Jazz in the 1950s: the ultimate guide to the greatest albums
If you are discovering jazz for the first time then you've just found the perfect place to start. And if you are a true aficionado then this list is sure to remind you of some albums that you will rush to rediscover. The 1950s saw the release of some of the greatest albums, of any genre, ever made. If you've never heard any of these albums and are wondering where to start, you could do a lot worse than by starting at the top, with Kind of Blue, and working your way down the list. This is all truly great music, music for a lifetime's enjoyment. You can also enjoy tracks from each of these albums in our Apple Music playlist 'Jazz in the 1950s' as you read. Reissues of classic albums are reviewed in every issue of Jazzwise, so do check out our latest subscription offers. And so we begin...
Kind of Blue
Miles Davis (t), John Coltrane (ts), Cannonball Adderley (as), Wynton Kelly (p), Bill Evans (p), Paul Chambers (b) and Jimmy Cobb (d). Rec. 1959
How does one properly gauge impact? There’s no smouldering crater in the case of Kind of Blue. Miles’ melancholy, modal-jazz masterwork. The 1959 disc didn’t arrive with a thunderous clap, yet four decades later, at the end of the millennium, there it was at the top of any and all “best of” lists, nudging aside so many rock, pop and hip-hop recordings.
Today, there it is on Hollywood soundtracks, an incontestable signifier of hip. There it is near the sales till, still moving up to 5,000 copies a week worldwide, outselling most contemporary jazz recordings. And there it sits in at least five million CD collections. Often it’s the one jazz title owned by a metal head or a classical enthusiast, not just the jazz-focused.
But perhaps Kind of Blue is better measured by the sum of the constituent parts. Five tunes, exceedingly simple in construction, exceptionally deep in evocative power, played by seven post-bop masters, all in their prime. A once-in-a-lifetime line up that makes the term “all-star” seem inadequate: trumpeter Davis, plus sax men John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, pianists Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Jimmy Cobb.
Certainly, Kind of Blue must be measured by musical influence. Ask any number of influential music-makers who have been around, such as Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock, and the like, they all agree. At a time when the music had “gotten thick” as Miles said. Kind of Blue distilled modern jazz into a cool and detached essence. Stuart Nicholson
The Shape of Jazz To Come
Coleman (as), Don Cherry (t), Charlie Haden (b), Billy Higgins (d). Rec. 1959
Although his work for Impulse, Blue Note, Columbia, Flying Dutchman and his own Harmolodic label should be by no means be discounted, the Atlantic recordings are arguably the backbone of the saxophonist’s oeuvre. Taken together, the five sets that start with 1959’s The Shape Of Jazz To Come and conclude with 1962’s Ornette! still make for something of a shock to the system decades later for two simple reasons: the cast iron strength of character of Coleman as a soloist, which also holds true for his accompanists, who are actually more like co-pilots; and the absolute boldness of the writing which both confirms the vitality of the “avant-garde” or “new music” and makes the crucial point that its central development away from bebop’s clearly mapped chords and set meters took it “back” to early blues and country as well as forward to an undefined idiomatic space. Ultimately, Coleman’s talent is for making music that is as complex as it is primal. And not affected.
The mercurial nature of Coleman’s thinking led him to reshape structures more daringly than the average musician could imagine and his conception of harmony and tempo as a kind of modelling clay rather than rigid building blocks upon which to graft layers of sound still provides an invaluable lesson for contemporary players. Alternatively, one might argue that the immense appeal of his songs is their mesh of polyrhythm with a form of polymelody so that the whole ensemble acts as a contrapuntal choir singing from different hymn sheets without falling into discord. Kevin Le Gendre
Rollins (ts), Tommy Flanagan (p), Doug Watkins (b) and Max Roach (d). Rec. 1956
For once, an album title that doesn’t misrepresent the artist. And like so many classic albums of the period, it was taped in a single session, in the summer of 1956. The playing of all four musicians concerned: Rollins, Tommy Flanagan, Watkins and Roach is of the highest order to where the passing of 54-years hasn’t in any way diminished its sheer vitality. Truth: it sounds even more contemporary today than way back then with recordist Rudy Van Gelder faithfully capturing the sheer depth of Rollins’ delivery. Though ‘Saint Thomas’ and ‘Moritat’ (‘Mack The Knife’) are this album’s best known tracks a knowing interpretation of ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is’ is surely the jewel in this crown. For budding saxophonists, your first lesson starts here. Roy Carr
Monk (p, celeste), Ernie Henry (as), Sonny Rollins (ts), Oscar Pettiford/Paul Chambers (b), Max Roach (d) and Clark Terry (t). Rec. 1956
An album which, each time it's reissued, seems to get better. Although they’re lauded today, Monk’s recordings from the previous nine years on Blue Note and Prestige hardly sold, and were not even particularly well received by critics or fellow musicians, except for a tiny minority. Producer Orrin Keepnews, in his new notes, reminds us that his “plan to make Monk more acceptable began in mid-1955 with an all-Ellington set [and] an album consisting entirely of standard tunes”. The immediate follow-up was Brilliant Corners, not only an exceptional piece of work but the one that finally saw him embraced by everyone who could hear past his unconventional technique.
The title composition was a unique concept, and the combination of Monk’s commanding execution with Rollins at his early peak – they’d recorded together before, but never like this – matches the mastery of Sonny’s employer at the time, Max Roach. There are numerous details to discover for yourself, including Monk’s only recording on celeste (‘Pannonica’) and Roach’s first on timpani (‘Bemsha Swing’). This music just has to be heard. Or re-heard. Now. Brian Priestley
Mingus Ah Um
Mingus (b), Jimmy Knepper/Willie Dennis (tb), John Handy (as, ts), Shafi Hadi (as), Booker Ervin (ts), Horace Parlan (p) and Dannie Richmond (d). Rec. 1959
One of the distinguishing factors in Mingus’ 1959 recordings is that, unlike the five- or six-piece working groups of the previous few years, he was allowed to expand his personnel in the studio. That obviously includes Atlantic’s rough-and-ready Blues And Roots which, in a couple of tunes, functioned as an alternate version of Ah Um but which was not released for over a year. By then, Ah Um had made its impact, not least because of sidemen such as Knepper, Ervin and Handy – none of them “names” until chosen by Mingus – and, similarly, the great Richmond. Another factor in its success was a killer selection of nine tunes. A programme starting out with three remarkably different blues – ‘Better Git It In Your Soul’, ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’ and ‘Boogie Stop Shuffle’ – could hardly fail to grab Mingus fans, but the performances were tight enough to convince many doubters as well. Brian Priestley
Coltrane (ts), Tommy Flanagan, Cedar Walton, Wynton Kelly (p), Paul Chambers (b), Lex Humphries, Art Taylor and Jimmy Cobb (d). Rec. 1959
Today, Coltrane continues to be a musical inspiration for both fans and musicians alike, and his recorded legacy is essential study for any aspiring jazz musician. ‘Giant Steps’ and the underlying harmonic movement of Coltrane’s 16-bar composition – often called “the Coltrane Changes” – have long been a settled module in jazz education pedagogy. So with almost all professional jazz musicians under the age of 40 having enjoyed at least some degree of formal jazz education, it is not unreasonable to suggest that among jazz musicians, and so within jazz itself, Giant Steps may well be the most influential jazz album of all time.
Coltrane’s solos have been transcribed and analysed by countless scholars, he has been the subject of hundreds and hundreds of academic dissertations and there have been seven biographies of him in the English language alone. Indeed, so much has been written about Coltrane that it might appear you need a doctorate of music to go anywhere near his recordings.
Nothing could be further from the truth, as Giant Steps demonstrates so eloquently. His music contains universal values that still speak to us now – the essential humanity of the his work, the sheer joy of music making and the power and energy of his playing that even today can be both moving and uplifting. These are values that that can be enjoyed by anyone and everyone, just as Coltrane intended. Stuart Nicholson
Brubeck (p), Paul Desmond (as), Eugene Wright (b) and Joe Morello (d). Rec. 1959
Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond were an odd couple! Chalk and cheese: Brubeck’s frequently thunderous, bombastic pianistics being in stark contrast to Desmond’s unruffled pure toned alto sax. But it worked. Never more so than on Time Out, one of probably just half-a-dozen albums on the shelves of those who don’t admit to liking jazz.
It was an album that prompted even more controversy than Ornette Coleman’s emergence the previous year. While, perhaps, not the first group to explore compound time signatures, Time Out (a million-plus seller that also produced two jukebox hits ‘Take Five’ and ‘Blue Rondo A La Turk’) proved a major breakthrough in that it captured the public’s attention by offering up a clear blueprint of future possibilities in jazz as opposed to being misconstrued as an attention-grabbing gimmick. Though the singles are the best-known tracks, ‘Kathy’s Waltz’ and ‘Three To Get Ready’ are their equal in terms of genuine inspiration. But then the entire original album remains unaffected by the passing of time. Roy Carr
Ahmad Jamal At The Pershing: But Not For Me
Jamal (p), Israel Crosby (b), Vernell Fournier (d). Rec. 1958
If this album had been recorded for Blue Note or Riverside, I wonder if it would now be universally acknowledged to be the widely influential masterspiece that it most surely is? Although it is fashionable nowadays to pay lip service to the attention paid Jamal by Miles Davis at this time, it is also still fashionable to presume that others aside from Jamal himself went on to make significant music with his devices. Well, I beg to differ. This is significant music, if one can forgive Jamal selling (he claims) a million copies of this record by developing a seamlessly cool style of playing not beholden to Powell, Monk, Oscar Peterson or any other icon. It has its own message, its own story to tell. It endures. Enjoy it without shame. Keith Shadwick
Songs For Swingin’ Lovers
Frank Sinatra (v), Nelson Riddle (arr, cond) and big band. Rec. 1955-56
Sinatra the jazz singer? There are vast swathes of Sinatra recordings that could never be remotely described as jazz, but the man himself credits Tommy Dorsey and Billie Holiday as his musical mentors and, when he put his mind to it, he could phrase and swing with the best. Additionally - and crucially - he influenced just about every jazz singer and musician worthy of the name between the 1940s and today, including such people as Lester Young, Miles Davis and John Coltrane, all of whom had listened very closely indeed to Sinatra's balladry. This classic mid-50s session puts Frankie’s jazz credentials perfectly in order and throws down the gauntlet for everyone else. Keith Shadwick
John Lewis (p), Milt Jackson (vb), Percy Heath (b) and Connie Kay (d). Rec. 1956
Fontessa was the Modern Jazz Quartet’s first for Atlantic, and both it and Pyramid together with the European Concert constitute their best work for the label which is to say, their best apart from the early Prestige/OJC albums.
