Miles Davis’ first electric albums, ‘Bitches Brew’ and ‘In A Silent Way’, unleashed an explosion. And not just in the minds of the listeners. In the seventies, great fusion pioneers such as Weather Report, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Herbie’s Headhunters and Return To Forever all had former mercenaries of Miles on board. But just as happened in the universe, the initial big bang set things in motion, which can still be heard today.
A prime example of this is the new album by TaxiWars drummer Antoine Pierre and his nonet Urbex Electric, ‘Suspended’.
The album may be inspired by the atmosphere of ‘Bitches Brew’ (spot the similarities in the artwork of ‘Suspended’), Miles’ iconic double from 1970, but you can’t confuse the two.
You’ll recognize the sonic palette —the electric piano, the stabs of trumpet and saxophone, the subtly funky rhythms— but Antoine Pierre recycles them as building blocks for an unknown, deserted urban landscape. A landscape that changes its views and moods faster than Miles’ albums did. At the time, Miles preferred to stretch his aural paintings to the length of a full side.
Another thing Urbex has in common with Miles’ electric bands is that the proverbial glue between the musicians is really powerful. Whether played in unison or with loads of tension, you can feel everyone is facing in the same direction. As a bandleader and composer, Pierre never demands all the attention. His drumming is all subtlety. Clear, fizzy and refreshing like sparkling water.
Yes, Drums Take Over is – you’ll never guess – a drum solo. And a very good one at that. It is a cleverly constructed piece of craftsmanship, laid down over an invisible beat. Just three minutes in, Bert Cools and Bram De Looze provide increasingly strong accents on guitar and piano. Which goes to show that Pierre’s drumkit is only part of the puzzle.
It is therefore not entirely fair to single out Drums Take Over. Because everything on ‘Suspended’ is connected. It’s a story with a beginning (the controlled funk of Steam) and an end (the tumultuous exercise in difficult time signatures and loud-silent dynamics of Sound Barrier).
Expect the unexpected
The transition from Abstract: Piece to What U Expect! is particularly stunning. The first song seems to be a negative of the atmosphere of Miles’ In A Silent Way. Ten out of ten for sound design, thanks to Pierre’s skill with soft mallets and Jean-Paul Estiévenart’s desolate trumpet. Piece merges imperceptibly into What U Expect!, which unfolds a fixed rhythm (in 9/8, if my inner metronome is right) and which, above all, expects us to expect the unexpected.
Also, hats off to the musicians who complete this nine-member ensemble. Frédéric Malempré (percussion) is the Airto Moreira of the company and the man of the finishing touch. Félix Zurstrassen (bass) lays down the foundations for the grooves – Pierre himself mainly does so in the somewhat heavier You Nod But You Ain’t. Jozef Dumoulin (Fender Rhodes and electronics) and Bram De Looze (piano) fill in the gaps. And Ben Van Gelder (alto sax) and Reinier Baas (guitar) both excel upfront.
The buzz of live jazz
Suspended’ was recorded live at Flagey Studio 4 in Brussels, January 2020. At that time corona was still just a funny-tasting brand of beer and we didn’t know that live jazz would be hanging in the ropes for months. This record, which by the way was recorded crystal clear, confronts us with what we missed. In the best possible way.
A conversation with Greg Chambers, AKA Superfluous Motor
Since Greg Chambers put ‘Trifecta’ online for free, only a small portion of the prog/fusion populace has picked up on it. Quite perplexing.
‘Trifecta’ is a mammoth, immersive three-piece album–one part Fusion, one part Funk, one part Prog–propelled by challenging rhythms, playful twists and turns, and ever-changing moods that wrap themselves around you like a blanket. One moment, the music hangs in the background, quietly and innocently, the next its melodies grab you and don’t let go.
During the recent lockdown, I’ve come to appreciate both qualities of the music; the reason I got in touch with Greg in the first place. As a bonus, Superfluous Motor was a well-kept secret only a few hundred people knew about.
That’s no surprise. Superfluous Motor is a one-man-band that operates entirely outside of the music business. You won’t find ‘Trifecta’ on CD or vinyl. You can’t catch Superfluous Motor on tour.
“I’m terrible at self-promotion”, Greg told me. But judging from the reactions on his Bandcamp and YouTube channels, Superfluous Motor has the power to affect listeners deeply.
I sat down with Greg–virtually, with a very safe social distance of 6000 km–and asked him about his life as an artist outside of the mainstream.
Let me start by quoting some of the comments listeners left below your YouTube videos: “Soundtrack to my life.” “Perfect music for writing.” “Listening to it while hiking in British Columbia.” It seems like your music takes people places. How would explain that specific ‘transporting’ quality?
Greg Chambers (Superfluous Motor): “First off, it honours me deeply to see comments like that. Knowing that my music has had that effect on even one person, let alone several people, is encouraging and meaningful to me.”
On his approach to albums: “Who in their right mind would release a concept album in 2020?”
“I think the ‘secret sauce’ that might make my music immersive–for lack of a better word–stems from my progressive rock influences. All my favourite 70s era prog rock albums have the same sort of immersive vibe. There’s a lot of layers in the music and you can grab on to different aspects on each listen. I also usually end up releasing full-length concept albums instead of a bunch of singles compiled together.”
Why do concepts fit you better than regular albums?
“I always gravitated to the idea of songs in an album having a flow and all being part of a bigger picture or complimenting each other, especially when the transitions between tracks are seamless. There’s nothing wrong with either approach, but the singles approach is much more common these days. Who in their right mind would release a concept album in 2020?”
‘Trifecta: Fusion’ was inspired by space travel and exploration of the unknown. ‘Idiosyncrasies’ deals with the “quirks, mental illnesses and characteristics that make us who we are”. How do these concepts take shape?
“The concepts usually help as a creative prompt for me. The three genres in ‘Trifecta’ allowed me to focus my efforts and make things a little less ‘all over the place’ than my usual content. Although I didn’t fully succeed as the last two songs on the Fusion section were basically mild Vaporwave tracks. But it did help me maintain focus and finish the stupidly ambitious three albums on one album. I also might have overexerted myself because other than the ‘Double Vision’ album with Caius Hubris, I didn’t release a Superfluous Motor album last year, breaking the “minimum: one album a year” streak I was on.
