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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

My Generation

Over the past several years when talking to musicians of my own age, from many different countries, I’ve been intrigued to discover how often it turns out that when we were younger we were all listening to and very influenced by a lot of the same albums. Of course we all listened to different things too, and were influenced by different music, but I’ve noticed a consistent thread of albums – or maybe groups of albums would be a more accurate description – that come up again and again as favourites and influences for musicians from a wide background, and of many nationalities.

Most of these albums were made in the 70s and 80s, which makes sense, as people of my generation would have been in their teens and early twenties when this music appeared. Of course we were all also listening to classics from earlier periods too – the usual diet of Bird, Miles, Trane, Monk and the various leading players on our respective instruments. But the recordings and music I’m talking about were being released at a time when we were all learning our trade, so it was brand new and had a profound effect on us. It was new, it was different and it was exciting.

The following list is of course not completely comprehensive, and there would be omissions to the list of influences and favourites of every musician I’ve spoken to, and indeed omissions from my own list. But I think this roster of recordings does represent a significant body of work for musicians of my generation.

The Jazz-Rock Phenomenon: Mahavishnu Orchestra, Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, Weather Report.

Of course we all listened to the classic electric Miles albums, but it was the offshoots of this music, created mostly by members of those classic ‘In A Silent Way’, and ‘Bitches Brew’ recordings, which had a huge impact. The Miles albums came out when we were for the most part either just getting into jazz, or not involved in it at all. When Bitches Brew came out for example, I was only 12 years old. But the rash of albums from what was then known as Jazz-Rock (the word ‘fusion’ came much later) made a profound impact on me and many of my colleagues. And contrary to the revisionist dogma that ‘nothing was happening in the 70s’, put forward by the Crouch/Marsalis/Ken Burns orthodoxy, these recordings were not only deeply original, but very different from each other.

The Mahavishnu’s ‘Inner Mounting Flame’ and ‘Birds of Fire’ (my own favourite) married incredible virtuosity with such unheard of things as odd metres. Headhunters showed how deep funk grooves could be put at the service of sophisticated jazz improvisation. ‘Chameleon’ was the big seller, but I’ve found that most musicians, including myself, prefer ‘Thrust’ and/or the wonderful live album ‘Flood’. Weather Report produced a series of great albums that had a compositional and sonic sophistication that was unique at that time, and at its best still is. ‘Mysterious Traveller’, ‘Tale Spinnin’ and of course ‘Heavy Weather’ are three great examples of the depth of original work produced by this band.

The ECM Albums:

Again the depth of invention and breadth of music released on the ECM label in the 70s gives the lie to the ‘nothing happening’ fable put out by the jazz neo-cons. ECM has an image of quiet introspective ‘coffee table jazz’. The received wisdom is that ECM is as much about image as music, and sonically uniform featuring a kind of wistful broodiness (I once heard the Maj7+5 chord described as the ‘ECM I chord’). But that’s not true at all – for example, classic albums that many of us were listening to from the ECM label included John Abercrombie’s incendiary organ trio album ‘Timeless’, Enrico Rava’s witty and very Italian ‘The Plot’, Kenny Wheeler’s compositional and improvisational masterpieces ‘Gnu High’ and ‘Deer Wan’, Richie Beirach’s beautiful (and often burning) piano trio album ‘Elm’, the muscular Abercrombie/Holland/DeJohnette Gateway trio, and of course the classic Jarrett Scandinavian quartet albums ‘Belonging’ and ‘My Song’.

Dave Holland, Steve Coleman and the M-Base movement

At the beginning of the 80s a really new sound was coming out of New York and it centred around two people – Steve Coleman and Dave Holland. Coleman and his colleagues formed a loose collective movement they called M-Base and a stream of innovative and fascinating albums began around 1984 and continued on into the early 90s. For me I’d date the real flowering of this new music to be represented by Dave’s ‘Seeds of Time’ recording (again on ECM!) and Steve’s ‘Sine Die’ recording. Neither of these were the first recordings by their respective leaders but I think they represent a maturity of conception that embodied the virtues of this movement. Later important albums included Dave’s ‘Extensions’ recording and Steve’s ‘Rhythm People’.

The music was very innovative in its use of rhythm – which was particularly driven by the originality of Coleman in this regard. His own 5 Elements band incorporated driving odd metre funk rhythms with very dense and sometimes very chromatic music. This approach was leavened on Dave’s albums by his folky kind of tunes (‘Homecoming’) and by Kenny Wheeler’s harmonically sophisticated pieces such as ‘The Good Doctor’. I remember being blown away by these recordings - intrigued by the originality of the ideas, and how they constructed the pieces. And talking to my colleagues now I realise that they were affected in very much the same way. This music was largely responsible for creating the current fascination with all things rhythmic that we find in so much contemporary jazz. And echoes of these rhythms with the often angular melodies can be heard in the Downtown movement of a decade later. Truly important music.

As was all the music I mentioned here – not just for me, but for many musicians of my generation. Each generation of jazz musicians are moved and moved forward by the influence of a particular body of work that is particular to the era and is emerging at around the time the aforesaid musicians are making their own way into the music. For me, these recordings made up a huge part of that body of work - one that had a lasting impact on me and my generation.

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