To be sure, parts are highly redolent of the period in terms of their ‘classical’ counterpoint, and a couple of brief episodes that don't quite come off stick out rather uncomfortably at this distance. Nevertheless, this is minimised by Fontessa's well-ordered programme of two new Lewis compositions, two jazz standards and three of what Lewis used to call American ballads, including a remake of ‘Willow Weep For Me‘ which Milt had first recorded with Monk's quartet (on Genius Of Modern Music Vol.2). The key item in the programme, however, is Lewis’ title suite which, without any obvious breaks, lasts 11 minutes and covers many moods and tempos. As well as the literary allusion explained in Lewis’ note, it tells a compelling musical story. There’s something both intelligent and often highly emotional going on in these albums that stands the test of time. Brian Priestley
The Genius of Bud Powell
Powell (p), Ray Brown (b) and Buddy Rich (d). Rec. 1950-51
Two Herculean trio tunes – ‘Tea For Two’ and ‘Hallelujah’, both taken at breakneck speeds – make up the 1950 contribution here. With the benefit of extra CD space we get treated to two extra takes of ‘Tea For Two’, giving us an object lesson in how Powell developed his material as well as maintaining his incredible improvisational creativity. The level of invention Powell achieves puts this recital on equal par with anything in the recorded annals of jazz piano and makes it basic required jazz listening. Keith Shadwick
Blakey (d), Lee Morgan (t), Benny Golson (ts), Bobby Timmons (p) and Jymie Merritt (b). Rec. 1958
This marked The Messengers return to Blue Note and a new line-up. Originally issued as Art Blakey And The Jazz Messengers, the title was quickly changed to Moanin’ to capitalise on the public’s instant response to the LP’s opening track and also ‘Blues March’. Acknowledged as one of the all-time hard bop classic albums.
A New Sound, A New Star
Smith (org), Thornel Schwartz (g), Bay Perry and Donald Bailey (d). Rec. 1956
It’s that simple: Jimmy Smith invented modern jazz organ and this is the album (in fact, volume one of two quickly-released volumes recorded at the same February 1956 sessions) where he announced his arrival. From the off, Blue Note was looking for commercial success and his version of 'The Champ', though not the first Jimmy Smith Blue Note single (on Volume two rather than Volume one), delivered big time. By then the first album had delivered a blues-plus-bebop blueprint for the jazz organ trio that Smith would subsequently develop, refine and occasionally revise, but that stayed remarkably consistent in content and quality over the next decade. Keith Shadwick
Ellington At Newport
Ellington (p), Willie Cook, Ray Nance, Clark Terry, Cat Anderson (t), Britt Woodman, Quentin Jackson, John Sanders (tb), Johnny Hodges, Russell Procope (as), Jimmy Hamilton (cl, ts), Paul Gonsalves (ts), Harry Carney (bar s), Jimmy Woode (b) and Sam Woodyard (d). Rec. 1956
Ellington often acknowledged that the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival offered him a virtual rebirth in terms of his in-person and recording career but there is little doubt as to why. Apart from the on-site near-riot after the conclusion of 'Diminuendo And Crescendo in Blue', this is a well-paced record for a lounge-chair audience wanting to know what the excitement was all about. The fact that 60 per cent of the original (including just about all of The Festival Suite) was recorded in the studio in the following days due to onstage microphone problems was only confirmed decades later. The original vinyl had just three tracks: this was also the original CD configuration. A later two-CD version combines much improved sound with the complete festival appearance, plus studio extras. Keith Shadwick
Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Cole Porter Songbook
Fitzgerald (v) and the Buddy Bregman Orchestra. Rec. 1956
Norman Granz had long cherished the ambition to have Ella recording for his label but had to wait until 1956 to make the signing. His first project for her was to record as many Cole Porter songs as they could lay their hands on in large ensemble style and release them (initially as volumes one and two) on an unsuspecting but quickly enraptured public. The idea caught on and Ella kept doing composer songbooks well into the 1960s. Nobody did it better, even though it could be said that Sinatra’s studious avoidance of such anthologies produced the greater individual legacy. Keith Shadwick
Adderley (as), Miles Davis (t), Hank Jones (p), Sam Jones (b) and Art Blakey (d). Rec. 1959
Being sandwiched between Miles Davis and John Coltrane is bound to up anyone’s game. It certainly didn’t do Julian ‘Cannonball’ Adderley any harm who joined Miles in October 1957, three months prior to wayward John Coltrane’s return to the fold, and remained until September 1959 when he departed to be reunited with his brother Nat. Cannonball’s arrival in New York from Florida in 1955, coincided with Charlie Parker’s death in March, at which point he was unfairly heralded as the New Bird. Fortunately, Adderley possessed sufficient strength of character to sidestep such comparisons, being more blues than bop, more sanctified than speed crazy, more commercial than contrite. To a whole new generation, Cannonball was a touchstone whose joyful noise reached out to a much wider audience than most of his contemporaries. More a populariser than innovator, his soulful sound was much easier to assimilate and thus connected instantly with fans of both straight-ahead jazz and R&B/ soul.
Having spent a month in Europe where he supplied the soundtrack to Louis Malle’s Lift To The Scaffold the next occasion Miles was in a recording studio was on February 4, 1958 when Cannonball made an impressive debut on Milestones. Just one month later, Miles adopted the role of sideman on Somethin’ Else, Adderley’s one-off album for Blue Note. Often billed as Cannonball’s Five Stars, this was not, as some suggested, a surrogate Miles album, (he wrote the title track) but a bona fide Cannonball date, exquisitely recorded tight and close-up by Rudy Van Gelder – most notably on ‘Autumn Leaves’. Overall, one of the leader’s best ever accounts of his virtuosity. Roy Carr
George Russell – The Jazz Workshop
George Russell (comp, arr, boombams), Art Farmer (t), Hal McKusick (as, f), Barry Galbraith (g), Bill Evans (p), Milt Hinton, Teddy Kotick (b), Joe Harris, Paul Motian and Osie Johnson (d). Rec. 1956
This record has been reissued so many times that it may even be approaching acceptable sales figures at last. Russell is as well known as a theorist as he is a practising musician, and it is not meant as an insult to say that his music is probably more often paid lip service to rather than his records listened to. His music is not easy, being complex and angular, even at this distance his 1956 sessions for Victor giving the listener few points of comfort. This is fully intentional on the part of Russell and points up both his integrity and his lack of a substantial popular audience. The presence of Art Farmer, Bill Evans and Paul Motian on this record helps pull in the uncommitted listener, but everyone here plays for Russell, not for themselves, making this a pure dose of Russell’s musical personality. Once the astringency of his sonics and his methods are assimilated, this music delivers many pleasures, not least the solos of the then-little-known Bill Evans. Give it a few listens in a row and you’ll hear what I mean. Keith Shadwick
Tristano (p), Lee Konitz (as), Peter Ind, Gene Ramey (b), Jeff Morton and Art Taylor (d). Rec. 1955
Theorist, teacher, creative thinker and virtuoso pianist, Tristano had advanced and very firmly held views about what constituted good playing practice. He expected his musicians to adhere to such views and accept whatever discipline he imposed. That it worked for others can be heard in Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh, and that it was influential can be discerned through Bill Evans's absorption of Tristano's methods. But Tristano’s own audience remained tiny, this Atlantic album containing his moving elegy to Charlie Parker, 'Requiem', and his controversial multi-tracking of his own piano lines, 'Line Up’, providing a brief moment when everyone sat up and took notice. Keith Shadwick
Clifford Brown and Max Roach
Brown (t), Harold Land (ts), Richie Powell (p), George Morrow (b) and Max Roach (d). Rec. 1954
For whatever reason the Brown-Roach Quintet was never quite as universally lionised as say, the Jazz Messengers or the Horace Silver Quintet were. Yet, they had everything going for them and as this selection by the pre-Rollins line-up proves that one of their great strengths was a pad of marvellous material that embraced Brownie’s unforgettable ‘Daahoud’, ‘The Blues Walk’ and ‘Joy Spring’ plus original takes on ‘Delilah’, ‘Jordu’, ‘Parisian Thoroughfare’ and Duke Ellington’s ‘What Am I Here For.’ Though Brownie and Max Roach deservedly grabbed the plaudits, it’s time to turn the spotlight on that truly underrated tenor player Harold Land plus Bud Powell’s ill-fated piano playing younger brother Richie who really goes for broke on two takes of ‘The Blues Walk’ as does Land. Some may have had reservations about Land’s tone, but as with Hank Mobley, he couldn’t be mistaken for any other horn player, though I can detect elements of Land in the work of mid-period Tubby Hayes. Overall, a pretty well faultless account of one of the greatest of hard bop bands, which remains just as relevant today as the day it was first minted. Roy Carr
Birth of the Cool
Miles Davis (t), Lee Konitz (as), Gerry Mulligan (bar s), JJ Johnson (tb), Kai Winding (tb), Junior Collins (Fr hn), Gunther Schuller (Fr hn), Sandy Siegelstein (Fr hn), Billy Barber (tba), John Barber (tba), Nelson Boyd (b), Joe Shulman (b), Al McKibbon (b), Al Haig (p), John Lewis (p), Kenny Clarke (d), Max Roach (d), Gil Evans (arr), Johnny Carisi (arr) and Kenny Hagood (v). Rec. 1949-50
It’s certainly possible to overrate these recordings (as is true of Kind Of Blue) and, while that was widespread during the 1950s-60s, the reverse seems to be the case today. The 12 original studio tracks were initially baffling to everyone except fellow musicians, who hastened to copy their surface characteristics but, when reissued in the wake of Miles Ahead, they underlined the advanced thinking of arrangers Mulligan and Evans. Miles too is heard not only playing excellent lead trumpet but soloing in a way that, though bop-influenced, is already pre-modal, and Konitz hits the forward gear from a quite different angle. Brian Priestley
The Atomic Mr Basie
Count Basie (p), Thad Jones, Joe Newman, Wendell Culley, Snooky Young (t), Benny Powell, Henry Coker, Al Grey (tb), Marshall Royal (as, cl), Frank Wess (as, ts), Frank Foster, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis (ts), Charlie Fowlkes (bar s), Freddie Green (g), Eddie Jones (b), Sonny Payne (d) and Neal Hefti (arr). Rec. 1957