Tell me about your writing process. How do you start and elaborate your ideas?
“It varies. Sometimes it’s an idea I’ve had in my head for a while. ‘Kaleidoscope’ was a bucket list concept album I’ve always wanted to do. Inspired by Jethro Tull’s ‘Thick as a Brick’, I wanted to write an hour of continuous unbroken music with no or minimal repeating parts. The idea for that was to use music to replicate the effect of looking through a kaleidoscope. Whether I successfully accomplished that is up for debate.”
“Some songs come from trial and error. From beating my head against it until the song finally has a structure and flow. I usually write the drum and bass parts first and add the keys, melody and harmony elements on top. Other songs are smaller parts that I write individually and find creative and interesting ways to get them all to fit together. Some songs are piano pieces adapted for a full band arrangement. And if all else fails, I’ll mimic an existing idea or concept and put my own spin on it. I’m sure my ADHD also has a bit of an effect of the twists and turns some of my songs take too.”
The question that must arise with everyone who hears your music: composing, producting, playing and programming … how do you pull it off all on your own?
“I don’t want to ruin the magic for anyone but most of it is me noodling around with a midi keyboard and a bunch of instrument plugins in FL Studio [a Digital Audio Workstation – UM]. Then I take the songs and mix and master them. I stick to plugins with high-quality samples for drums and bass and the keyboards.”
About artistic freedom: “I don’t have a fanbase large enough to anger a giant mob of fans if I make any drastic changes to my sound”
“The drums are all hand programmed by me, but I also have a very good drummer friend who studied music. He taught me a lot of the theory and drum techniques to replicate and kind of pulled me into the jazz, funk and fusion stuff in general. On occasion, I’ve invited musical friends to meander around with me and often take their suggestions or knowledge of instrument into consideration during the process.”
You’ve called yourself ‘not a people person’. Is working alone a direct consequence of your personality?
“Partly, maybe. Referring to myself as “not a people person” is more of a tongue in cheek approach to my mildly introverted nature. I have a great circle of friends and have played countless gigs in a few different bands over the years.”
“Being a family man with two kids keeps me busy, but I still work on my music whenever I get the chance. I usually get a few hours of writing or recording done almost every day, but I will also say that lately, my song graveyard is growing rapidly. I’d estimate that maybe 20% of what I write ever sees the light of day.”
I suppose recording on your own, in your home, grants you a lot of freedom?
“Indeed. It’s always been a fever dream to maybe organize a larger group of musicians interested in playing the intricate sounds of Superfluous. But for now, the solo, low pressure, non-committal, full creative control, and non-gigging nature of Superfluous Motor means that it will always be a project that I work on.”
“I don’t necessarily stick to specific genres and don’t have a fanbase large enough to anger a giant mob of fans if I make any drastic changes to my sound. The freedom to do whatever I want has been a great way to learn and grow as a musician. But at the end of the day Superfluous Motor is a vessel for me to produce music that I want to make and want to hear.”
You’ve worked together with Canadian rapper Caius Hubris. It seems to be an odd pairing, but together you made the quite spectacular ‘Double Vision’ and record two tracks for Trifecta. What makes it work?
“It’s that Canadian Hospitality. I think we work together well because we don’t have strict creative limits. No idea is too crazy or stupid for us to do (see our silly funk cover of Mad World for example). There are no egos when we collaborate so we just get out of each other’s way and let each other do what we do best.”
“Caius is also extremely good at guiding me during the arranging process. I might have an idea that is okay at best and he will suggest a couple things that turn it into pure magic. It also helps that we’re basically the same person personality-wise, no joke. He’s basically the extroverted version of me … or am I the introverted version of him?”
You’re very good at crafting interesting rhythms. Those drum tracks are so precise and adventurous, even in crazy time signatures. Maybe they are the secret ingredient of the Superfluous Motor sound to me. Why do they work so well?
“Probably because of my overuse of polyrhythms. I use them a lot. For the uninitiated, a polyrhythm is where multiple rhythms are layered on top of each other. The drums parts are also usually the first thing I write and everything else is written around them. I wish I knew why they’re so effective but I do know that if a song kicks off with a killer drum groove, it’ll have me hooked from the start.”
About the unlikely influence of techno: “I wanted to show my friends how easy it was to make, so I made some questionable techno and grew a deeper respect for the process”
Though ‘Trifecta’ is based around funk, prog and fusion, I can’t help but feel the spirit of electronics artists such as Aphex Twin or Squarepusher or Amon Tobin. Or am I insane?
“Electronic music always finds its influence into my music somehow–probably from my early novelty techno music days. It’s not a conscious decision, but you’re definitely not insane.”
Are you saying techno was an early influence on you?
“If I remember correctly, I disliked techno music back in the day. I wanted to show my friends how easy it was to make, so I downloaded FL Studio and made some questionable techno, grew a deeper respect for the process and realized that making music was kind of hard but endlessly entertaining and rewarding.”
“I kept making music until it sounded pretty good (to me) and eventually that silly techno project eventually evolved into Superfluous Motor. However, I didn’t publicly release works. I lacked direction and confidence until coming up with the ‘Shattered Groove’ album. I liked that album enough to release it and kinda figured that it did no good sitting unheard on my hard drive.”
Talking about electronic music, some of your tracks wouldn’t sound out of place in a videogame. You were a gamer, right?
“I’ve always been a huge gaming nerd. I was born in the late 80s and grew up with Nintendo, Super Nintendo and the like. There’s a lot of amazing music in video games and it has always been part of my life. The influence video game music has on me is mostly subconscious (unless I’m making a chiptune track). I don’t directly try or intend to emulate or evoke video game soundtracks in my music, but a lot of my music would fit nicely into a video game.”
“That said, I was working on a cover that featured a mashup of me performing my favourite tracks from ‘Gradius III’[a shooter game, originally released by Konami in 1989 – UM], but it was eventually scrapped and added to the graveyard because I couldn’t figure out how to end it.”
Niagara Falls and Herbie
You’re from Niagara Falls, pretty close to Toronto, and you’re a big prog fan. So I guess we need to talk about Rush.
