Music Consumption in the MP3 Era
Music Consumption in the MP3 Era

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Saturday, July 02, 2005

Sunday Morning Playlist: Jazz Rock

Mahavishnu Orchestra [Poster]   The Soft machine [Concert Poster] (1971)

Note: Sunday Morning Playlist expands to 20 songs per installment beginning today; earlier genre playlists will also be expanded to 20 songs whenever time permits; blues-rock has already been expanded. The complete audio of key selections from this list can be heard at

Jazz-rock is a genre that shouldn't be confused with fusion; the two terms, while nebulous and vague, mean two different things. Jazz-rock, obviously is a merging of the two styles, but remains firmly on the rock side of the equation; while its artists borrow jazz inflections and jazzy tempos for their music, there is often little improvisation going on; it's still usually rock music. Fusion gets closer to jazz; it tends to rely more on the improvisatory technique that is at the heart of jazz, and borrows more from jazz tradition than rock. Both genres appeared at relatively the same time, in the late 1960's, but often drew their cues from very different influences.

Blood Sweat & Tears [Poster]

Jazz-rock can be looked at as either an attempt to bring the flash and excitement of rock music to jazz, in which case it failed spectacularly, since few jazz-rock releases gained credibility among true jazz listeners. Or, it can be seen as one more avenue via which artists with an experimental bent could explore new rock sounds and textures. In that respect it succeeds; the best jazz-rock performers generally did make compelling and interesting albums that were a cut apart from the usual.

Thus, the rock genres that tended to nurture jazz-rock were the ones that were the most experimental in the first place; psychedelic and progressive/art rock. It also became a subgenre of the singer/songwriter movement; while many singer/songwriters took their cues from folk, country, and Tin Pan Alley, others applied jazz inflections to their vocal stylings and guitar playing. Other performers approached jazz-rock as a way to spice up r&b. Therefore, a jazz-rock playlist will veer fairly wildly from style to style, depending on the artist's background and approach. Some of it, like Mahivishnu Orchestra, led by Miles Davis guitarist John McLaughlin, almost is jazz; some of it, like the Soft Machine, is progressive rock but using some jazz devices. Some of it, like Chicago, is pop, applying a faux-jazz patina that isn't close to jazz at all, but can be called "jazzy". Some are singers, like Joni Mitchell and Tim Buckley, who borrowed from jazz vocalists more than from jazz musicians. Some were experimental/avant-garde bands like Henry Cow, who used jazz as one of many ingredients in creating a unique sound.

Tim Buckley [Promotional Poster]   Magma [Concert Poster] (1974)

Most jazz performers ignored these rock developments, but one major exception was Miles Davis, who had tentatively but steadily been moving towards a rock-influenced jazz ever since he provocatively included an electric guitar on a track from Miles In The Sky, from 1966. Davis' In A Silent Way, from 1968, featured a fully electric lineup, his 1969 Bitches Brew is a milestone of jazz and rock, and it helped birth both the funk movement and the fusion movement.

Davis' work towers so far above the jazz-rock artists in sophistication and execution that it's ridiculous to include him here, although he definitely deserves mention. For the sake of this overview, the playlist is limited mainly to those who come from the rock side of the fence; the jazzier artists will be covered in an upcoming fusion overview.

1. The Soft Machine: Facelift iTunes
Soft Machine: Third (1970)
Generally considered the most accomplished and important of the progressive rock sub-genre, Canterbury Scene, The Soft Machine directly and indirectly spawned many jazz-influenced progressive rock artists in the late 60's-mid 70's. Avant Garde, experimental, always challenging, they originally appeared among the long-form psychedelic bands of the era, which include Pink Floyd and Tomorrow, and fused the textures of psychedelic to an unusually intelligent complex improvisation. Its members included the formidable Kevin Ayers, Robert Wyatt, and Hugh Hopper, all of whom have had distinguished solo careers. Third, from 1970, is arguably their most consistent album among several excellent ones, the live "Facelift" kicks it off, a pulsating, unpredictably improv with horns and keyboards.