Basie’s great career-reviving 1957 album, the finest achievement of his dynamic, “modern” sound-boasting New Testament big band, is a seemingly never-ending and ever-expanding story in the era of CD reissues. The LP, featuring 11 tracks largely written and entirely arranged by the great Neal Hefti, was originally released on the infamous Morris Levy’s Roulette Records label. In the early 1990s that epoch-defining set was reissued with five out-takes tacked on from the same sessions, but this time showcasing the capable arranging skills of Jimmy Mundy. In all other respects, though, the composition of the band was unchanged: which is important because ‘Lockjaw’ Davis’ improvisations are crucial in adding a little splintering volatility to the otherwise sturdily muscular, well-marshalled sound honed by Hefti. Robert Shore
Gerry Mulligan Quartet
Gerry Milligan (bar s), Chet Baker (t), Bobby Whitlock (b) and Chico Hamilton (d). Rec. 1952
Mulligan first made a significant contribution to recorded jazz through his arrangements for Miles’ so-called Birth of the Cool sessions for Capitol, but it was the 1952 piano-less quartet that hit the headlines and made him (as well as trumpeter sidekick Chet Baker) virtually overnight jazz celebrities. This album covers the initial (and best) sides the Mulligan Quartet cut, for Pacific Jazz, including ‘Bernie’s Tune', ‘Freeway’ and ‘Walkin’ Shoes’, where the uncanny empathy between Mulligan and Baker is constantly underlined by the firmly resilient beat of Chico Hamilton. West coast jazz in its infancy and at its most joyously infectious. Keith Shadwick
The Genius of Art Tatum No.1
Art Tatum (p). Rec. 1953
For decades Tatum was every jazz pianist's first choice as the greatest piano of all but by the early 1950s his public profile was still minute compared with some of his contemporaries. Norman Granz decided to fix that: between 1953 and Tatum's death in 1956 Granz recorded well over 200 selections and issued them on Clef and Verve. Tatum’s popular and critical reputation has been secure ever since, his baroque creations simultaneously exciting and terrifying the listener. This first of the series is a solo recital. All the Tatum Clefs and Verves are now available on Granz’s last-owned label, Pablo. Keith Shadwick
Sarah Vaughan (v), Clifford Brown (t), Herbie Mann (f), Paul Quinichette (ts), Jimmy Jones (p), Joe Benjamin (b) and Roy Haynes (d). Rec. 1954
Vaughan was a by-word for vocal worship among her peers and musical associates by the late 1940s, but little she recorded before this album consistently showed her true worth to jazz. Nestled in a sympathetic small-group setting, Sassy simply blossoms into an overwhelmingly seductive artist whose complete abandonment to her own idea of line and sound gives the listener a level of ecstatic pleasure delivered only by - well, by Sassy, Ella and Billie, truth be told. She may later have equalled this in other settings, but here the gauntlet was well and truly thrown down. Keith Shadwick
Charles Mingus (b), Jackie McLean (as), , JR Monterose (ts), Mal Waldron (p), Willie Jones (d). Rec. 30 Jan 1956
Mingus’ first two Atlantics (this album and The Clown), heard complete, excited and appalled their initial listeners. Pithecanthropus introduced deliberately distorted saxophone tones, bits of collective improv and even sound effects describing ‘A Foggy Day (In San Francisco)’, “adapted” from its Gershwin source. If you’re unaware of this album, get up to speed now. Brian Priestley
Stan Kenton: City of Glass
If the new and different were Kenton’s guiding lights then no piece of music exemplified this more than ‘City Of Glass’, comprising three movements composed and arranged by the delphic Robert Graettinger. To say the piece was ahead of its time is an understatement. Debuted at the Chicago Civic Opera House in 1948, a capacity audience greeted the piece in stunned silence until Kenton, with remarkable presence of mind, leapt in front of his band and with a dramatic gesture signalled for his band to take a bow. The baffled audience responded with a huge ovation. ‘City Of Glass’ is one of the great, if misunderstood, extended compositions in jazz. Neither middle-brow or highbrow, but aimed well over the heads of most of Kenton’s fans, it was berated by the critics for its “classical” aspirations. But this uniquely conceived piece of music had no precedent in either classical music or jazz so there was no context in which to situate it at the time. In fact, the endorsements of many great jazz musicians − Coleman Hawkins was one − made tart contrast to the critic’s instant dismissals. Stuart Nicholson
Weather Report: the life and times of the group on record
The March 2017 issue of Jazzwise features a fascinating new article about the legendary electric bass player Jaco Pastorius (subscribe here). To celebrate, we present a comprehensive profile of the band with which Jaco made his name: Weather Report. Bill Milkowksi charts the life and times of the group on record
Co-founded by Miles Davis alumnae Wayne Shorter and Josef Zawinul, Weather Report forged a new direction in instrumental music with an exhilarating hybrid of styles that drew heavily on jazz while also incorporating elements of rock, funk, free flowing group improvisation, electronic abstraction and pan-global exotica. A perennial poll-winner, the group reached enormous peaks of worldwide popularity while also establishing itself as one of the most vitally creative and influential units to come out of the volatile 1970s.
A series of key, interconnected events led to the ultimate formation of Weather Report in the early part of December, 1970. Indeed, it was a musical concept that gestated over time during the late ’60s through various recordings before finally manifesting as the super group that would become indisputably the premier fusion band of the 1970s and 1980s. Zawinul hinted at this forward-thinking, harmonically open direction as early as 1967 in his capacity as keyboardist for the Cannonball Adderley Quintet. Two other key recordings, both released in that pivotal year of 1970, were important precursors to Weather Report. Zawinul, the keyboardist composer's third and most ambitious album as a leader for Atlantic, marks a decided stride into the new, and away from the soul-jazz and hard bop tone of Joe's two previous Atlantic outings, 1966's Money in the Pocket and 1968's The Rise & Fall of the Third Stream. The more progressive-sounding Zawinul features Joe's very personal take on his own evocative composition 'In A Silent Way', which he had originally written to convey his impressions of his days as a shepherd boy in Austria. Also noteworthy is ‘Doctor Honoris Causa', a tune that Joe dedicated to Herbie Hancock and which would later become a regular concert-opener for Weather Report. The bassist on that breakthrough, self-titled project was Miroslav Vitous, the gifted Czech musician who would become a charter member of Weather Report and along with Joe and Wayne form the nucleus of that great band. Zawinul would reciprocate later that same year by appearing on Vitous' second album as a leader, the excellent but currently rare Purple, an important early fusion project which also included John McLaughlin and Billy Cobham in the lineup.
Meanwhile, Shorter pointed to a similarly adventurous path in his last few recordings for the Blue Note label. His 1969 outing, Super Nova, was a startling departure from his previous Blue Note output. With John McLaughlin and Sonny Sharrock on guitars, Walter Booker on bass, Airto on percussion and Chick Corea on drums (!), it launched Shorter into another musical zone. The transitional Odyssey of Iska and Moto Grosso Feio provide further linkage to the subsequent formation of Weather Report, as did an unissued recording entitled Creation. That triumvirate of recordings from 1970 helped to forge the rhythm tandem chemistry between bassist Miroslav Vitous and drummer Alphonse Mouzon, both of whom would appear a year later on Weather Report’s self-titled debut from 1971. Percussionist Barbara Burton, who made a significant though uncredited appearance on Weather Report, also contributes to Creation (which at this point exists only in bootleg form). Curiously, in the liner notes to Odyssey of Iska there is a reference to Wayne's new band, Weather Forecast.
Though Shorter and Zawinul had actually met years earlier the galvanizing event that brought these two kindred spirits and creative forces together was Miles' groundbreaking In A Silent Way, the big bang that launched the fusion movement and ultimately spawned such groups as Weather Report, Return To Forever and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. One track in particular from tha fusion landmark predates the quintessential Weather Report sound. Zawinul's mysterious and pastoral sounding composition 'Ascent' (recorded on November 27, 1968) is a definite precursor to such early atmospheric Weather Report offerings as ‘Badia’ and 'Jungle Book'. With Shorter in his first-ever recorded performance on soprano sax blowing incredibly lyrical lines on top of the three-keyboard cushion supplied by Zawinul, Hancock and Corea, this piece also foreshadows the uncanny rapport that Joe and Wayne would further develop in Weather Report’s future line-ups.
(Columbia) rel. 12 May 1971
The eponymously titled debut includes the Vitous compositions ‘Seventh Arrow’ and 'Morning Lake’ along with Shorter's 'Tears' and ‘Eurydice’ and Zawinul's 'Waterfall' and ‘Orange Lady'. All three collaborate on ‘Umbrellas’ while Shorter and Zawinul get co-writing credit on ‘Milky Way'. Managed by Robert Devere, the superband Weather Report was introduced at a debut party on May 26, 1971 at the CBS Studios in the heart of midtown Manhattan. A summer tour ensued, documented by at least one bootleg. On 3 September, the core group was joined in a broadcast from Berlin, Germany by British saxophonists Alan Skidmore and John Surman, performing Shorter’s ‘Moto Grosso Feio’ and 'Eurydice’ and Zawinul’s 'Early Minor', ‘Directions’ and 'Doctor Honoris Causa'.
I Sing The Body Electric
(Columbia) rel. 24 May 1972
Recorded between October and late December of 1971, Weather Report's anxiously-awaited follow up features a new drummer (Eric Gravatt replacing Alphonse Mouzon), a new percussionist (Dorn Urn Romao replacing Airto) and a host of special guests including Hubert Laws on flute, Ralph Towner on acoustic 12-string guitar, Andrew White on English horn and Wilmer Wise on trumpet. Named for a Robert Frost poem, it includes Zawinul's ominous anti-war tone poem ‘Unknown Soldier' along with his proto-New Age anthem ‘Second Sunday in August’. Shorter contributes the Oregon-flavoured piece 'The Moors' and Vitous offers his own evocative musical journey in the seven-minute rubato centerpiece ‘Crystal', which travels from gentle lyricism to a freewheeling three-way improv conversation with Zawinul on Fender Rhodes, Shorter on soprano sax and Vitous on nasty, fuzz-inflected electric bass. The remainder of this second Weather Report offering captures the band in positively killer mode at Shibuya Kokaido Hall, burning with the kind of raw abandon that characterized the early fusion movement on a medley of Zawinul's adrenaline-pumped jam 'Vertical Invader’, Vitous’ 'T.H.' and a highly interactive rendition of 'Dr. Honoris Causa', featuring some spikey call-and-response between Zawinul’s distorted electric piano and Shorter’s seething tenor sax.