“I’ve always enjoyed Rush’s music and it’s neat that they’re local. My childhood friend was Neil Peart’s nephew. Sadly, I never got to meet Neil. I’ve also been to Lakeside Park[the title of a 1975 Rush song, Peart lived close to LP during his childhood – UM] several times throughout my life and rode the carousel as a kid. With all that said, Canadian radio has a 35% ‘Canadian content’ quota, so Rush and other popular Canadian acts have been slightly overplayed. Unfortunately, due to oversaturation, I haven’t truly delved deep into Rush’s music. But their overall influence on the music industry has most certainly had an influence on my music too.”
Do the Niagara Falls inspire your music in some way?
“As a born and raised Niagara Falls resident, the allure of the big water drip mostly eludes me. But there is a lot of beauty here, lots of nice nature trails. Going for a hike at the gorge is always an inspiring time.”
“It’s unfortunate that the local music scene here is mostly background music cover bands at bars. But it is a nice city to live in and I love living here. Most of my musical inspiration and influences stem from the city of Hamilton (about a 50 minute drive from the Falls). Hamilton is where I did most of my gigging in the local funk fusion bands and where I truly learned and grew as a musician. It’s a vibe.”
About Herbie Hancock: “Despite being an absolute beast of a musician, he’s so open-minded, kind and accepting of all music in general”
Who do you consider to be your peers?
“Calling them peers would be putting myself a bit too high on the pedestal. So I’ll just say that my influences that I feel stylistically connected with are probably: Medeski, Martin & Wood, Herbie Hancock, Snarky Puppy, Vulfpeck, Focus, Yes, Tower of Power, Jethro Tull, Lettuce, Chick Corea, Jan Hammer, Soft Machine, Billy Cobham, Stevie Wonder, Billy Preston and, in spirit, Ben Folds.
Herbie is one of your biggest idols, right? Why is that? And is there any chance that the synth opening to Anxiety (of ‘Idiosyncracies) was influenced by Chameleon?
“Darn, you caught me! The synth bass intro to Anxiety is dangerous close, treading into stolen/rip-off territory. Herbie Hancock is definitely my number one idol and biggest influence. His entire approach and attitude towards music was life-changing for me. Despite being an absolute beast of a musician, he’s so open-minded, kind and accepting of all music in general.”
“There was a documentary he made titled ‘Possibilities’ that documented him recording his album, also named ‘Possibilities’ [watch it on Herbie’s YouTube Channel – UM]. The album is a big collaboration between him and all kinds of different artists. Seeing Herbie’s attitude towards these other musicians and his attitude towards music in general was the most eye-opening and inspiring thing I had ever seen up until that point in my life.”
“I wish I had the money to own any genuine vintage gear myself. But the Hammond B3 Organ will always be ‘the one’ for me. I started playing piano when I was a kid and didn’t see my first Hammond organ until I was about 18, but it was a love at first sight moment.”
“I luckily have access to a vintage Hammond C3 to play and practice on, which is exactly the same as the B3 the only difference is that the cabinet has an alternate design. My gig keyboards are a Hammond SK2 for organs and a Moog Sub 37 for synth leads, I also sometimes use a Korg SV1 for that vintage Rhodes and Wurli sound. Currently, for recording, I use a Novation Launchkey 61 for organs, bass, synths and clavs and the 88 key Korg SV1 for pianos and electric pianos, with both keyboards functioning as midi controllers.”
You grew up in the 90s and 00s. How did you experience the music and how did it influence your tastes?
“My brother, who is two years older than me, would use cassette tapes to record songs we liked off the boombox radio we had. I grew up listening to The Beatles, AC/DC, ZZ Top, Motley Crüe, Rage Against the Machine, Korn, Limp Bizkit and pretty much everything that was popular over the years on the Canadian TV channel Much Music, basically Canadian MTV. When Napster became a thing then we burnt CDs of music we liked and so on and so forth.”
“My brother started playing guitar at a very young age and became a gigging musician before I ever considered doing anything other than basic noodling on the piano. He then got me listening to stuff like Converge, Daughters and Dillinger Escape Plan. I grew up in a rock and roll and hardcore/metal household and can’t quite remember how I got into prog and fusion stuff.”
On the 70s: “If I was a musician then, I would probably be a guitarist. Lugging around a 500lb Hammond B3 is no fun.”
How do listen to music yourself nowadays?
“My preferred way to listen to music is currently through Spotify while driving in my car. Driving my car on a quiet road is a nice place to be alone and fully absorbed into the music. I usually try to focus on a specific artist and listen to one of their full albums in one sitting. If I find an album I really enjoy that will be on repeat for a while. But I also will check out stuff on YouTube if the performances are filmed, like Snarky Puppy or Vulfpeck.”
“My wife and I also have a music jar with several artists (52+) written on pieces of paper for our two year old son to draw an artist from once a week and then we dive deep into their musical catalog, in hopes to expose him to a variety of musical themes and styles.”
It seems that the internet is crucial for you to get your music out, even to other parts of the world. Still, there’s so much music around and it’s so hard to be heard. So how do you reach the right people?
“Very true, Superfluous Motor would be a bunch of tunes collecting dust on a hard drive (or reel-to-reel tape) if the internet didn’t exist. As for getting heard? I wish I knew, it mostly seems like a mix of luck and sharing to the right place at the right time. Most of my growth was from sharing tunes on reddit. But I haven’t been doing that much lately due to their self-promotion restrictions.”
Suppose you started out in the 70s or 80s. Ever thought about how you would be recording and distributing your music in those decades?
“Superfluous Motor would be a lot less ambitious and probably a cover band if I was doing it in that era. I’d also probably be a guitar player because lugging around a 500lb Hammond B3 plus 300lbs of synths and keyboards is no fun.”
All over the place (like Kandinsky)
You haven’t put out a physical release yet. Why is that? I’d be happy to contribute to a crowdfunding campaign to get that 3LP edition of ‘Trifecta’ out there 🙂
“It’s mostly monetary reasons combined with subpar organizational skills. The downside of being a one-man-show is that creating content and managing social platforms, adding merch and managing all that on my own might be out of my skill set. I hope I can get it all sorted out one day, I’d love to get my albums pressed on vinyl and offer it to those who would want it or even have my logo on a hat, shirt or rad hoodie.”
The Kandinsky covers that accompany your releases would really work great on a 12” record sleeve. Why Kandinsky?