2. Blood Sweat And Tears: My Days Are Numbered iTunes
Blood Sweat & Tears: Child Is The Father To Man (1968)
Best known for their horn-heavy mega hits "Spinning Wheel", "And When I Die", and "You've Made Me So Very Happy", all from their sophomore album, BST's best record is actually the non-hit-spawning Child Is The Father To Man, their debut, when they were led by keyboardist/arranger Al Kooper. The album is special because it took Kooper's folk/blues sound of his previous band, The Blues Project, and meshed it with jazzy horn arrangements, and a looser-than-rock semi-improvisatory approach. "My Days Are Numbered" is perhaps the best example of this from the album. Their self titled follow-up, without Kooper, tightened the sound up, and poppified it; Chicago would take that formula and run with it.

3. Chicago: Make Me Smile iTunes
Chicago: II (1969)
Chicago has been around so long that many people probably remember them as a mellow soft-rock/adult contemporary band, which is indeed what they've been since winning a 1976 Grammy for "If You Leave Me Now". However, on their first few albums, and their second album in particular, the band stretched out in a faux-improvisatory way, and got jazzier live. On II, the best music is the long suite, "Ballet For A Girl In Buchannon", which embeds three singles, "Color My World", "25 or 6 to 4",and "Make Me Smile" and other songs in a jazzy framework that hints at progressive rock, but keeps a pop tunefulness. It's their most ambitious album; they retreated further into pop with each passing year. But they kept the horns.

4. Steely Dan: Hey Nineteen iTunes
Steely dan: Gaucho (1980)
Steely Dan was another pop group that gave the impression of being jazzy more than actually being jazz, but brought a certain sophistication into their music that other pop bands lacked. Essentially the duo of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, they brought together blues, r&b, pop, and jazz influences into a pop formula that was truly original and challenging; they also managed to score a sizable number of hits throughout the 1970's, and remained critics favorites despite their popular success. "Hey Nineteen" with its odd rhythm, jazzy horns, and intricate playing is a good representation of their sound.

5. Van Morrison: Moondance
Van Morrison: Moondance (1970)
Van Morrison came to prominence in the Irish band Them, which rode in on the last crest of the British Invasion. Morrison's tastes lay in r&b and blue eyed soul; as a solo artist, he also developed a good jazz vocal style; for his greatest albums, Astral Weeks and Moondance, from 1968 and 1970 respectively, were recorded with jazz musicians and are soulful, jazzy, and melodic. It's still the work of a singer/songwriter more than a jazz artist, but it comes close to jazz on "Moondance", which despite its instant familiarity, was never a hit. WHile he continues to play in an r&b fashion with folk overtones, he frequently includes jazz instrumentation, particularly live.

6. Tim Buckley: Buzzin' Fly iTunes
Tim Buckley: Happy/Sad (1969)
Tim Buckley, the doomed estranged father of the doomed Jeff Buckley, had an eerily similar voice to his son, whom he seldom saw and whom he was largely disowned by. Haunting, multi-octive, gushing with an emotionalism that is truly an acquired taste, it was the only constant in a restless, prolific career that ended with his death from an overdose in 1975. Originally from the Orange County scene that produced folkies Jackson Browne and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, he met up with Jimmy Carl Black of the Mothers Of Invention; a meeting that led to Buckley's abandoning of folk rock and exploring progressive avenues including psychedelic and jazz. Happy/Sad, from 1969, was his third and final album from his most accessable period, and features "Buzzin' Fly", a six minute meditation of acoustic jazziness.

7. Henry Cow: Teenbeat iTunes
Henry Cow: Leg End (1973)
Henry Cow are another important band from the progressive Canterbury Scene, who meshed progressive rock with jazz, classical, avant-garde, and experimental music in an intellectual but sonically resonant stew that still sounds good today. Never destined for more than cult status in America, they were quite big in England and Europe during the 1970's, and are a hallowed name even now. Henry Cow can only be called jazz-rock in a conceptual sense; their music concerned itself more with atonal noise experiments, classical motifs, avant-garde surprises, and the like. However, it is informed by jazz too; occasionally the band waxes jazzy in a Soft Machine sort of way, other times the jazz influence is more felt than heard, in the sense of quasi-improvisational approaches to non-jazz music. "Teenbeat" is full of surprises, from their 1973 debut, Leg End (get it?).