Live in Tokyo
(Sony Japan) 1972
Released in Japan only, this is the complete document of the 13 January concert at Shibuya Kokaido Hall in Tokyo. Along with the opening medley and the other live material that appeared on I Sing The Body Electric, it also includes freewheeling, edgy renditions of Shorter's ‘Eurydice', 'Tears', ‘Lost’ and 'The Moors’ along with Zawinul’s 'Early Minor’ and ‘Orange Lady'. Rare but highly recommended to hardcore WR fans, just to hear them push the envelope on these familiar set pieces.
(Columbia) rel. 27 April 1973
Recorded in early February at the CBS Studios in Manhattan and Connecticut, Weather Report’s third album features the drumming tandem of Eric Gravatt and Herschel Dwellingham creating intricate polyrhythmic textures alongside percussionists Dorn Urn Romao and Muruga on Zawinul's funky ‘125th Street Congress' (which may be the first authentic hip-hop beat on record) and on two Shorter compositions, the lyrically haunting soprano sax showcase 'Manolete' and the throbbing closer 'Non-Stop Home’. Andrew White provides some tasty English horn on Vitous’ exotic 'Will' then switches to electric bass and grooves in ultra-funky Motown fashion on Zawinul's percussive opener 'Boogie Woogie Waltz’, a hypnotic 13-minute vamp which sets the template for all of Joe's future groove-meets-improv experiments from early Weather Report.
(Columbia) rel. 24 May 1974
With Weather Report heading down a more groove-oriented path, Zawinul became more interested in acquiring a funky bass player to hold down the bottom. Miroslav Vitous' inability to capture this kind of earthy, pared-down approach is what inevitably set the stage for Philly bassist Alphonso Johnson coming into the band in November of 1973.
The powerhouse lineup for that fourth Weather Report album (recorded at Devonshire Sound Studios in North Hollywood) also featured the drum tandem of Ishmael Wilburn (a cousin of Wayne Shorter) and Skip Hadden. More collaborative in nature than subsequent releases, Mysterious Traveller has Zawinul sharing composer credits with Miroslav Vitous (making his final recorded appearance with the band) on the lilting ‘American Tango', with Johnson on the funky vehicle ‘Cucumber Slumber' and with both Shorter and Johnson on the spacious and eerie soundscape 'Scarlet Woman'. Joe was particularly pleased with the direction of ‘Cucumber Slumber', a piece that originated from a funky bassline that Johnson brought in and which Zawinul then orchestrated into a fully developed piece with clavinet and synths. Shorter is prominently featured here stretching on soprano sax.
(Columbia) rel. May 1975
The second studio album that Weather Report recorded at Devonshire Sound Studios in North Hollywood and the fifth overall is propelled by the crisp, power precision drumming of Ndugu Chancier and underscored by the bubbling, Mu-Tron-inflected basslines of Alphonso Johnson. In a departure from the much looser approach of Sweetnighter, the tunes here are more thoughtfully composed and deliberately arranged, as exemplified by Zawinul’s ebullient opener 'Man in the Green Shirt’ and his mercurial suite 'Between The Thighs’ or Shorter's gradually evolving bolero 'Lusitanos'. Other highpoints include Zawinul’s ethereal world beat anthem 'Badia’ and Shorter’s kinetic 'Freezing Fire’, which features some extended expressions by Joe on synth and Wayne on soprano sax. Shorter’s 'Five Short Stories' is an intimate duet that features his poignant tenor playing in the company of Zawinul’s piano, organ and ARP 2600 synth string ensemble textures.
(Columbia) rel. March 1976
A transitional album, it marks the changing of the bass guard from Alphonso Johnson to Jaco Pastorius. While Johnson had announced his intention to leave Weather Report by December 75 in order to join the Billy Cobham-George Duke band, he nevertheless recorded five tracks for this album. He cut Zawinul’s 'Gibraltar', Shorter’s 'Elegant People’ and 'Three Clowns’ and his own 11/4 excursion 'Hernandu' on a 22 December session and added Zawinul's ambient piece 'Black Market’ in an early January 76 session. Jaco makes his debut with the band on 'Cannonball', Joe’s poignant tribute to his friend and mentor Cannonball Adderley, who had died on August 8, 1975. Pastorius’ fretless electric bass guitar work on 'Cannonball' and on his own funky original 'Barbary Coast' helped fuel the growing legend which had been unleashed earlier that year with the release of Jaco's astonishing self-titled debut on Epic Records. Shorter again relies on lyricon to fatten up the tracks in doubling Zawinul's synth lines. The album, recorded at Devonshire Sound Studios in North Hollywood, also introduces two new faces in the drum chair in Narada Michael Walden, who played on 'Cannonball' and the title track, and former Frank Zappa drummer Chester Thompson, who played on the remainder of the tracks. The percussionists were Peruvian Alex Acuna and Don Alias. For a Stateside tour, which commenced on April 1, 1976 at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the new Weather Report touring lineup was Pastorius on bass, Acuna on drums and Manolo Badrena on percussion.
(Columbia) rel. March 1977
A breakthrough record for Weather Report, the group's seventh studio album launched them to a new level of record sales and visibility in the marketplace. The final piece of the puzzle was the addition of bassist Jaco Pastorius, who brought an unprecedented facility on his instrument along with a kind of showtime appeal, an earthy real-deal R&B sensibility he inherited from endless roadwork on the chitlin’ circuit with Wayne Cochran & The C.C. Riders and a macho swagger to match Zawinul's own.
A natural extrovert as well as a gifted groovemeister, Jaco used his unprecedented technique to thrill other musicians while relying on his showtime skills to entertain audiences. With his wild stage antics and South Florida beach bum persona, Jaco struck a demeanor that was decidedly outside the suit-and-tie realm of the conservative jazzbo. And yet, he was as well-versed in the music of Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington and John Coltrane as he was with the funk of James Brown, Wilson Pickett and Sly Stone, the rock of Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles or the reggae of Bob Marley. And not only would Jaco entertain audiences with his outrageous behavior on stage but he would also invariably open some ears to new sounds, providing a bridge between the rock and jazz camps.
Recorded in December of 1976 and January of 1977 at Devonshire Sound Studios in North Hollywood, it instantly grabbed ears on the strength of Zawinul's catchy, radio-friendly hit single 'Birdland’ (Joe's ode to the legendary New York jazz club from the heyday of 52nd Street). Shorter’s Latin-tinged ‘Palladium’ (his ode to another legendary New York nightclub, located just across the street from Birdland, which was the focal point of the burgeoning latin jazz scene of the 40s and 50s) would become a powerful Weather Report set-opener on tour. Pastorius makes a startling impression with his haunting tone and melodic approach on Zawinul's beautiful ballad 'A Remark You Made’ and then rips it up on his own turbo-charged 'Teen Town’, a kind of electrified updating of a chops-busting bebop riff set to a disco beat. It was the beginning of a new era in the band's history - the Jaco years.
(Columbia) rel. early September 1978
The commercial success of the gold-selling Heavy Weather set the tone for an even more electrified phase of Weather Report, which was played out to its crossover conclusion on Mr Gone. Acerbic critics and other wags opined that the album title was a reference to Wayne Shorter, who seemed to have faded into the background of a synth-layered sheen that permeates the arrangements. Even Zawinul himself, who clearly dominates this studio project (recorded in February and June of 1978, once again at Devonshire Sound Studios in North Hollywood) admits in retrospect that the album was an experiment.
What it was was a collection of well-crafted confections like Jaco's discofied 'River People' and Zawinul’s blatantly buoyant 'Young And Fine’ and the cloying ballad 'And Then' featuring some pleasantly soulful vocals from Denise Williams and Earth, Wind & Fire's Maurice White. Shorter's atmospheric composition 'The Elders’ seems more like moody filler here while the band’s stylised remake of Wayne's classic ’Pinocchio’ crackles with juggernaut intensity for a clipped 2:25. Zawinul’s walking synth bass line that dominates the title track makes Pastorius' presence moot. Jaco does make his inimitable presence felt, however on 'Punk Jazz’, an aptly-named Pastorius anthem that brilliantly showcases his unparalleled bass virtuosity. Shorter also gets in some lyrical tenor licks at the intro of ‘Punk Jazz' before switching to soprano and wailing during the (dated) discofied middle section. The revolving drum chair for this studio project rotated from Steve Gadd to Tony Williams to Peter Erskine, who would join the band that summer of 1978 for tours of Japan and Australia and then throughout South America and Europe that fall. An interesting note: Jaco is credited as co-producer for the first time.
(Columbia) rel. September 1979
From the outset, Weather Report had always been a phenomenal band in concert, which can be readily heard on the live sections from I Sing The Body Electric. This live recording captures some exhilarating moments on the road with the fearsome and flexible foursome of Zawinul, Shorter, Pastorius and new drummer Peter Erskine. One can sense both the camaraderie and friendly competition between the players on urgent, go-for-the-throat renditions of Jaco’s 'Teen Town' or Zawinul’s ‘Black Market’. Both Jaco and Wayne project with a depth of emotion on Joe’s tender ballad ’A Remark You Made’, and Jaco goes into heavy showtime mode on ’Slang', his standard solo segment in which he engages the audience in a clap-along to his funky looped bass motif before stomping on the distortion box and launching into quotes from Jimi Hendrix’s 'Third Stone from the Sun' and 'The Sound Of Music’, then inevitably lying his bass guitar face up on the stage and leaping onto it from atop his Acoustic 360 amplifier. A gentle duet rendition of Zawinul’s 'In A Silent Way' with Wayne on soprano sax and Joe providing orchestral synth accompaniment lends a brief bit of breathing room before a loose, lively shuffle rendition of the crowd favorite 'Birdland’. Elsewhere in the live segments, Shorter delves into a rare unaccompanied solo tenor sax showcase on a cubist extrapolation of Bob Hope’s longtime theme song, 'Thanks for the Memories.’
Havana Jam/Havana Jam II
(Sony Japan) rel. June 1979/November 1979
These two compilations captured a historic meeting of American and Cuban musicians who came together on March 2, 3 and 4 of 1979 at the 5,000-seat Karl Marx Theatre for an extended weekend of jazz, latin and pop music. The brainchild of Bruce Lundvall, then president of CBS Records, it involved transporting a number of artists on CBS's roster at the time, including Dexter Gordon, Stan Getz, John Mclaughlin, Tony Williams, Hubert Laws, Eric Gale and Weather Report along with popsters Billy Joel and Kris Kristofferson, Stephen Stills and Bonnie Bramlett to Havana to share the bill with such Cuban all-stars as Orquesta Aragon, Irakere and the Cuban Percussion Ensemble.