“I always liked abstract art and felt it fit the ‘all over the place’ style of my music. I saw Kandinsky’s work was public domain and started using it. After it became a theme, my wife came home with a huge Kandinsky print larger than our car that now hangs out in the jam space for inspiring creative flow.”
Ever thought about going professional as a recording or touring artist and giving up your day job?
“I think about that every day, I’d love to do this for a living, it’s basically the only thing I’m good at. But, I’m also terrible at self promotion and putting myself out there … let’s just say the seeds been planted but who knows what will come of it.”
Finally, what do you dream of achieving with Superfluous Motor?
“It’s likely to always be my humble little solo project for making and releasing music. As for the future projects I’d love to see more collaborators infusing bits of the work . Wherever it leads, it’ll be sure to be ever in motion.”
The first few days of quarantine, I struggled to enjoy anything at all. Then I started to feel the gravitational pull of Jaco Pastorius’ 1981 album ‘Word of Mouth’.
I hadn’t given the record much attention until a couple of months ago, when I went through a major Pastorius phase.
Now, with corona taking over our lives, the album reveals even more of its identity. We’re going through a period of extremes.
There’s chaos and peace, solitude and togetherness, beauty and anxiety.
There’s Crisis. And there’s John and Mary.
Complexities of life
Ever since I heard Jaco’s solo piece Portrait of Tracy (‘Jaco Pastorius’, 1976) I’ve been fascinated by his use of light and shade.
He could pair supernatural dexterity with an all-knobs-up-to-eleven racket, just like Jimi Hendrix, all the while writing the most sensitive and beautiful compositions and bass parts.
Jaco may have been a virtuoso and a prankster.
A brilliant and sometimes disastrous performer.
Or even a homeless person with a severe mental disorder, overwhelmed by success and the pressures that came with it.
A comeback kid in the making, tormented by disappointment and instability.
But for me, what he did best was capturing the complexities of life with his highly individual combination of tone, chops and composition.
He did that in a heart-stopping way on Portrait of Tracy, which he wrote for his then-wife.
It’s just 02:22 long, but that solo bass piece, encapsulates everything that makes life hard and worthwhile at the same time.
John and Mary
Hearing ‘Word of Mouth’, reading Bill Milkowski’s excellent biography and thinking back about Portrait of Tracy made me realize how much of Jaco’s life went into his art.
That’s why Bill Milkowski quotes from the entry for the word ‘eulipion’ in ‘Websters New World Dictionary’:
“Music that is inseparable from life.
Sound that embodies the lifeforce and evokes visceral sensations.”
When you hear the kids whispering and giggling over the introductory piano chords of John and Mary—the children Jaco had with Tracy—, followed by a joyous steel pan-driven theme, it almost feels like viewing the world through Jaco’s eyes.
And then when the orchestra and flute take over and Jaco croons along … Wow!
‘The world’s greatest bass player’
Five years after his eponymous debut was released, everything was different.
Judging from the acclaim of the jazz press and his worldwide audience, Jaco Pastorius had actually become what he had always claimed to be: the world’s greatest bass player.
He enjoyed giant success as a member of Weather Report and as the bass player in Joni Mitchell’s band. He also started his own Word of Mouth Big Band.
In February 1980, Jaco signed a deal with Warner Brothers and the record company promptly trusted him with a $125,000 advance—about $390,000 in today’s money.
The world seemed to be Jaco’s oyster. But everything was NOT alright.
Jaco had essentially lost his family, with Tracy retaining custody of the children.
It seems like from that moment on, Jaco was rudderless. As his friend and steel plans player Othello Molineaux said:
“That Tracy thing haunted him for the rest of his life. It was deep in his soul.”
Jaco became increasingly dependent on drugs and alcohol. His performances were often hit-or-miss. Sometimes downright disastrous.
Meanwhile, signs of mental illness came to the surface. Dr. Erskine, father of Peter Erskine—who sat on the drum stool with Jaco and Weather Report—thought it was manic depression. Later on, Jaco’s condition was diagnosed as bipolar disorder.
Whatever it was, ‘Word of Mouth’ proves that Jaco had the clarity of mind to compose, arrange and produce the most challenging music of his career.
Crisis and consolation
Crisis opens ‘Word of Mouth’ like ball lightning in a living room.
Bill Milkowski, who knew Jaco personally, wrote:
“This volatile piece captures the anger and internal chaos Jaco must have been experiencing at the time […] Crisis was uncompromisingly honest, expressive music that represented how Jaco felt.”
As a listener, you’re being attacked from all sides for five minutes straight, with the frenetic bass loop and the jumping hi-hat the only things to hold on to.
Jaco seriously pissed off the executives at Warner’s when he insisted Crisis should be the first track on the album. But he didn’t cave for their concerns about commercial suicide.
Right after the chaos of Crisis, the gentle melody of Three Views Of A Secret—a beautiful performance by Toots Thielemans on his trademark harmonica—bring consolation.
The 12 minute long Liberty City, featuring Herbie Hancock on piano, ends the first side of the album in an optimistic, light-hearted and exploratory mood.
Bach’s Fantasy and Blackbird by The Beatles
In a way, the second side of ‘Word of Mouth’ follows a similar path. The leading track is the most ‘difficult’ one: a rework of Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy.
The first notes of the high-speed bassline almost seem like an echo of the bass loop in Crisis. And when the orchestra comes in, that’s when the song goes into uncharted territory. It feels like an abstract sound painting of sound. And it’s not easy on the ears.
Bach’s piece seamlessly segues into a breezy rendition of Blackbird, originally released on the Beatles’ ‘White Album’ (1968).
I’m always touched by the father-and-son dynamic Jaco and Toots Thielemans had going on. On Blackbird, they emphasize that bond by sharing the lead, with Jaco running in and out of phase with Toots’ melody.
FUN FACT: Paul McCartney revealed that the guitar part for Blackbird was inspired by Bach’s Bourrée in E Minor, which he and George Harrison used to play as a show-off piece in their teens. Jethro Tull probably made the most famous arrangement of Bourée inn the rock era—it appeared on their 1969 album ‘Stand-up’. No doubt Jaco must have seen the Bach link and placed the two songs side by side deliberately.
At the end of Blackbird, a few distorted bass notes signal the final chapter in a trinity. We’ve had Chromatic Fantasy and Blackbird. Now it’s time for the tormented fusion of Word of Mouth.