8. Electric Flag: Groovin' Is Easy ITunes
Electric Flag: Long Time Comin' (1968)
Electric Flag was the project of Mike Bloomfield, formerly of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, launched in 1967 with the soundtrack to The Trip. Butterfield Blues Band had begun life as a hardcore Chicago blues-rock outfit, but began to explore jazz and improvisatory raga rock on their classic East/West album in 1966, an album upon which Bloomfield built his reputation as upcoming superstar guitarist. He never did become the superstar he should have; drug problems ruined his career and killed him in 1981. However, Electric Flag occupy an important juncture in rock history, as a prime example of blues-rock/jazz-rock fusion; it was a continuation of Bloomfield's experiments on East/West and stands up well next to Al Kooper's similar work of the same era. "Groovin' Is Easy" is from their debut; it's more blues-rock than jazz-rock, but the changes in it owe debt to jazz.

9. Ginger Baker's Air Force: Toady
Ginger Baker's Air Force: Ginger Baker's Air Force 2 (1970)
Ginger Baker was drummer for Cream, the seminal psychedelic blues-rock band that were renowned (and sometimes razzed) for their lengthy on-stage improvisations that took psychedelic rock in a jazz-like direction. His prior experience had been in the Graham Bond Organisation, which leaned in a more r&b meets jazz direction, and before that, he had played in trad jazz bands. So it seemed natural that Baker's post-Cream work would follow a similarly jazz-informed direction. Ginger Baker's Air Force did just that, with mixed results, in the early 70's. One of Baker's most notorious Cream numbers had been his lengthy drum solo "Toad"; on "Toady" his drums dominate, but there is real interplay with other musicians; there's good piano and nice Denny Lane (ex-Moody Blues, future-Wings) vocals. From Ginger Baker's Air Force 2, a 1970 album that tanked, but is better than usually credited.

10. Mahavishnu Orchestra: Meeting Of The Spirits iTunes
Mahavishnu Orchestra: The Inner Mounting Flame (1971)
Mahavishnu Orchestra is more than a jazz-rock band; as a bona-fide rock/jazz fusion, they were one of the flagship 70's fusion bands, one of a very few that got good notice from the hip jazz establishment. While they come the closet to jazz of anybody on this list, they ultimately were a rock band, but it's a close call. John McLaughlin had played guitar in Miles Davis' band, and stars on Davis' most rock-like album, Jack Johnson, from 1971. Mahavishnu Orchestra was formed by McLaughlin in 1971 with fellow Davis alumni Billy Cobham on drums, violinist Jerry Goodman, keyboardist Jan Hammer (of "Miami Vice" fame), electric bassist Rick Laird; their three albums together were explosive and controversial in jazz and rock circles. The Inner Mounting Flame, their 1971 debut, is their strongest, and follows up the directions pointed to on Bitches Brew and Jack Johnson, while also incorporating a progressive rock sensibility. "Meeting Of The Spirits" leads it off.

11. Joni Mitchell: The Wolf That Lives In Lindsey iTunes
Joni Mitchell: Mingus (1979)
Joni Mitchell, another folkie with a restless heart, had already established herself as a first-rate singer/songwriter by the start of the 1970's; her 1969 album Clouds was an acoustic affair that gave the world the gentle "Both Sides Now" and "Chelsea Morning", and her 1970 Ladies Of The Canyon was an elegant and ambitious artistic departure from standard singing and songwriting. The first hints of jazzy inflections in her playing and singing are evident on For The Roses, from 1971; her 1974 Court and Spark, the commercial high point of her career, was a pop smash that utilized the jazz leaning L.A. Express as session players. From that point through the early 80's, Mitchell continued deeper and deeper into jazz, despite declining commercial fortunes, reaching an apex of sorts when she collaborated with the ailing Charles Mingus on her 1979 album, Mingus. Mingus consisted of 6 tracks Mingus had specifically written for her; the standout is "The Wolf That Lives In Lindsey." The musicians are a stellar crew, including Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Jaco Pastorious, Peter Erskine, and others.

