Machine Gun - Rapid fire History of Epic Jazz

Machine Gun // A Rapid-fire History of Epic Jazz (1960-2015)

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.

Miles Davis - Bitches Brew (1970)

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)

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’s Clair De Lune and Donald Byrd’s jazz and gospel choir classic ‘A New Perspective’ to modern soul and Fender Rhodes explorations by the likes of Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock. An epic of biblical proportions indeed.

Brad Mehldau – ‘Highway Rider’ (2010)

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,Exploding Star Orchestra - Stars Have Shapes (2010) 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 Light represents a different type of avant-garde jazz from outer space, and while Impression no. 1 contains some familiar jazz elements, it’s equally disorienting.

Patricia Barber – ‘Mythologies’ (2006)

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 and Phaeton 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 Electric Masada - At the Mountains of Madness (2006)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 Abidan to 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)

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)

Dave Holland - Extended PlayHonestly, 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)

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,The Necks - Next (1990) 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)

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 gJohn Abercrombie - Timeless (1975)uitarist 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)

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)

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)

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 space and 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)

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 DamoclesSoft Machine - Third (1970) hanging above his head, drummer, singer and songwriter Robert Wyatt remained silent on all tracks but one, his own composition Moon 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)

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,Charles Mingus - The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (1963) ‘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 psychologist Dr. Edmund Pollock provided liner notes to 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)

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.

Field Music - Find A Way To Keep Me

Field Music – Find A Way To Keep Me // Song Review

Find A Way To Keep Me − not to be confused with 2005’s Tell Me Keep Me − is the final bow of Field Music’s excellent album ‘Open Here’, released earlier this month.

It’s the kind of song that deserves to be kept in a velvet box, because you don’t want to ruin its spell by overexposure. Only to take it out on special occasions and feel its magical glow on your face. In the end, I know, I’ll probably have to give in.

Watch Field Music perform Find A Way To Keep Me live at Northern Stage, 3 February 2018 – from 01:56:00 onwards:

Bittersweey sense of joy

I experienced the same protective feeling when I was introduced to the layered symphonic coda of Caravan’s L’Auberge Du Sanglier (1973), which took inspiration from the final minutes of fellow Cantuarians Soft Machine’s Slightly All The Time (1970).  And again when I became enchanted by Snarky Puppy‘s The Clearingrecorded live with the Metropole Orchestra and released in 2015. I’m referring specifically to the ‘camel cadence’ bit that starts around 04:00. Like the sound of a mellotron or a Fender Rhodes, there’s something about those sweeping proggy orchestral arrangements that fills my head with a bittersweet sense of joy.

At the outset, Find A Way To Keep Me could be an Peter Hammill song, dark, restrained, making great use of silence. But then it evolves into a meticulously arranged perpetual motion. An ever-changing cycle of tension and release. All flutes and woodwinds, strings and voices.

Right! Stop that!

Compared to those rich textures, the ending of the song – a deadpan flute flourish and drum thud – radically breaks with what went before. Like an alarm clock that ends an impossible dream. Or Graham Chapman’s colonel, who abruptly terminated Monty Python’s absurdity by declaring: “Right! Stop that! This is getting far too silly.”

Or is the Brewis way of saying: “Now don’t expect our next album to be a triple gatefold symphonic affair, because it won’t.” Anyway, as ever, Field Music chooses to explore epic ideas rather than epic length. It’s that pairing of brevity, audacity and invention that will always leave you wanting for more.

‘Different Every Time’ – Brilliant Robert Wyatt biography

In 2004, Björk lands in the English town of Louth to record Robert Wyatt’s voice for her album ‘Medulla’. Wyatt is extremely nervous and asks his guest to leave the house while he sings his parts … It is but one of many striking passages in Marcus O’Dair’s excellent Wyatt biography ‘Different Every Time’.

A most modest national treasure
In the UK, Robert Wyatt is revered as a national treasure. But you‘d hardly encounter a more modest musician. A pioneering drummer with psych and jazz-rock ensemble Soft Machine, he ends up in a wheelchair and then starts building his masterful solo repertoire: genre-free music with a social impact, released at his own pace. Brilliant in its simplicity. Continuously veering between the sombre and the cheerful, thanks to Wyatt’s high-pitched, fragile voice.

A two-sided story

‘Different Every Time’ is an authorised biography. Meaning: the book has the blessing of Wyatt himself. Yet writer O’Dair makes no compromises. He manages to sketch the man Wyatt in all his complexity. And doesn’t shy away from delicate topics – even though Wyatt isn’t always keen to discuss them: his drinking problems and depression, his stage fright and painful split of Soft Machine, and of course the unfortunate fall that paralyses the lower half of his body …

Robert Wyatt - Rock Bottom

Robert Wyatt – ‘Rock Bottom’ (1974)

The fall not only breaks Wyatt’s back, but also the course of his life. An insight that O’Dair masterfully integrates into the structure of his book: there’s a Side One and a Side Two. At the beginning of Side Two, Wyatt leaves Stoke Mandeville Hospital. It’s January 1974. The same year he releases his first solo masterpiece ‘Rock Bottom ‘ and marries Alfreda ‘Alfie’ Benge – his soulmate and guardian angel, lyricist and cover artist.

A two-people galaxy
Wyatt’s relationship with Alfie is life-changing. It runs like a thread through ‘Different Every Time’. Björk, who was allowed to stay in their mini-universe for a while, aptly sums it up: “They’ve got a little two-people galaxy that functions , and has its dark sides and its harmonious sides. And they’re not trying to hide anything.”

Socially inspired and self-deprecating

Marcus O’Dair takes you on board to show Wyatt’s musical odyssey:  from the early influence of the recently deceased Daevid Allen (Gong) and his involvement in the colourful Canterbury Scene, past socially inspired songs like Shipbuilding and The Age Of Self to the mosaic-like albums’ Cuckooland’ and ‘Comicopera’.

O’Dair introduces the man behind the revered musician and doesn’t leave a stone unturned.

At the same time, he introduces the man hidden behind the revered musician: Wyatt’s womanizing, his socialist sympathies, his humour and pataphysical views on life, his fragility and (too strong) sense of self-deprecation, … O’Dair doesn’t leave a stone unturned.

Definitive Wyatt biography

O’Dair is a musician himself, and one half of electronica-outfit Grasscut. His biography unites sublime research with countless interviews of his own, not the least with Wyatt and Alfie. He doesn’t merely list the facts, but arranges them logically, interprets them and describes them in depth. That way O’Dair is a present biographer, pouring his story into a fluent, highly credible style.

I’m more than confident to say that ‘Different Every Time’ is Robert Wyatt’s definitive biography. Now let’s hope that the rumours of Wyatt’s retirement are nonsense. And that within a few years O’Dair has enough new material for at least one extra chapter.

‘Different Every Time. The Authorised Biography of Robert Wyatt’ is published by Serpent’s Tail. Hypergallery offers hardback copies with a unique card signed by Robert and Alfie.