Jaco unleashes his demons as well as his inner John McLaughlin.
Finally, just like he did on side one, he wraps everything up and restores the balance with a long piece: the heartfelt John and Mary.
When one day I look back at this strange quarantine period—and let’s hope it’s just a one-off—I will remember Jaco’s ‘Word of Mouth’.
“There was Crisis. And there was John and Mary“.
Further reading Bill Milkowski, ‘Jaco. The Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius (Anniversary Edition)’, Backbeat Books 2005.
Think of a well-known Smiths melody and start scatting: “Some jazz is more epic than other.” It might not be one hundred procent correct grammatically. But as Miles Davis would say: “So what.” He rewrote the rulebook more than once: most notably on modal jazz milestone ‘Kind of Blue’ (1959) and on the monumental – one might say epic – double album ‘Bitches Brew’ (1969), which paved the way for a cornucopia of fusions between jazz, rock, funk and world music.
So what … is ‘epic’? It’s a feeling, a mood, certainly not a genre. A timeless atmosphere or cinematic quality that oozes out of jazz’s most grand and often groundbreaking gestures. Epic jazz unfolds its stories patiently, sometimes violently, and might deal with matters that transcend our understanding, such as time and space, inhuman suffering and superhuman achievements, …
Here’s a list of records that sound epic or cinematic to my ears, ordered counter-chronologically, honouring the unruly nature of many of these albums. They were released between 1960 and 2015, which raises another question: was 1959, when ‘Kind of Blue’ (Davis) and ‘The Shape of Jazz to Come’ (Ornette Coleman), iconoclastic statements in their own right, freed musicians from their harmonic and compositional straight jacket, the year when jazz became more epic?
Kamasi Washington – ‘The Epic’ (2015)
Look at Washington’s overlord pose and confident glare, and tell me this album isn’t epic. It spans almost three hours of highly addictive music. A sidemen to people like Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar, saxophonist Washington and his impressive troupe of musicians channel everything from Debussy’sClair De Luneand Donald Byrd’s jazz and gospel choir classic ‘A New Perspective’ to modern soul andFender Rhodes explorationsby the likes of Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock. An epic of biblical proportions indeed.
Brad Mehldau – ‘Highway Rider’ (2010)
Piano player Brad Mehldau doesn’t dwell in the same place for too long. He travels between trio recordings and sharp-edged collaborations. Most recently, he teamed up with Mark Guiliana on jazz-funk-prog album ‘Taming The Dragon’.
Mehldau’s restless ambition reached its peak on ‘Highway Rider’, a 100-minute cycle of jazz and classical music with elements of pop – there’s even a salute to Elliott Smith – and electronica, beautifully arranged and executed by Mehldau’s trio, sax player Joshua Redman and a full-blown orchestra.
Exploding Star Orchestra – ‘Stars Have Shapes’ (2010)
For Exploding Star Orchestra, a large band led by Chicago musician Rob Mazurak, everything seems to revolve around … the sun. Or should I say Sun Ra? They’re certainly at ease with the cosmic side of things.
Dropping listeners in mid-space, Ascension Ghost Impression no. 2 floats towards complete astral chaos, with gigantic wooshes of sound and near-collisions of cosmic debris. After a brief soothing middle section, the turmoil returns, and then transforms again.Three Blocks of Lightrepresents a different type of avant-garde jazz from outer space, and whileImpression no. 1contains some familiar jazz elements, it’s equally disorienting.
Patricia Barber – ‘Mythologies’ (2006)
Deep-voiced jazz pianist and composer Patricia Barber meanders through Ovid’s classical masterpiece ‘Metamorphoses’ and turns it into a thrilling suite on ‘Mythologies’. Despite her often offbeat sense of melody, the album progresses smoothly, propelled by subtle piano, brief sax improvs, spirited percussion and blistering guitar, courtesy of Neal Alger.
On songs like Icarus andPhaeton Barber’s voice is out of this world. Just spell-binding. A timeless album, ‘Mythologies’ clearly flies close to the sun. But never too close.
Electric Masada – ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ (2005)
Masada is the name of a series of insanely versatile klezmer-inspired songbooks written by John Zorn. Versatile? Because these compositions have been interpreted by numerous bands and musicians, both within and outside of Zorn’s immediate entourage. In 2013, Pat Metheny had a shot at taming Zorn’s ‘Book of Angels, Vol. 20’.
Almost a decade before that, a rather extreme ensemble aimed at the Masada repertoire too. No surprise it was one of Zorn’s own groups: the allmighty Electric Masada, which took a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde approach to the music.
Compare the quiet Abidanto the complex and brutal Metal Tov. The obi that goes with double-disc live album ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ puts it right:
“Tight as a drum and hot as a blowtorch, these two incredible live performances will leave you breathless. Astonishing group conductions, searing solos and crazed insanity from one of the most amazing bands Zorn has ever had.”
Pat Metheny – ‘The Way Up’ (2005)
Guitarist extraordinaire Pat Metheny and keyboardist-sidekick Lyle Mays took their Pat Metheny Group recordings to the next level with this 68-minute twisting and turning piece of music. Partnering gorgeous melody with bursts of bebop improvisation, and Steve Reich-like pulses with a proggy compositional structure, ‘The Way Up’ is one of a kind.
Metheny had embarked on such grand-scale adventures before. ’80/81′, ‘As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls’, ‘Zero Tolerance for Silence’ (his take on ‘Metal Machine Music’), … anyone? After ‘The Way Up’, Metheny’s next step was to replace his Group by a stagewide construction of automated instruments, the orchestrion, which he dragged aIl around the world.
Dave Holland Quintet – ‘Extended Play. Live at Birdland’ (2003)
Honestly, the first track on ‘Extended Play’,The Balance is one of the most celestial pieces of music I know. The way the horns parts fight each other, and then fall into each other’s arms, is beyond words. As is the polyrhytmic base provided by Dave Holland (bass), Steve Nelson (marimba) and Billy Kelson (drums). ‘Extended Play’, an ECM release, was recorded live at Birdland in 2001.
Every single track on this massive set is a stretched-out version of a composition that was first recorded in the studio. In other words: Extended. And Play-ful most of the time, especially during the Chris Potter-Kevin Eubanks battle on Prime Directive. ‘Extended Play’ remains a crowning achievement for one of jazz’s finest band leaders.