(Columbia) rel. November 1980
Zawinul’s swinging, boppish title track, paced by Pastorius' insistently walking basslines and Erskine's ride cymbal groove, opens this powerful outing, immediately setting the tone for what is easily the ‘jazziest’ of Weather Report's Jaco-era recordings. Tracked on 12 and 13 July at George Massenburg's The Complex sound stage before a live audience, it features the addition of a fifth man in percussionist Robert Thomas, Jr., whose syncopated approach to hand percussion is decidedly more bebop than AfroCuban. Again produced by Zawinul and with coproducing credit going to Pastorius, it also features Shorter in a far more prominent role. Night Passage is also distinguished by some of Jaco's most emotionally wrenching and technically astounding bass playing on record. Shorter plays quite expressively on both tenor and soprano on Zawinul’s mournful ballad ‘Dream Clock’ before bearing down on tenor and blowing in unrestrained fashion on his own highly-charged composition 'Port of Entry', which also turns Jaco loose for an explosive bass solo against Erkine's driving backbeat and Thomas’ percolating conga work. Zawinul's 'Forlorn' is an affecting tone poem while his aggressive, synth-laden orchestration of Duke Ellington's 'Rockin' In Rhythm’ is his heartfelt ode to a lifelong jazz hero. Shorter blows with more unbridled tenor conviction on Zawinul's aptly-named ‘Fast City' - a mad burner fuelled by Erskine's brisk ride cymbal sizzle and Jaco's blazing bass lines - than on all of his contributions to Mr. Gone and 8:30 combined. Pastorius' gorgeous, bittersweet waltz ballad 'Three Views of a Secret’ (perhaps his most profoundly affecting composition ever) and Zawinul's ominous suite ‘Madagascar’ round out what is ultimately Weather Report's strongest statement since Mysterious Traveller.
(Columbia) rel. January 1982
Recorded on July 13 at the Power Station in New York and on 14 August, 1981 at Sunset Sound in Hollywood, this offering marks the last appearance of Jaco Pastorius and Peter Erskine, who announced their intentions to leave Weather Report shortly after these recordings. Jaco would go on to form his Word of Mouth big band, of which Erskine played a significant part, before the onset of his manic-depressive condition would take him on an increasingly downward spiral toward doom. Jaco’s swan song with Weather Report is unique for his relatively scaled back input. Gone was Jaco's coproduction credit and, more tellingly, he contributed not a single composition to the proceedings, though he plays his ass off on Joe's opening burner ‘Volcano For Hire' and throughout Zawinul's three-part 'N.Y.C.' suite while also demonstrating his hauntingly beautiful, ‘singing’ fretless approach on two affecting Zawinul ballads, 'Current Affairs' and the evocative 'Speechless'.
In Performance at the Playboy Jazz Festival
(Columbia) rel. 1982
In the beginning of their summer tour, Weather Report had a stop at the Hollywood Bowl on 19 June as part of the Playboy Jazz Festival. Their performance with a new lineup included 'Volcano For Hire', a medley of '8:30/Black Market/Elegant People/Badia/A Remark You Made’ and 'Fast City'. For an encore of 'Birdland’ they were joined, unannounced, by the Manhattan Transfer, who had recorded a vocalese version of the song a few years earlier.
(Columbia) rel. February 1983
By June 1982, Zawinul and Shorter had revamped the band, recruiting drummer Omar Hakim, percussionist Jose Rossy and 22-year-old Philly bassist Victor Bailey for a brief Stateside tour. In July and August 1982, the new edition of Weather Report went into the Power Station in New York to record material for Procession. Additional recording took place at The Music Room in Pasadena, Fantasy Studios in Berkleley, Sound Castle in Los Feliz and Lion Share Studios in Los Angeles. What they inevitably came up with was a formula that dealt with the bass in a bottom-heavy, groove-oriented role rather than Jaco's soloistic approach and allowed for less of the interactive group dynamic that the band had been founded on. This more tightly orchestrated concept can readily be heard on Zawinul's title track and his big production number 'Where The Moon Goes’, which utilises the heavily effected voices of the Manhattan Transfer and features some explosive give-and-take between Hakim's drums and Zawinul's synths. Shorter stretches out a bit on Joe's 'Two Lines' and also on his own poignant 'Plaza Real’, named for a memorable spot in Barcelona, Spain.
(Columbia) rel. February 1984
Retaining the same lineup from their previous album, Weather Report went into the studio in July of 1983 to record Shorter’s 'Predator' and 'Swamp Cabbage’ along with Zawinul's ‘Domino Theory' and the sentimental ballad ‘Can It Be Done’, composed by New Orleans pianist Willie Tee and featuring vocalist Carl Anderson. The real show-stopper here is a live performance of Zawinul's surging ‘D-Flat Waltz’, which features some intense drumming from Omar Hakim.
(Columbia) rel. Aprii 1985
A groove-oriented affair that also featured a wealth of world beat influences, Sportin' Life was recorded in August and September of 1984 at The Music Room in Pasadena and also at the Crystal Room in Hollywood. Weather Report's 14th album is distinguished by the vocal daring of special guest Bobby McFerrin on a few tracks as well as some healthy stretching by Wayne Shorter. Zawinul’s surging drum machine-fueled closer 'Ice-Pick Willy' is a portend of things to come from Joe. Subsequent to its release, there was no follow-up tour as Zawinul and Shorter declared that Weather Report was 'on hiatus’. A month later, Zawinul and Shorter each went back into The Music Room to begin work on their respective solo projects. Meanwhile, drummer Omar Hakim signed on for a tour with rock star Sting while bassist Victor Bailey joined Mike Mainieri’s band Steps Ahead.
This is This
(Columbia) rel. 1986
Contractual obligations forced this 15th and final Weather Report album, which was recorded during Christmas tour breaks at the end of 1985. Predictably, it sounds largely like an afterthought, despite the presence of Carlos Santana laying out blistering, toe-curling blues-rock licks on Zawinul's title track and his funky ‘Man With The Copper Fingers.' The album includes a quirky bit of world beat funk in 'Face The Fire' and Mino Cinelu’s 'Jungle Stuff, Part I.' Bassist Victor Bailey contributes the lovely ballad 'Consequently' which features his expressive bass soloing. Joe delivers a melodramatic ballad in 'I'll Never Forget You’, dedicated to the memory of his parents, while his ferociously swinging 'Update' has all the forward momentum of a runaway freight train. The album is distinguished by the return to the lineup of drummer Peter Erskine, who receives a co-producer credit and swings his ass off on Zawinul's 'Update' (that title being a portend of things to come). It is further distinguished by the glaring lack of any Wayne Shorter composition and his decided non-participation in a couple of the synth-dominated Zawinul productions like the meandering bolero 'China Blues’. Indeed, Wayne really was Mr. Gone on this one.
Live & Unreleased
(Columbia/Legacy) rel. September 2002
All the power and mystique that surrounded Weather Report concerts through the 70s and 80s is captured on this exhilarating two CD set. Produced for release by Zawinul, his son Ivan and longtime Columbia archivist and reissue producer Bob Belden, Live & Unreleased spans Weather Report's glory years from 1975 to 1983 and includes previously unissued performances culled from concert halls around the world. Rather than proceeding in chronological order, Live & Unreleased plays like a two-hour Weather Report show, following the typical flow of tension and release that the band was noted for in concert. CD One opens with Shorter's ‘Freezing Fire’, a regular Weather Report concert-opener, circa 1975. Buoyed by Alphonso Johnson’s bubbling basslines underneath and propelled by Chester Thompson’s ferocious drumming, this surging number highlights some soaring, unbridled soprano sax work by Shorter. This tension sets up for the release of Shorter’s poignant ballad 'Plaza Real' with the rhythm tandem of Bailey on bass and Hakim on drums and featuring Jose Rossy on concertina. From the sublime to all-out burn, the 1980 band featuring Pastorius, Erskine and Thomas then kicks into high gear on Zawinul's boppish 'Fast City’, which features some heroic stretching from Wayne on tenor sax. Release next comes in the form of Pastorius’ stunningly beautiful unaccompanied showcase ‘Portrait of Tracy’, a landmark piece of bass virtuosity from his 1976 self-titled solo debut on Epic.
An intense reading of Shorter’s ‘Elegant People’ takes the excitement level up a couple of notches in a 1977 performance with Pastorius on bass, Acuna on drums and Badrena on percussion. Again, Shorter stretches liberally on this throbbing vehicle, which takes on an infectious rumba flavor in concert. The 1975 touring band hits a serious groove on 'Cucumber Slumber’, Alphonso Johnson's funky contribution to the band, while an explosive live version of Pastorius’ anthemic 'Teen Town’ is a mad, macho sprint to the finish line. And CD 1 closes in ebullient fashion with Zawinul’s 'Man in the Green Shirt'.
CD 2 opens with some dramatic stretching from Shorter on tenor in a spirited, calypso flavoured rendition of Zawinul's ‘Black Market’ featuring Pastorius on bass, Acuna on drums and Badrena on percussion. Next up is a scintillating version of Joe’s ‘Where The Moon Goes’ which features an explosive duel between Omar Hakim's drums and Zawinul’s synths. This track also marks Joe’s early use of vocoder, which he would explore in more depth on his 1986 solo outing, Dialects, and subsequently with his Zawinul Syndicate band. A swaggering rendition of Jaco's ‘River People’ highlights the pared down quartet of Shorter, Zawinul, Pastorius and Erskine in peak form in late 1978. Shorter showcases more Herculean tenor work on Zawinul’s ’Two Lines' while his mellow, never-before-heard composition 'Cigano' is the rarest addition to the collection.
The formidable quartet of Zawinul, Shorter, Pastorius and Erskine then reaches back to a jazz landmark for an evocative reading of Zawinul’s ‘In A Silent Way’, the title track of Miles Davis' 1969 album and a piece that Joe had previously recorded on his third solo outing, 1971's pivotal, pre-Weather Report album entitled simply Zawinul. Two blistering renditions of ‘Night Passage' and 'Port of Entry’ showcase the quintet of Zawinul, Shorter, Pastorius, Erskine and percussionist Robert Thomas while Alex Acuna and Manolo Badrena engage in an animated percussive conversation on 'Rumba Mama’, a regular concert attraction from the 77-78 tour. And the collection closes on a wistful note with the 1975 band featuring Johnson, Thompson and Acuna covering Zawinul's classic 'Directions.' Taken as a whole, this retrospective set shows precisely why Weather Report was regarded as the premier fusion band of the 70s and 80s.