12. Mothers Of Invention: Toads of the Short Forest
Mothers Of Invention: Weasels Ripped My Flesh (1970)
Frank Zappa, both with and without the Mothers Of Invention, was one of the most consistently interesting, and sometimes frustrating, composers in rock history. A fan of contemporary classical music and 50's doo-wop, and with a talent for heavy rock guitar and jazz improvisation, known as a taskmaster with his musicians, he produced what may stand as one of the most erratic, prolific, challenging, and juvenile bodies of work of any musician of the 20th century. A serious musician, he'd often graft lyrics of studiously sophomoric and scatalogical humor onto music that was breathtakingly complex and demanding; thus, he's always been an acquired taste. "Toads of the Short Forest" is an interesting experiment in avant-jazz; it opens as a studio recording in 3/4 time before it dissolves into a live recording where each musician is playing a different time signature. From the 1970 album Weasels Ripped My Flesh, one of his/their best.

13. Brian Auger's Oblivion Express: Total Eclipse
Brian Auger's Oblivion Express: Oblivion Express (1971)
Augur, from London, grew up listening to jazz on the American Armed Forces Radio, and formed his first jazz combo, the Brian Auger Trio in 1962, winning the New Musical Express polls for "Best New Jazz Pianist". However, he abandoned trad jazz for r&b shortly after, forming the Brian Auger Trinity, which applied jazzy rhythm and tonalities to what was an r&b approach that gradually drifted towards rock when he developed an interest in the Hammond B-3 organ. Auger's greatest legacy was as the leader of Steampacket, formed in 1965, and included Rod Stewart, Long John Baldry, and Julie Driscoll. A year later he convened a new Trinity with Driscoll, and later moved back in a jazz-rock direction with Brian Auger's Oblivion Express. His self-titled debut with the Oblivion Express, from 1971, is a classic of early 70's jazz-rock; owing debt to Miles Davis and Tony Williams, but still retaining Auger's own r&b honed character. "Total Eclipse" is an 11-minute workout demonstrating this new direction.

14. Centipede: 1
Centipede: Septober Energy (1971)
Centipede was what can best be described as progressive big band, a genre they may well have to themselves. Assembled in 1970 by pianist Keith Tippett, who came from a musical family and had played since he was a child, Centipede was a 50-piece jazz/progressive rock/conceptual band that released a speechless-rendering double album, Septober Energy, in 1971. Some of it is some of the most aimless progressive rock set to wax, and some of it hits on moments of real interest, a fusion of big band, bop, and rock that really does convey some swing, accompanied by Julie Tippets sparsely placed vocals. It's hard to know what to make of this recording; it was never followed up (Tippet joined King Crimson shortly after), nor does it really work in its entirety; it ambles and shambles and gets indulgent and cacophonous. It also harbors some excellent, and unique passages. Progressive rock devotees ought to search this out, jazz purists need not apply, the open minded should approach with caution.

15. Chris Cutler/P53: Untitled iTunes
Chris Cutler: P53
Drummer Chris Cutler, from Washington DC, is a veteran of the English progressive-rock/Caterbury Scene Henry Cow, and also played in Gong. He's also played with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Berlin Radio Orchestra. He has formed a number of experimental one or two-shot bands, including Cassiber, P53, and the (EC) Nudes. He's also worked with Pere Ubu and the Residents, among many other experimental bands. P53 is one of his most interesting projects, recorded in 1994 and released in 1996. It's another case of being art rock more than jazz, but informed strongly by free-form jazz in spirit, meriting its inclusion. On this recording, pianists Marie Goyette and Zygmunt Krause play separate pianos, sometimes in harmonic tandem with each other, sometimes each playing a separate piece simultaneously. Sampler/computer processor Lutz Glandien and turntablist/guitarist Otomo Yoshide along with Cutler, create a joyous cacophony around them. It's a one shot, and it's mainly jazzy in its concept and execution; rather than in its overall sound.