Jaga Jazzist – ‘A Livingroom Hush’ (2002)
The last track on ‘A Livingroom Hush’ by prodigious Norwegian ensemble Jaga Jazzist is called Cinematic. Tellingly, this minor-key noise elegy is the least cinematic of all.
Main composer Lars Horntveth has a sixth sense for grand melodies and brightly coloured arrangements. Take Animal Chin and its huge, textured sound, which couples jazz marimba with electronics and turntables. One great theme is followed by another followed by another … culminating in a strange voyage through Lithuania, which couples Tortoise-like minimalism with orchestrated house. Now that’s cinematic.
The Necks – ‘Next’ (1990)
The Necks are an unusual Australian experimental jazz combo, with a very common set-up: piano, bass and drums. For years now, they have been releasing single, looooong compositions as albums, like ‘See Through’ and ‘Mosquito’. Meticously crafted acres of improvised music, time and time again. Debut album ‘Sex’ introduced the format. Follow-up ‘Next’ broke it.
It’s 28-minute centerpiece Pele, which patiently and brilliantly builts towards a gently pounding climax, sets the tone for The Necks’ further career, together with final piece The World At War. The ghostly guitar funk of Nice Policeman Nasty Policeman and the Seinfeld slapp bass of the title song only add to the fun on this overlooked album.
John Zorn – ‘Spillane’ (1987)
One of the most versatile composers around, John Zorn had released challenging ‘game pieces’ and a splendid tribute to Ennio Morricone (‘The Big Gundown’), before seeking inspiration from cult crime writer Mickey Spillane. The 25-minute title piece wouldn’t have sounded out of place in ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’, the cartoon/live-action film that hit the theaters a year later. Both ‘Spillane’ and ‘Roger Rabbit’ share the same setting: the 40’s-50’s LA underworld.
Zorn’s jumpcutting technique (from cartoons to harsh reality in a split second), samples and Morricone-mystique all work brilliantly. Besides Spillane there’s a thunderous blues jam featuring Albert Collins (Two-Lane Highway), and a mindblowing modern classical piece performed by the Kronos Quartet (Forbidden Fruit). Together with the Ornette Coleman readings of ‘Spy vs. Spy’, ‘Spillane’ would lead directly to jazz/hardcore masterpiece ‘Naked City’.
John Abercrombie – ‘Timeless’ (1975)
‘Timeless’ begins with rapid-fire interaction between guitarist John Abercrombie and keyboard player Jan Hammer (the Miami Vice guy). Meanwhile Jack DeJohnette holds everything together with his automatic weapon drumming.
But very soon, the trio sails into calmer water, evocating a wide range of moods:Love Song is a moving acoustic, well, love song. Just piano and guitar.
Red and Orange,by contrast, seems to predate early 1990s rave music like Nightmares on Wax. And the first four minutes of the title song provide an early example of ambient, while the next part has an elegant repetitive motif, which makes you think of Portishead, or even Radiohead. To top all that, ‘Timeless’ has that cystal clear ECM production. It’s a classic without expiration date.
Keith Jarret – ‘The Köln Concert’ (1975)
When on 24 January 1975 Keith Jarret finally sat down on his piano stool in the Köln Opera House, he didn’t have the slightest idea of what to play. He improvised his solo concert from start to finish. And still it became the best-selling solo piano album in jazz history.
But even more wonderous than the sales figures, is the fact that Jarret’s on the spot invention maintains a constant quality throughout two lengthy pieces, and knows no boundaries whatsoever – you’ll even find a Laura Nyre-like pop melody at about 02:25 in Part II c. Pressed on two LP’s and released on ECM Records, ‘The Köln Concert’ is a sincere work of art.
John Coltrane – ‘Interstellar Space’ (1974)
‘Interstellar Space’ is Coltrane’s posthumously released, deeply spiritual cosmos voyage. Recorded just five months before his untimely death in July 1967, his odes to Jupiter, Mars, Venus, Saturn and the constellation of Leo are among the final sounds he put to tape.
On ‘Interstellar Space’, it’s just Coltrane, his wildly inventive sax improvisations, and the equally intense drum parts of Rashied Ali. As a listener you’ve got very little to hold on to. No melody to whistle along to.No beat to tap your foot to. This album is lightyears away from his beautiful ‘A Love Supreme’ (1965), which he had recorded just two years before, and therefore a witness of his increasingly restless soul.
Sun Ra – ‘Space Is the Place’ (1973)
It takes just one Google Images search to find out that Sun Ra was a mythical character, inspired by ancient Egypt. As you start digging into his vast body of work, another lifelong obsession emerges: outer spaceand the future. No wonder he confused audience and critics alike.
‘Space Is the Place’ – especially its sidelong, freeform, cosmos-worshipping centerpiece – is a gentler (i.e. more easily digestible) ode to all things celestial than Coltrane’s ‘Interstellar Space’. And its title track, a whirlwind of repetitive voices, horns and keyboards, is a testament to the genius of one of jazz’s maddest mavericks. But let’s not fall into the trap of explaining too much, as Sun Ra warns in his liner notes:
“What can I say other than the music itself? Music? Yes, to the ears that dare to hear, that dare to hear, that dare to hear. Both the silence and the sound.”
Miles Davis – ‘A Tribute to Jack Johnson’ (1971)
The genesis of Right Off, the first of two +25 minute tracks on ‘A Tribute to Jack Johnson’, is a special one. Apparently, while waiting for Miles, guitarist John McLaughlin started a riff on his guitar. Drummer Billy Cobham and bass player Michael Henderson joined in. Together they built an explosive foundation for Miles’ solo, which starts at 02:19.
In the meantime, Herbie Hancock, who happened to be in the NYC building for some other business, was ushered into the 30th Street Studio to play keyboards. Track two, Yesternow, may be a less succesful cut-and-paste affair, but ‘Jack Johnson’ emulates the power of the legendary boxer it was inspired by. Johnson himself, voiced by actor Brock Peters, had the final word:
“I’m Jack Johnson, heavy-weight champion of the world. I’m black. They never let me forget it. I’m black all right. I’ll never let them forget it.”