And don't forget...
Weather Report: The Legendary Tapes – 1978-1981
(Colombia/Legacy) Rec. 1978-1981
On paper the titles here are very familiar, with numerous live releases covering the ‘Jaco Pastoius years’, and yet there’s never been anything quite like this. Covering the three-year period just after drummer Peter Erskine joined the band, and up to when Pastorius left, he, Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter set about a ferocious game of creative one-upmanship. Curated and produced by Erskine from his private soundboard tapes, recorded by Weather Report’s longtime mixing engineer Brian Risner that had only ever been heard by the band, they are of a consistently high quality throughout and run as selected highlights from the period, not as a single concert per disc.
One always suspected that there were nights when the adrenalin-soaked musical sparring between Zawinul and Pastorius would take on Raging Bull proportions, but rarely has it ever sounded as febrile as it does when Jaco drops an almighty double-time bassline bomb halfway through the 10-minute ‘Badia/Boogie Woogie Waltz’, tipping disc one into overdrive. This soon spirals into a twister of a Zawinul solo, the band dropping dramatically to a low simmer, before building to a distorted bumblebee bass onslaught with Erskine going positively death metal with a thunderous bass drum barrage. Is this the same band that was so sensitively swinging through ‘Three Views of a Secret’ just minutes earlier?
Further highlights include Jaco’s Osaka solo spot that, while containing his characteristic take on Hendrix’s ‘Third Stone from the Sun’ and The Beatles’ ‘Blackbird’, is suddenly joined by Zawinul’s synth in a beautiful, if brief, micro-symphony. There are vast chasms of space too on an extended yet consistently exciting version of ‘Madagascar’, Pastorius delivering a spicy solo out of the blue, Shorter wandering bluesily, Zawinul interjecting with some synth-fuzz while Erskine and Thomas percolate subtly in an enthralling ever-shifting on-the-fly arrangement. Every track is packed with unexpected twists and turns, and an impeccable sense of dynamics that range from the poetic to the profane. This is a magical motherlode of must-have music from one the great jazz-rock bands at the peak of their powers. Mike Flynn
Dazzling Cuban expat violinist Omar Puente will be performing as part of the Jazzwise 20th Anniversary Special Festival at Ronnie Scott's on 17 March. In a recent interview with Jazzwise, Puente spoke with Kevin Le Gendre about spanning the distance between populism and abstraction while maintaining his identity amid a collision of global cultures
In front of the billboards of branded images bursting into 3D life for the 5G generation in Piccadilly Circus, central London, two buskers, a double bassist and violinist mark out their pitch on a crowded pavement, immobile in the endless stream of smartphones. Omar Puente is momentarily distracted by the smaller of the two instruments as we log out of the hubbub in search of a chillout zone in this hyped and hyper part of town. In the relative sanctuary of nearby Golden Square the genial Cuban expat makes an interesting point about why he does not own an axe similar to the one he’s just hawk-eyed.
“To buy an acoustic violin may cost £20,000 to £50,000… to have a really good one,” he says. “With an electric one I can reduce the costs, I can afford one and I can also compete with the drums, with the trumpet, with the whole band, and it will cost me £2,000-3,000.
“It’s a very different experience playing and hearing the notes on an electric violin,” he continues. “On an acoustic there is the air between the instrument and the microphone. You are the one that creates the quality of the sound. On the electric it is really the soundman who creates the quality of the sound, so you have to know exactly what you want, to then create your own thing with the right engineer.”
Puente is very much true to his word on his new album Best Foot Forward, a thrilling work that is a significant step along the road of his creative development following his auspicious 2009 debut From There To Here. Although the common denominator between both albums is a robust eclecticism this new offering has, for the most part, a heavier, harder character in which a sharply-drilled rhythm section, topped by Al MacSween’s strident keyboards, provides a high energy backdrop to Puente’s violin, which has been so well mixed by Sam Hobbs that it sounds as if he is as close as the street players we just passed.
Although the leader makes liberal use of the kind of pedals, from the whammy to the crybaby, that one would expect to find in a guitarist’s arsenal the quality of his improvisations and the articulation of his phrases serve as a reminder of the enviably high-standard of training available to the vast majority of Cuban musicians. Born in Santiago in 1961 to a mother who was a nurse and a father who was both a doctor and violinist, Puente won a scholarship to study classical music at the renowned Escuela Nacional De Arte in Havana at the age of 12. He went on to join the prestigious National Symphony Orchestra Of Cuba, where he further consolidated his skills as a section player, and Puente eventually found himself drawn to jazz through Irakere, the revered Cuban band led by pianist Chucho Valdes that is defined by its patchwork of acoustic son, bebop, European classical music, electric funk and rock. Furthermore, Puente attended master classes in Havana conducted by trumpet legend Dizzy Gillespie, but it was his attendance at a concert by other innovators that proved a turning point in his life.
“In 1979 Weather Report came to Havana,” he tells me, a broad smile lighting up his face as he sips coffee outside the chic Nordic Bakery. “By that time they were touring the world, and this was really another level. Wow! That was something… it had a big effect on us.”
Without pausing for breath the 55-year-old adds that during his formative years the listening policy was access-all-areas, from Nat ‘King’ Cole, an icon in Cuba, to salsa to jazz to pop, but there was something special in the way the Zawinul-Shorter-Pastorius-Erskine vehicle managed to negotiate the highways and byways of numerous folk traditions, be they African, Latin or European, all the while allowing the strength of character of each bandmember to come to the fore.
The combination of populism and abstraction was inspired and inspiring for Puente first and foremost because it brought home to him the necessity of retaining one’s essential identity amid the embrace of music from any culture and era. Whether his own songs have echoes of Senegalese mbalaax, Detroit soul or London techno, the sounds to which he has been exposed throughout his life as a global citizen, Puente is still intent on being a violinist from Santiago De Cuba.
“I can’t pretend to be a Brazilian or African musician. I’m a Cuban musician who has had the opportunity to play, see and learn and experience many things and all kinds of music,” he states emphatically.
“I don’t have to play salsa or guanganco, but there has to be something there that is me as a Cuban. It doesn’t have to be the sound of the clavé [percussion] because that is already inside the music in the overall rhythm. I just try to be as true to myself as I can in my playing and writing, to be honest to my roots. Every time you write you have the influence of other things, different instruments, bands, styles. But there’s still you, if you’re being honest.
“I think there are always elements of religion and belief in the music, not only through instruments like bata drums. One way or another, we as Cubans, well, everybody knows who is Eleggua, Shango and Yemenja… these orishas [deities]. Doesn’t matter if you’re white or black, it’s universally in the culture, you don’t have to be really religious, it’s your culture. The Afro-Cuban religion has made the most impact, everybody knows something about Santeria; they might not know all the details, but they know the basics. It is handed down from generation to generation, like the oral tradition. Unfortunately, our indigenous population was wiped out by the Spanish, so maybe we have just a few instruments or dances from them. But what the Africans brought to Cuba – culture, religion and instruments… that’s one of our foundations. Whether I’m doing Motown or funk or reggae I still have an element of Cuban music because it’s really strong. My first album From There To Here was the journey to Britain. Now it’s 20 years of being in the UK, with the modern sounds you get on the street.”
That move happened in 1995 after Puente had been living the nomadic life of an international touring musician. He had worked with the likes of Orqesta Enrique Jorrin and Jose Maria Vitier and ended up playing an extended residency in Singapore. It was there that he met and fell in love with the woman with whom he returned to England and eventually married, the late journalist Debbie Purdy. They settled in Bradford, Yorkshire but Puente soon came to the attention of saxophonist Courtney Pine in London who asked him to join his regular working group, and then the Jazz Warriors Afropeans big band. Through his association with Pine and other black British musicians he learned more about the folk and popular music of the West Indies. But he also notes that it was an unfortunate incident of racial stereotyping in the Far East that initially brought him into contact with Jamaican music.
“There I am in Singapore doing this residency, and the owner of the venue says to me ‘all the latin music and latin jazz is very nice but I need you to change’,” Puente explains. “What do you want me to play?’ He says, ‘I want you to play reggae.’ I say, ‘But I’m Cuban not Jamaican.’ “Yes, but you’re black, so you play reggae, right?” Puente says with a wry smile on his face. “I rang Debbie and I said to her if I don’t play reggae they’re not gonna pay me, and she sent me Legend, the Bob Marley compilation. So I was introduced to Bob Marley, me a black Cuban guy, by a white British woman… in Singapore!”
A sufferer of multiple sclerosis, Purdy would go on to be a valiant champion of the right for assisted suicide, and a high-profile campaign saw her take her case to the High Court. She challenged existing legislation to ensure that Puente would not be prosecuted if he travelled abroad with her should she chose to end her own life.
“This album is a new chapter in my life. I dedicated it to Debbie, she really named the album, ‘best foot forward’, meaning you have to keep going, no matter what happens. She was like my right hand. I am who I am because of Debbie Purdy. I can play the violin but the person who believed in me and pushed me was Debbie, so it’s really about her.”
Unsurprisingly, her passing in December 2014 had a devastating effect on Puente, who had very little appetite for playing music. “I went through a period where I didn’t wanna talk to anybody,” he recalls. “People wanted to help but I was just on my own, I didn’t practice, I didn’t play. But after a year I came back. Thank god I had the violin, thank god I had the music, thank god for that. Without that I really don’t know. She was a strong woman to have to go through pain all the time… it was tough. She was a young woman, but I’ve been using her spirit, and every single note I play is for Debbie.”
Soweto Kinch interview: "I see this real disconnect between the establishment bubble and what’s happening in society"
Saxophonist Soweto Kinch will appear as part of the Jazzwise 20th Anniversary Special Fesitval at Ronnie Scott's on 15 March. In a recent Jazzwise interview, Kevin Le Gendre got to the root of Kinch’s progress since the release of his critically-acclaimed 2003 debut Conversations With The Unseen...
Leon, the cafe franchise whose red-and-gold lettering appears aggressively bright in London’s sharply competitive fast food market, is a recent addition to the new mezzanine area at Euston train station. Yet it already boasts a roaring trade. The small shop unit and terrace are full of laptopped passengers, their computer screens flipped up like digital shields against any careless stares from fellow pilgrims about to exit the capital. Perhaps they need a moment of privacy to hide the shock at what they have actually paid for – the right to sit, eat and email.
