Daniel Rosenboom Quintet: Fire Keeper (Orenda)
Steve Gadd Band: Gadditude (BFM/Planet)
Kim Lawson Quartet: Hey Day (Yum Yum Tree)
Taste is a handy attribute: you can be sure that you have it and those who disagree with you do not. It allows you to poke fun at, say, Michael Bolton with a warm feeling of self-righteousness. But when entire genres become laughing stocks, as with heavy metal, boy bands and jazz-rock, something beyond taste is afoot.
Of course heavy metal’s pouts, poses and recycled riffs are so ludicrous that Spinal Tap barely exaggerated a hair to be hilarious. Basically heavy metal is what teenaged youths listen to until they lose their virginity. Meanwhile those miming male dolls called boy bands appeal to the pre-pubescent girls who aren’t infatuated by porn star-like female singers.
That jazz-rock should attract similar sniggering is more curious. It was respectable enough at its mid-’60s birth, even if the identity of its parents is obscure. There was no “Eureka!” moment when one person thought up putting jazz soloing and harmonies atop rock rhythms and electric instruments. Instead several people seem to have had the same idea more or less simultaneously. By 1967, after all, it was impossible for jazz musicians to be unaware of rock, and inevitably some were attracted by its sounds, rhythms, energy or audiences. Similarly many rock musicians listened widely, and a love of richer harmonies, extended solos and more flexible rhythms infiltrated their work.
April 1967 seems to have been a pivotal month, with both English rock group Soft Machine and American jazz band the Gary Burton Quartet making albums with jazz-rock ingredients.
Soft Machine’s linchpin, singer and drummer Robert Wyatt, was so besotted with bebop that he could sing Charlie Parker sax solos note for note. The band began playing psychedelic pop, but jazzy elements were just the inevitable result of their listening habits.
Meanwhile jazz guitarist Larry Coryell started using rock-guitar effects in Burton’s quartet. A year later pianist Mike Nock formed the Fourth Way, having been intoxicated by San Francisco’s blend of idealism, free love, psychedelic rock and other mind-benders. Also in 1968 Miles Davis started alienating his diehard fans by incorporating electric instruments. In 1969 he released In a Silent Way and in 1970 Bitches Brew, and jazz-rock exploded from niche to mainstream.
For a while this was music of innovation and integrity. Other key practitioners included Frank Zappa, Weather Report, Matching Mole and Herbie Hancock, with the latter, like Davis, becoming heavily influenced by the funk of James Brown and Sly Stone.
In 1971 John McLaughlin unleashed the firestorm of virtuosity that was the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and jazz-rock, now starting to be called fusion, was changed forever. While this band was initially a thrilling new force, its phenomenal influence had the unfortunate effect of fusion becoming the genre of choice for those desperate to use music as a platform to impress others by playing difficult music faster than anyone else. Inflating egos outweighed such minor matters as engaging, illuminating, creating beauty, asking questions and putting shocks through people’s hearts.
So an avalanche of hollow dexterity engulfed the music, and fusion became a byword for showing off. Asinine releases tumbled from artists like Al Di Meola, Stanley Clarke, George Duke, Allan Holdsworth and Chick Corea. The ex-Australian guitarist Frank Gambale even devised a new picking technique that doubled a guitarist’s speed. Not, alas, his musicality. Fusion had become adult heavy metal.
And so it stayed into the new century. Of course there were exceptions. Guitarist Bill Frisell made beautiful albums because they were all he knew how to do, and Robert Wyatt continued to innovate gloriously and humorously in a hazy area between idioms.
Then gradually the tide turned. Musicians rediscovered that jazz and rock could be combined in honest and genuinely creative ways. Among these was remembering the value of groove.
Not that drummer Steve Gadd had ever forgotten. One of the most recorded musicians ever, Gadd has performed with artists including Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Paul McCartney, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Paul Simon, Chick Corea and Chet Baker. His appallingly titled Gadditude album is all slippery grooves that completely smudge any remaining lines between jazz, funk and rock. Sometimes it harks back to Miles Davis’s In a Silent Way in its textures and elegance. Joining Gadd are trumpeter Walt Fowler, bassist Jimmy Johnson, keyboards player Larry Goldings and guitarist Michael Landau. The latter pair’s compositions join pieces by Keith Jarrett and Abdullah Ibrahim.
A more innovative approach has been to place jazzy improvising within a rock aesthetic. The quintet led by Los Angeles trumpeter Daniel Rosenboom is at the pinnacle of this approach, as heard on the new Fire Keeper opus. Rosenboom’s music filmically plays with moods, while reaching peaks of energy in which rhythmically complex compositions and arresting improvising sit atop the thundering drama of rock. The other main soloists are Gavin Templeton (reeds) and Alexander Noice (guitar).
Australia has also been in on the act, with the likes of guitarist James Muller, pianist Matt McMahon and bassist Steve Hunter consistently making meaningful, imaginative music. Among other projects McMahon and Hunter turn up in a quartet led by Sydney saxophonist Kim Lawson and completed by drummer James Hauptmann. On Hey Day (Lawson’s second album) they find fresh ways to combine sophistication with immediacy and subtlety with charm, while nodding to precursors like Weather Report.
These three recordings suggest that jazz-rock has not only been resurrected but redeemed, and are a world away from the embarrassing technical displays of its laughing-stock years.