Soft Machine – ‘Third’ (1970)
With tensions within Soft Machine rising, and the sword of Damocles hanging above his head, drummer, singer and songwriter Robert Wyatt remained silent on all tracks but one, his own compositionMoon In June. The other members of Soft Machine wanted to pursue purely instrumental jazz, a schism which would very soon lead to Wyatt’s dismissal from his own band.All brilliantly described by Marcus O’Dair in ‘Different Every Time’.
Luckily, the internal dissonance is not evident from ‘Third’. The album comprises four glorious side-long tracks. And though its sound and scope seem modelled on ‘Bitches Brew’, it was recorded before Miles even released that set. It’s a defiantly idiosyncatric and British sounding record, and arguably one of the all time finest marriages of jazz and rock.
Peter Brötzmann Octet – ‘Machine Gun’ (1968)
“This historic free jazz album is a heavy-impact sonic assault so aggressive it still knocks listeners back on their heels decades later”,writes Allmusic’s Joslyn Layne. And she’s not exaggerating. It takes some nerve to get ‘Machine Gun’ out of its sleeve, to put it on the turntable and to let a wild bunch of sax players, bassist, pianists and drummers trash your ears, your walls and your furniture.
It’s an even bigger challenge to sit through the entire thing. But it will send chills down your spine. Albeit chills that feel like bullets. To quote Layne again: “Much like standing outside during a violent storm, withstanding this kind of fierce energy is a primal thrill.”
Charles Mingus – The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (1963)
An orchestrated tour de force divided into four parts, ‘The Black and the Sinner Lady’ was ahead of its time. It had nothing to do with free jazz. Instead, the record seemed to come entirely out of Mingus’ mind. So much, in fact, that his psychologistDr. Edmund Pollock provided liner notesto the original album:
“To me this particular composition contains Mr. Mingus’ personal and also a social message. He feels intensively. He tries to tell people he is in great pain and anguish because he loves.”
Anyway, whatever Mingus tried to say, he did so in a heart-stoppingly beautiful way. Incorporating everything from avant-garde to flamenco guitar in neat – in turns elegant and heavy – arrangements.
Ornette Coleman – ‘Free Jazz’ (1960)
Back to where we started:according to Fred Kaplan, 1959 was the year everything changed. Miles went modal and Ornette Coleman went free, with ‘The Shape of Jazz to Come’. The latter then further revolutionalized jazz with ‘Free Jazz’: one monumental improvisation – created on the spot by his double quartet – split into two sides.
“No re-takes, no splices”, say the original liner notes. It’s a quintessential stereo record, with a set of horns, bass and drums in each speaker. There’s always someone keeping a familiar rhythmic pulse somewhere. That’s why ‘Free Jazz’ is a more relaxing listen than Brötzman’s ‘Machine Gun’. Still, Coleman provided the original landmark. One which impact on the shape of jazz to come is epic in its own right.
What are your views? Which records did I miss? What about the void I left in the 1980s? And was 1959 a landmark year for increasingly ambitious jazz albums?
Special thanks to Jonas Aerts for his suggestions and feedback.
And to the devoted followers of Facebook-group ECM Records for their input and support.
“I want to break down as many barriers as possible.” An in-depth chat with Snarky Puppy co-founder and Grammy-winner Bill Laurance about struggling for succes with the Snarky family, carving out his own solo path, the state of jazz today and working with the legendary C of CSNY.
“That’s crazy,” emits Bill Laurance as he leans over the mindmap I made in preparation of our conversation. It’s a surprisingly supportive and amiable remark from someone whose sacrificing his precious pre-gig pastime to talk to a complete stranger. Less than two and a half hours later Bill would hit the stage with Snarky Puppy in Brussels, promoting Grammy-winning album ‘Culcha Vulcha’. And still, he seemed thrilled to sit and talk.
Over the sixty or so minutes that followed, Bill greeted every question with enthusiasm, thoughtfulness and genuine kindness, showing that behind the amazing musician of albums like Snarky’s ‘We Like It Here’ [released 2014] and his own ‘Aftersun’  is an equally wonderful person. Even in the midst of months of worldwide touring.
“Night after night
people in the band take
turns in having the heat”
Bill: “Whenever we play live, we try to be as much in the moment as we can. And to find something new to say every night. Night after night people in the band take turns in having the heat, you know. We’re learning all the time, we keep pushing other.”
A Snarky gig typically features tight interplay and blistering solo’s. How do you achieve that intensity every single night?
“Well, Michael is our musical director really. He’s giving the cues. But we’ve also got a great deal of freedom. Solo spots tend to change night after night. There are certain solo’s that are fixed, and then there are others that aren’t. The lengths are depending on the song. But if they’re really feeling great, they can keep going for quite a long time. As a musician in Snarky, you’re always open to that possibility.”
And yet, Snarky Puppy doesn’t have a fixed line-up.
“It’s quite a cool thing that. The rotating of musicians was born out of necessity. Members of the band would be booked for other shows early on. So Michael would have to find other people. That in itself has ended up in evolving the band to a cooperative. Right now there’s about 20 guys in regular rotation and an extra 10 who know the material and come in and out. Where now effectively on tour for about 2.5 months but our line-up changes 3 times. Generally there’s a core group that always remains the same. After Seattle, me and Marcello [Wolaski, percussion], Chris [McQueen, guitar] and Bob [Reynolds, saxophone] are leaving, being replaced by other people.”
[note: Bill was replaced by Bobby Sparks (Moog and Hammond) and Bob Lanzetti took on guitar duties. The horns department didn’t get a replacement for Reynolds. Instead, electric violinist Zack Brock was added to the line-up. I had the chance to attend two shows with different band, and wrote an account on how the sound changed.]
For an outsider, Snarky Puppy and its related record label GroundUP seem like a tight community. Is that correct?
“Definitely. I think it’s one of the things that sets us apart. We’re like a band of brothers. We’ve been in this together for about 14 years now. During that time we’ve toured the world several times and we all had to sleep on floors and share beds at some points. Snarky’s like a family. And that sense of community is always there. It even extends to our audience. After a show we always try to come out to do signings and have a chat. That’s not a very common thing among artists.”
You’re suggesting the early years in the band were no bed of roses.