Sporting a beige woollen cap and flame-red jumper bearing the logo ‘Smooth Jazz Sucks’, Soweto Kinch is not about to mince his words when asked to chew on his consumer experience. “It’s £1.61,” he says holding a small drink in front of me. “For a bottle of pop! I noticed on the menu that they had a ‘fish-finger wrap’ for… a fiver!!! I mean what are the profit margins there? Huge, presumably. But I think it speaks to a wider thing about a corporate elite, or people ‘gaming’ the consumer, and seeing how far they can push before these people realise they are being ripped off. That’s all over the place; it’s in our politics, our high streets… what’s the line? It’s ‘let me just push slightly beyond that.’”
The British saxophonist and MC, some 16 years into a career that is impressive in its negotiation of a range of artforms, from music to theatre and media (as presenter of Radio 3’s Jazz Now), is customarily outspoken, and the point about turnover by means fair and not so fair, is well made. One could say that it was ever thus. But in an age of social status granted to the ascending figures of a smart phone – does anybody want 5G or even 6G since the advent of 7G? – and property prices rising like the ratings of a hit TV show, Kinch is consciously engaging head and heart with all the digits that dot our daily lives.
“This has emotional resonance with us,” says the 38-year-old as we settle at a table, his schedule taken with meetings before he boards the train to return to his hometown of Birmingham later in the day. “A fiver! That triggers a memory of what you could get with a fiver when you were 12 versus what you can get now… so yeah, numbers definitely have an emotional and creative quality that isn’t often publicised in our education system and in society more widely.”
Nonagram, Kinch’s new album, focuses explicitly on the application of numerical systems to the world of sound, from the use of uncommon metres to frequencies and pitches that are based on equations inspired by geometric shapes. Featuring a transatlantic band – stellar American drummer Gregory Hutchinson, a key sideman for Joshua Redman among others, and two young Brits, pianist Ruben James and bassist Nick Jurd – the album is Kinch’s fifth to date, and marks an interesting progression since his 2003 debut Conversations With The Unseen. While that CD was the opening salvo of the saxophonist who could rap, or the rapper who could play saxophone, depending on the listener’s tribal allegiance, it also signalled the arrival of a strong personality. Like several of his British peers, London-born and Birmingham-based Kinch benefitted from the springboard of Tomorrow’s Warriors educational programmes, and went on to establish himself as a recording artist who was as interested in concepts as compositions, as one might expect from an Oxford graduate and largely self-taught player.
The life-in-a-day oratorio of 2006’s B:19 Tales From The Tower Block was noteworthy in this respect, and Kinch, who would make the tenor rather than alto his instrument of choice by the time he cut 2011’s The New Emancipation, has always been vocal on socio-political and personal issues. Nonagram also has rhymes, but the specific numerical basis of the work is prominent, the research for which drew Kinch deep into the music of some of the key pathfinders of the 1980s – Steve Coleman and Greg Osby – and also that of the former’s erstwhile sidemen, Andy Milne and Robert Mitchell. Kinch took an interest in the creative possibilities of music that was not based on 4/4, asking questions on ‘how?’ as well as ‘why?’ musicians count time as they do.
“You find things sometimes in completely disconnected cultures,” says Kinch scratching his beard. “For example 6/8 is tremendously important to African culture, Indian culture, West Indian culture, but yeah, you hear 6/8 all over the place. So there are some metres, like 4/4, that do appear regularly. Less common are nine and five, but they are still there. You’ll find them in Armenia, and there aren’t any watertight answers as to why that is. I just find it very interesting they exist.”
As Kinch started to investigate time signatures, from five to seven to nine, that gave his compositions what he felt was a new sensory stimulus, he got to grips with several puzzles on the relationship between a given shape and corresponding sounds. In real terms that meant composing according to strict maths, such as on ‘Triangle’, where the entire harmony of the piece is based on two pitches that match calculations on the internal and external angles of a pyramid. “Playing those notes together you get what the shape sounds like,” says Kinch breezily.
Translating the pictorial into the aural is no new undertaking in jazz, and the use of length, height and breadth in the visual arts and the addition and subtraction of elements in a tableau is a key part of the praxis of the painters and sculptors who have inspired many musicians. While Kinch feels part of that tradition, he also sees Nonagram in the wider context of the scriptures that underpinned his 2013 release The Legend Of Mike Smith, which referenced one of the Bible’s eventful cautionary tales. That story was also framed by a specific number.
“Yeah, the seven deadly sins are maybe now balanced by the nine fruits of the spirit (the nine in a nonagram),” says Kinch, leaning forward and pausing for thought only briefly. He picks up his flow soon enough.
“The number nine is sacred in all sorts of cultures. There’s all the idiograms that the ancient Egyptians produced, their harmony of the spheres, their hierarchies that often involve nine, and there is something about whether nine was discovered or invented, you know like the Alpha Numeric system; are we just discovering principles that are there in the first place? Nine is a fascinating number, really, I mean it’s based largely on the digital root system, with nine being the apex of that.
“Nine as a number itself is both invisible and ubiquitous, which is a powerful property. You can add anything to the number nine using the digital root system… you always get the number that you started with. So add six to nine you get 15 – one and five makes six, so it’s almost this number that’s in everything, and yet simultaneously invisible.
“I also wondered if there was any empirical connection between the way that savants associate the number seven with the colour yellow, or being in a bad mood. Nine is an edgy character, some see it like that, but…. numbers generally, it’s so individual, so personal, not everyone sees and hears a four the same way. That tells a story.
“I think that we all have our own ideas about odd and even, strange and normal, or the deep and the banal. The way I wanted that to happen on this album was an open door policy. You don’t have to know, you just feel moved and be, ‘oh… that feels ‘off’ slightly?’ Why is that off? Or why is that [seemingly] on? Does that feel balanced?”
Identifying the existence of bars of five, seven or nine beats on Nonagram may not be an entirely fruitless exercise, especially for those interested in jazz history where the use of 3/4 and 5/4 by artists such as Max Roach and Dave Brubeck, respectively, was deemed worthy of part of the marketing of their music back in the 1950s. But these metres are no longer talking points of any great import in a post-M-Base world.
For Kinch varied takes on time and tempo should affect, not distract.
Classical music uses terms such as adagio, moderato and presto, and pop music slow, medium and fast, but the common language between the two is numerical, something that can bind Italian and non-Italian speakers alike. Most understand 66, 108 or 168 beats per minute.
Perhaps it is so obvious that we rarely articulate it, but numbers are all over and within the human body, from limbs, to teeth to digits, to the rates at which substances circulate. Blood pressure and heart rate are measured in figures. We have a pulse. So does musical composition.
Exactly how the human mind and body processes a series of numbers, whether the patterns are considered inside or outside of convention, is a debate that has exercised able thinkers and doers for many years. If the conception and execution of odd time signatures is interesting then so is our spontaneous perception of and essential reaction to them. To tell people that they can dance in 11/4 might arouse a certain incredulity, but that won’t stop them doing so if moved by the music. As Dhaffer Youssef pointed out in Jazzwise earlier this year, the Viennese waltz might have actually been better in that metre.
As is the case with many in the world of jazz, Kinch reads as well as listens a great deal. There was a substantial amount of historical research that prefigured the composing process of Nonagram, and while the saxophonist is happy to broach the subject of music and mathematics he is keen to point out that the inquiry is part of the much bigger question of how an individual experiences sound both consciously and subconsciously. Of considerable help to Kinch in this regard was This Is Your Brain On Music, a critically acclaimed tome by Dr. Daniel J. Levitin, a fairly rare beast insofar as he is a successful rock musician and producer turned advanced neuroscientist and researcher.
“One of the big things that I got from that book is that music isn’t just processed in the outer cortex where language is,” says Kinch, his face brightening with a new flash of intensity. “In the primitive brain there is an area that processes sound, so syncopation is perhaps entertaining to us as human beings in the same way that a snake has to negotiate different terrain, well, we negotiate a sonic terrain, we’re imagining, ‘oh, there’s a rock that’s just thrown off this regular 4/4 beat that we were walking in up to that point’. There are things that transcend culture and the things that we’re told make our society what it is, like laughter, it’s understood all around the world, irrespective of any language.”
Universal as the debate on the use of time and numbers in music is, Kinch nonetheless points out that there is a political ramification in Nonagram that may not be entirely obvious to the listener. At a time when the question of immigration is high on the electoral agenda, to the extent that it was paramount in the EU referendum, there is much to be said not just about the numbers that designate a wage, but also the more existential question of the top 10 of social legitimacy.
“I can’t help drawing analogies with numbers and the way our society is set up,” says Kinch, his voice rising slowly, but markedly. He edges closer without so much as missing a beat. “I think about the number nine and what that metaphor of it being ubiquitous and invisible says about the history of poor people, the history of Africans all around the world. We’ve often been the engine drivers of economies, but very seldom credited as such. We’re ubiquitous; we’re in everything, moving economies and culture, so what does it mean to be British or French [and black], so where’s the power, where’s the visibility?
“It’s such a wide-ranging subject, but I think it’s not just that nines and sevens sound normal, that actually it does get people thinking with a wider consciousness. I’m pretty sure that was Steve Coleman’s intention and when you look at the very design of a pyramid it’s about connecting the microcosm and the macrocosm. What is the thing that gets our consciousness so we see the world for what it really is? Sound can do that without having to engage the cerebral part of us.”
Words still count though. If Kinch can compose a saxophone-led piece in 5/4 as a reference to the fish-finger wrap being sold just a few feet from where we are sitting then he might also write a lyric on the same subject. Even though Nonagram is largely instrumental it has vocals, as befits Kinch’s dual identity as a MC and horn player. The Legend Of Mike Smith might have had a lot more rapped verses than this latest recording, but the link between the two is contemporary politics.
“It’s a lot less lyrical,” says Kinch. “But I don’t think I can be less political, especially this year. Most of the pieces had their genesis from April to June; Game Of Thrones finished and the new Game Of Thrones became… Brexit, the real world, the future… the lack of future!
“I’m inspired, moved and incensed by how much nonsense, how much misinformation there is still. I’m reading a great book called Parliament Limited, which basically explains why there is this consensus on both sides of the house that Jeremy Corbyn is evil somehow, and the system is fine. Increasingly I see this real disconnect between the establishment bubble and what’s happening in society. They keep saying somebody’s unelectable, or we’ll never leave Europe, or Donald Trump is just a TV celebrity, and actually there’s this whole other planet that is disaffected with the solutions that are given to us.”
