Dollar Brand.

This is a good but in no way essential addition to Brand’s early work, as everything that is „signature Brand“ is only faintly audible here, as if he was deliberately holding back. Brand wasn’t a refined player at that time, so the slow but brittle sound might not be everyone’s cup of tea. I’m not surprised this didn’t get released until when he was already internationally famous, because it has this demo-feel all over it, as if Brand was just trying out some new motives on some afternoon in the studio. Yet it lets you see Brand’s less approachable, voice-searching leanings at the time, which makes for a great complementary addition.

Edition trivia: The several mid-1960s sessions Brand played (mostly in Europe) have a messy publication history. The tracks from this 1965-session have surfaced 1973 on several LPs and CDs eversince, usually called This Is Dollar Brand or Reflections. They are the same and the track listing is usually congruent, but the LPs and CDs called Reflections usually feature four additional tracks. Several online sources claim that these sessions were issued under either title in 1965, but that is not true. While this track list here contains the session’s bulk of interest, the entire session is available on Reflections (Black Lion BLCD760127).

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.