16. Brand X: Born Ugly
Brand X: Unorthodox Behaviour (1976)
Brand X was a side project of the late 70's formed in 1976 by drummer Phil Collins of Genesis, and guitarist John Goodsall from Atomic Rooster. Collins departed in 1977, but the band continued through 1982. The band reconvened without Collins in 1995, and continues to this day. Unorthodox Behaviour was their 1976 debut, and follows the same general directions Mahavishnu Orchestra and fusion super group Weather Report charted in the early/mid 70's, making them followers more than leaders. Still, they're not bad, and the debut was quite good; "Born Ugly" is the closet to fusion they come.

17. Affinity: Coconut Grove
Affinity: Affinity (1970)
Confusingly, there are two different unrelated bands that have used the name Affinity, a bona-fide post-bop avant-jazz combo formed in the 1990's, and an early 70's jazz-rock group. The jazz-rock group lasted long enough to release only one single album in 1970, of mixed quality, but it stands as an interesting release. The brass horns are arranged by John Paul Jones, vocalist Linda Hoyle mixed folk, blues, jazz, and rock in her singing, sounding like a mix of Grace Slick, Sandy Denny, and Bessie Smith. Lynton Naiff mans the Hammond B-3, which dominates many of the tracks. There is also a cool soulfulness to the proceedings in places, particularly on "Coconut Grove" a laid-back groove that had once been a languid hit for the Lovin' Spoonful.

18. Mike Mainieri/White Elephant: Battle Royal
Mike Mainieri/White Elephant: White ELephant (1972)
White Elephant are barely remembered today, but were a 20-piece jazz-rock outfit from New York City that grew from a local jazz rock band Jeremy & The Satyrs. Led by vibraphonist Mike Mainieri, the band included horns, saxes, and some of the local session stars of the day, including Steve Gadd, Tony Levin, Donald MacDonald, Warren Bernhardt, Joe Beck, David Spinozza, and Hugh McCraken. The band's ambitious style is best heard on "Battle Royal"; they might be best compared to bands like Tower Of Power and The Flock, but more manic, jazzier, and more avant-garde than either.

19. X-Legged Sally: Memphis
X-Legged Sally: Slow Up (1991)
X-Legged Sally is a Belgian group that owes a very large debt to Frank Zappa. After appearing on the compilation Live At The Knitting Factory, Vol. 4 in 1990, the band built a big following in New York's very picky downtown scene. Slow Up, their 1991 was produced by Bill Laswell, and features heavily sax driven music, coupled with an intense rhythm section, plus reeds, guitars, and keyboards. Saxophonist Peter Vermeersch brings well honed avant-jazz chops to the recording; the songs are fast-paced and hair raising. Jazz-rock as a commercial enterprise has been on the decline since the 1970's; X-Legged Sally showed it to still be a vibrant fusion in the 90's, full of excitement and electricity. The band's last release was in 1996. "Memphis" is an original, not the Chuck Berry tune.

20. Magma: Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh
Magma: Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh (1972)
Magma was a French group, led by Christian Vander, a classically-trained drummer, and veteran of several 60's r&b and jazz combos. One day in Paris, in 1969, Vander was struck by a frightening vision of Earth's future, in terms of society, spirit, and environment, and decided then and there to devote his life to preventing the coming cataclysm via musical means. Thus, Magma didn't deal in concept albums so much as they had a concept career, which was indeed concerned with telling the story of Vander's vision, which included a conflict with a rival planet called Kobaia, and were sung in native Kobaian. The good news is the story has a happy ending, eons from now, when a reconciliation with the diety Ptah occurs. Needless to say, these albums didn't sell like hotcakes, nor did they succeed in nudging the Earth into a less destructive trajectory. Their first two albums conveyed this mission via fairly jazzy means; the third, their best, amped up the progressive rock, but kept the brass section, making it perhaps their most accessible. "Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh" is the album-long suite from their third album; you'll need to be in the right mood for it.

Sunday Morning playlist usually appears Saturday night/Sunday morning.


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