This interview originally appeared in the December 2017 / January 2017 issue of Jazzwise. To find out more about subscribing to Jazzwise, visit: www.jazzwisemagazine.com/subscribe
On 14 and 15 March, John McLaughlin and 4th Dimension will be playing at Ronnie Scott's as part of the Jazzwise 20th Anniversary Special Festival. In this recent interview with Jazzwise, McLaughlin speaks to Stuart Nicholson about the origins of the band, his music and how Miles Davis taught him the greatest lesson of all is to be yourself
The one eternal truth about jazz is that its most vivid life studies are realised in the act of live performance since they provide audiences with their most profound memories of the music. In the early 1970s, the one band in jazz that was giving audiences something to think about was John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra. For two years they lit up the night sky. With the volume at 11 and everything played at 500mph their concerts became the stuff of legend. Then suddenly, after just three albums, they were gone. Though there was another Mahavishnu Orchestra in the 1970s, and another in the 1980s, you can only make a first impression once. Or so we’re told. Over the last couple of years, fans of electric jazz have been keeping a close eye on McLaughlin’s current band, the 4th Dimension with good reason. Since the band’s debut with Industrial Zen in 2006, McLaughlin has been weighing-in with some of his fiercest playing in years and, equally, the band itself has been getting better and better with each succeeding record. Now, with their latest release Black Light, the word is out. Fans and critics alike have been openly hailing 4th Dimension as the “Mahavishnu Orchestra of the 21st century”.
It’s a big call. Even pianist Chick Corea said the Mahavishnu Orchestra changed the direction of his band, Return to Forever, while Joe Zawinul of Weather Report said: “It was a helluva band, in John McLaughlin you had a master guitarist, no-one had ever played like that, you were into another music”. So how does McLaughlin himself feel about 4th Dimension being compared to his earlier, groundbreaking band? He smiles, “Well, I don’t know who said that, but if that’s what they’re saying, well, they’re part of my roots, aren’t they? In my experience, as I grow older, sometimes there’s two steps backwards for one step forward, I also think the musicians have a role in this, the way they play. With 4th Dimension now it’s wonderful really, they’ve got this marvellous passion which translates into energy – I see how deep they’re into what they’re doing and it’s very inspiring to me, because it’s right up my street. I know Mahavishnu was known as the loudest, fastest band in the world – not really what you might call a compliment! – but nevertheless it’s very much part of my history and as far as this particular band is concerned I would definitely see relations and analogies between the two bands, certainly.”
Those connections were not being made when Industrial Zen was first released nine years ago, but the evolution of the band into what it is today has been as steady as it has been inexorable, guided and inspired by McLaughlin’s creative energy. He may be 73, but his passion for playing seems to have grown over the years rather than receded. “Well, that may be true,” he laughs, “I know I get so much out of playing, from composing to performing. And the way the band has grown, that’s inspiring. I hear how the musicians are becoming themselves and how we relate to each other, because in the end we’re playing arrangements, we’re playing songs and whether it’s solo or as a collective what we’re really doing is relating to each other, and relating to the music and relating to ourselves, and, in a global sense – I know it sounds a bit hippie – relating to the universe itself. The fact that they feel so deeply about what they do is really wonderful – I want them to be able to say who they are and what they feel and how strongly they feel about it, and so in every record with a groove there evolves a certain complicity, or at least we should develop a complicity, and the relationship becomes unspoken because over time you get to know each other very well, and you get to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. But nevertheless the whole point about music, as in life, for me, and I feel they agree with me, is we want to try and get to the unknown place rather than play what we know. Of course, the road to the unknown is through the known, so it’s already a contradiction in terms, but nevertheless, we try and get to that place.”
Black Light comprises eight tracks that are full of musical surprises, reflecting the sheer diversity of musical genres and influences McLaughlin has explored; from blues with Graham Bond in the 1960s to rock with Santana and Jeff Beck in the 1970s, jazz with Lifetime and Miles Davis, Indian music with Shakti, and Spanish music with Paco de Lucia. It has, as McLaughlin says, produced an album that is, “neither jazz nor rock, nor Indian nor blues, and yet all of these”. Opening with an attention getting ‘The Jiis’, part statement of intent and part prelude to what is about to come, it is clear the band have now developed a sharply defined musical personality. “‘The Jiis’ refers to the mandolin player in Shakti who we lost last year, U. Shrinivas, at the age of 45, of liver failure, devastating after 14 years of working together, and the other Jii – just to clear that up, in Shakti we basically refer to one another as Jiis. So U. Shrinivas and V. Selvaganesh are the Jiis, but when I think about it, this track is really about Shrinivas, who died, but I didn’t want to eliminate Selvaganesh. Even though this is a personal homage, at the same time I don’t want to be sad about it because he was such a joyful soul.”
The penultimate track on the album, ‘Gaza City’, is revealing of the charitable and educational work McLaughlin undertakes in the Middle East and in the continent of India, which he somehow manages to fit into a relentless touring and composing schedule – for example, in October/November he embarks on an exhausting Asian tour. “My wife and I, we’ve been actively involved with a particular NGO in Ramallah in Palestine for the last few years and I’ve done a couple of concerts there. You can’t do any benefit concerts, or whatever, because nobody has any money, so basically the most expensive seat is $5. So, ‘Gaza City’ – I had been invited to go there after the Ramallah concert last year, it was before the war, but it was so complicated for us to go from Ramallah to Gaza, and do the concert and get out, they gave us a rough estimate of about a week, which was physically impossible for us. The other thing is, of course, we don’t see through the media what really happens in Palestine. But the bombing of Gaza City was really behind this piece, it so upsets me to this day, it was just terrible. So I have a very direct relationship with that country and the people of that country, and to see that happening… OK, I can’t do anything, I can’t change the world, but I can just write music and try and express what I feel.”
McLaughlin fans will be particularly interested in ‘El Hombre que Sabiac’, since it is the first time in a long while he performs on acoustic guitar in what is a perfect marriage of electric and acoustic sounds which for many will be the album’s highlight. “The acoustic [guitar] piece is called ‘El Hombre que Sabiac’ which means ‘The man who knew’, which was for Paco [de Lucia], of course, [who died in February 2014]. This tune was one of a series of tunes that Paco and I planned to record last year, just two guitars, and he was particularly attached to this piece, so I really wanted to do it. I think the band did a fantastic job on it. Of course, I had to play acoustic guitar, there was no way I could play it on electric this particular tune. On another note, you’ll see there’s a tune ‘Panditji’, which is also a thank you to my old guru Ravi Shankar, with whom I studied in the mid-1970s. It was marvellous just to know him, and be with him, and he was extremely helpful to me in terms of Indian musical theory, just marvellous. So this album is full of personal affections!” This could well explain why McLaughlin’s playing on the album is so heartfelt and intense, which is the source of the album’s authenticity.
With 4th Dimension now established on the world’s touring circuits, with sell-out concerts wherever they play, it’s often overlooked that the band’s beginnings owed much to a bit of serendipity and the right people being in the right place at the right time. “Well, the story begins with Gary Husband, who plays keyboards, drums and percussion in my band, we go back many years,” reflects McLaughlin. “I would say I met him in the 1990s and we became friends at that point, and I made a point of following his career. He was playing drums with [guitarist] Allan Holdsworth at that point, I only knew him as a drummer, and I was touring with the Free Spirits in 1995-6 [a power trio McLaughlin led with Joey DeFrancesco on Hammond B-3 organ and Dennis Chambers on drums] when Dennis Chambers, the drummer who was with us at the time, who knew Gary – they had been in touch for a while – and Gary came down to the soundcheck, and Dennis said why don’t you jam with Gary? And it was wonderful, what a great drummer. I have known Allan, Allan Holdsworth, since 1971, something like that, and so whenever I had the opportunity I’d go and see him, so I already knew what a great drummer Gary was, but playing with him was great.
“Then, out of the blue, I get a CD of my music with Gary playing piano! I mean, what a dark horse! He was playing my music and he did Allan’s music too. And this really piqued my interest, very much so, which leads to the beginning of 4th Dimension, which must have been at least 10 or 11 years ago. Anyway, I got an invitation from La Réunion, a French island near Madagascar, to come over and do several concerts of anything that I wanted. And I thought what a great opportunity and, at the time, Gary had formed a little trio with Mark and Michael Mondesir. Mark was the first drummer in 4th Dimension and Michael the first bass player, but he was very busy, in any event I saw Gary and his little trio and I thought I’ll just take the whole lot! Take the package! I said ‘Are you interested in coming over to La Réunion to do some concerts together?’ And they said yes, and that really was the start of 4th Dimension, and Gary was there from the very beginning.
“Gary is one of the most modest people I have ever met, and with the most talent too. He is the most unassuming, self-effacing musician I’ve ever met – without doubt. He so impresses me with his musicality, his imagination, he’s wild, but this is what I want to hear, he just lets go, he doesn’t want to stay conventional, he just wants to be himself. That’s all I ever wanted, this is a great lesson I learned from Miles Davis. Miles, he didn’t want us to play what we thought he’d like to hear, he wanted us to be who we really are, and express that musically, and I got that great lesson from Miles and I just continue it to this day. I wanted the group to continue but Michael came out of it, and that was the point where shortly after I did the album Industrial Zen. You’ll hear Gary and Mark on several of those pieces, and Gary playing drums and keyboards, because that’s how much I dig his playing. Anyway, over the years we had Hadrien Feraud, the young French bass player, who is phenomenal, I think he moved to LA many years ago, and then Étienne [M’Bappé] came into the band. I had known Étienne from Zawinul’s days, about 11, 12 years ago, and it must be seven or eight years now he’s been with me, and Ranjit [Barot] on drums, who I knew because of my Indian adventures, playing at the festivals in Mumbai, and we got to play 10 years ago. Then, when I was over there again about eight or nine years ago, I wanted to make this record Floating Point, and since I’d played with Ranjit a couple of times I got him on the recording, and that was it. If you listen to that recording, how amazing he plays and then Mark left, so Ranjit came in. But Gary, he’s been there from the beginning and I’m his biggest fan, what more can I say? I think the whole point of making a record is that they all – the whole band – get integrated into the music and this has always been my goal and I think it was really important for me to let them shine on Black Light.”