“It’s been a real struggle. We toured the States tirelessly before we got our break, often playing in front of tiny audiences and hardly making any money. But I think one of the most important things is that somehow we always managed to turn any difficulty into an advantage. We never got too pulled down by troubles, even tough we had plenty. We were driven by this unwritten rule. We would always find a way to keep coming back.”
In the meantime, you’ve won three Grammy Awards with Snarky Puppy, arguably the biggest music prize in the world. What’s the impact of that? Did those Grammy’s open new doors for you?
“There’s no question about the difference that it has made. When we received that first Grammy for the song Something[with soul singer Layla Hathaway, 2013], everything happened. It still can be tricky. But we’re lucky now to be able to develop our own solo projects and play in front of sold-out rooms. Those Grammy’s definitely make people raise their heads. We just sold out Brixton Academy in London, a 5000-capacity. Ticket-wise it was the biggest show we ever played. This tour really marks the point were we really are becoming well-known beyond our circles. People who aren’t jazz musicians themselves are finally noticing us.”
“We all try to serve
the greater good
of the song”
You’re all very advanced musicians. How do you avoid clashing ego’s?
“We are all very aware of the others musicians around us and are sensitive to what’s required within the context of a composition or arrangement. You have to. Especially since there’s so many people on stage. More often than not, for example, I’m playing melodies with one hand, because the bass part is covered by somebody else. We’re happy to show some restraint if it serves the greater good of the song. That’s what drives Snarky Puppy as a collective.”
Sound like real democracy.
“It is. 70% of the material is written by Michael. But as far as the more detailed arrangements go, they kind of evolve through playing them live with the band. It’s reflective of the way the band has grown. For years, we all invested our time in the band, and weren’t making any money. So now that it’s finally a sustainable undertaking, there’s this very strong sense of looking after the band.”
Right time, right place
Ever since you serendipitously met Michael League at a gig in Leeds, you’ve been the only British guy in the band. What did it take for Michael to convince you to come to the States and join Snarky on its first recording session?
“Me and Mike, you know, we hit it off and I loved his playing. And I think he liked mine. So he invited me out. And it was very much a right time, right place thing. It was looking to spread my wings. And he was looking for a keys player to record ‘The Only Constant’ [released 2006]. The rest is history, I guess.”
[About Michael League]:
“It was an opportunity to
travel with someone who
had a very creative vision”
What were your plans at the time of your first meeting?
“To be honest, it was exactly what I was looking for. It was an opportunity to play with better musicians than me and to travel with someone who had a very creative vision of what he wanted to do. I had just left university and was trying to develop a career in music and to immerse myself in as many opportunities as possible.
A record like ‘We Like It Here’ almost reached mythical status among fans. I suppose a lot of people wish they were actually there in Utrecht (Netherlands) to witness to recording, which was done in front of a small studio audience. Was that a one-off?
“From ‘Tell Your Friends’ [released 2010] onwards, it’s always been in the studio with an audience. ‘Culcha Vulcha’ was a different case, we did that one in the studio with overdubs, it wasn’t actually live. We recorded the backing tracks, came back and overdubbed. So we could really go to town on effecting the sounds and everything.”
“For ‘We Like It Here’ we performed the songs to three different audiences on three different nights. We might have played two sets a night. We had a lot of takes to choose from. So we picked the best. We didn’t piece bits of different performances together into a final song. I think we only used full takes.”
“I think he definitely thought about how he was going to pitch it. And we played it a few times already so you got a sense of were the peaks and troughs are. But if I remember correctly, the ideas he’s playing on the record are of the moment.”
Crazy, allow me to raise the level of nerdiness: did you use a mellotron on Semente (from ‘Culcha Vulcha’)? There’s a lot of real flute, but in the background there seems to be some flute toned mellotron as well.
“I don’t think we had a mellotron in the studio. And I’m not playing that part, that would be a question for Justin [Stanton]. I suppose he played it on a Prophet, but it does sound like a mellotron, you’re right. That said, I did use mellotron on my records ‘Swift’ [released 2015] and ‘Aftersun’.”
“You got an organ goin’ there, no wonder the sound has so much body”, says an authoritative voice at the beginning of DJ Shadow’s Organ Donor. And it’s true. Organs have been colouring and beefing up music for over fifty years. And so have electric pianos. They deserve a playlist of their own. Now they got one!
This list is all about Wurlitzers and Fender Rhodes pianos, Hammond B3 organs and their inseparable rotating Leslie speakers. I guess we should thank the jazz guys for making these instruments cool as a cucumber.
People like Jimmy Smith and Larry Young behind their Hammonds. And Miles Davis, who forced Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock to play electrically on milestone albums like ‘In a Silent Way’ (1969) and ‘Bitches Brew’ (1970).
“You want me to play that toy?” was Hancock’s immediate reaction. After that, it seems as if his and Corea’s hands were glued to their Fenders, resulting in masterpieces of their own: the Brazilion fusion of ‘Light as a Feather’ (1972) and the pioneering funkjazz of ‘Headhunters’ (1973).
Common pieces of machinery
Sprinkling sparse notes, weaving gentle tapestries or cementing mighty improvisations, organs and electric pianos have become common pieces of studio machinery. Just to cite a few:
hitmakers 10cc (I’m Not In Love), Queen (You’re My Best Friend), Sam Brown (Stop), Tears For Fears (Sowing The Seeds Of Love), Squeeze (Tempted)
yacht rock captains Bobby Caldwell (What You Won’t Do For Love), Player (Baby Come Back), Michael McDonald (Keep Forgettin)
jazz crusaders Miles Davis (Shhh / Peaceful), Squarepusher (Male Pill Part 13), The Cannonball Adderley Quintet (Mercy, Mercy, Mercy), Brad Mehldau (Luxe), Marc Cary Focus (Spectrum)
prog rock giants Van Der Graaf Generator (Nutter Alert), Wigwam (Losing Hold), Focus (Round Goes the Gossip), The Alan Parsons Project (I Robot)
funk and disco kings and queens George Duke (Brazilian Love Affair), Young-Holt Unlimited (Where Is the Love?), The Firebolts (Everybody Dance)
indie rock outfits Grizzly Bear (Two Weeks), Comets On Fire (Sour Smoke), Girls (Jamie Marie), Toro Y Moi (Still Sound), Radiohead (Subterranean Homesick Alien)