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Friday, June 21, 2019

7 Cheers for the 70s!

It is a received wisdom that there was not much going on in jazz in the 1970s. This somewhat revisionist history first appeared in the 1980s with the advent of the 'Young Lions', with people such as Wynton Marsalis and his cohorts. While this generation of musicians’ focus on such traditional values as blues and swing was welcome, and possibly even timely, their blanket dismissal of what went on the 1970s was inaccurate and did a disservice to much great music that came out of the jazz tradition in that decade. In this post I’m going to revisit music of the 1970s, and highlight seven fantastic recordings performances that are really worth checking out, and will show the richness of the music in that decade.

The 1970s was a musical decade that was both influenced by what had happened in the 1960s via rock music and free jazz, but also looked to the future, and set the ground work for so much that came afterwards. The music often displayed the intensity with which both free music and rock music were played, yet also fostered the environment in which a distinctly European jazz dialect could emerge. In addition, many great figures from the previous decades were still active and producing great music.

Here then are seven great pieces from the 1970s

In choosing the music I’ve been conscious not to breach copyright. I’ve used material from YouTube from albums long out of print, or/and from Spotify. I still think Spotify sucks but since ECM gave up their entire catalogue to Spotify I’ve decided to give up the struggle!

1. Shakti

While what are known as ‘world music’ projects are very common these days, in the early 70s they were rare, and often not very good. The great guitarist John McLaughlin however put together one of the earliest, and by far one of the best bands in this genre in the mid 70s. Shakti was a band heavily influenced by Carnatic music but also used techniques from the jazz world. Highly virtuosic, Shakti’s incorporation of the various elements into a very convincing whole created some spectacular music which set the standard for these kinds of collaborations, and remains one of the benchmarks of how to work with Indian music if you’re a jazz musician. One of the reasons these projects often fail is because of the lack of in-depth knowledge by the jazz musicians of the music that they are incorporating into the genre. McLaughlin however did an in-depth study of the Veena and really understood both Indian ragas and rhythmic constructs. Because of this, he could interact seamlessly with the percussionists and the other musicians in the band. Here is a blistering performance of joy from the Montreux festival in 1976.

2. Joanne Brackeen

Brackeen cut her teeth back in the 60s with Art Blakey, and making a name for herself in the very male dominated world of 60s jazz. She was also well known for stints in the bands of stellar players such as Stan Getz and Joe Henderson. In the mid-70s she began releasing her own albums as a leader and I first became aware of her from the duo album ‘New True Illusion’, with the great bassist Clint Houston. She is a very powerful player with definite influences from both McCoy Tyner and Chick Corea, but with a looseness and a way of unleashing great bursts of notes that’s all her own. She’s also a very interesting composer, writing pieces that were more involved and developed than those of a lot of her peers at the time. Here’s a typically personable Brackeen tune, ‘Off Glimpse’, from the album ’Keyed In’ with Eddie Gomez and Jack DeJohnette , (one of my favourite bass and drum teams). After the very characterful melody we get a typical Brackeen burn!

3. John Abercrombie

The 1970s produced a rich crop of great guitarists. John Scofield, Pat Metheny, John McLaughlin, (though he was active in the late 60s too), Ralph Towner, and John Abercrombie. In a way the 70s was the decade where the guitar came into its own as a major jazz instrument. Of course there had been great guitarists before  - Wes, George Benson, Jim Hall, Grant Green, and the father of it all, Charlie Christian – but in the 70s - post-Hendrix and the rock revolution - the guitar took centre stage ,and the result was much great music.

John Abercrombie was a singular voice on the guitar, influenced by both rock and jazz, he could really burn with the best of them, but also had a crafty improvisational approach to everything he played, redolent at times of a very electric Jim Hall. His first album ‘Timeless’, with Jan Hammer, and Jack DeJohnette, (on his first ECM album), became an instant classic, due in no small part to the extraordinary opening track ‘Lungs’ which leaps out of the speakers at you. It’s completely no prisoners music – organ trio, yes, but not as we know it!

(You’ll have to go to Spotify for the complete track – or, even better, buy the album!)

4. McCoy Tyner

Of course McCoy is a product of the 60s and produced so much great music then, both under his own name and of course with Trane. But there’s something about his 70s music that is just extraordinary. All of the qualities he had in the 60s are there, the incredibly swinging right hand, the restless left hand, the rhythmic drive, the unique harmonic approach etc. But in the 70s he added something else to that – massive power. He was always a powerful pianist of course, he had to be playing with Trane. But in the 70s it was if he had, musically speaking, bulked up even further, and achieves a relentless physical power that has perhaps never been equalled, not even perhaps by Cecil Taylor in his pomp.

He also started to compose very simple pieces based off modal vamps, and then expanding on that by sheer power and drive. The complexity of his playing at this point, the torrent of notes and never ending harmonic movement, is unprecedented both in his own playing, or in anyone else’s. Here’s ‘Ebony Queen’ from 1972 which is a classic example of his music at this period. With a powerhouse quartet of Sonny Fortune, the mysterious bassist Calvin Hill, and Alphonse Mouzon on drums, they take McCoy’s simple theme and deliver nine minutes of raw power, rhythmic drive and sophisticated musical science. The piano solo on this is a wonder of the musical world.

5. Enrico Rava

One of the major developments in the music in the 70s was the maturation of European jazz and its development of a separate identity (or identities). Europe had always had fine players, but they were usually closely based on the American model. In the 1970s there was a divergence of approach by many European musicians and the music more reflected a European aesthetic, with less swing rhythms, and much less echoes of the blues. The rise of the ECM and ENJA labels did a lot to promote this other approach, and gave a home to many European heavyweights such as Jan Garbarek and Bobo Stenson, not to mention Jarrett’s ‘European Quartet.’ 

At this point there was a preponderance of Scandinavian musicians represented on ECM, but not all were northerners and the great Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava made many fine recordings for the label. Rava, despite his obvious admiration for Miles, is very much his own man, with a genius for making the most out of very simple material. His composition ‘Tribe’, from the album ‘The Plot’ from 1976 ,is a classic example of this. He takes a simple, almost banal 16 bar melody, and, with the aid of his very creative cohorts John Abercrombie, and the legendary bass and drum team of Palle Danielsson and Jon Christensen, slowly works it up to an intense maelstrom via collective improvisation, rather than through a series of solos. This is a classic piece of European jazz, and its slow burning brilliance still shines more than 40 years later

(You’ll have to go to Spotify for the complete track – or, even better, buy the album!)

6. Woody Shaw

Shaw of course emerged in the 60s playing and serving his apprenticeship, from a very young age, with some of the legends of the music. He was a very individual trumpet player from the very beginning but really came into his own in the 1970s with a series of outstanding albums under his own name and the perfecting of his unique approach to the trumpet and to music.

Woody Shaw was an extraordinary trumpeter with a rich, burnished, full sound, and a very unusual intervallic approach on the instrument. Lots of 4ths and wide intervals, which are very difficult to play accurately and affectively on the instrument, made him stand out among his peers. When you add to that a complete immersion in the jazz tradition, and tremendous physical strength and intensity, (more echoes of the 60s…), you are confronted with one of the greatest soloists in jazz in the modern era. He was at his best in live performance, (I had a life changing experience seeing him at the Vanguard in the early 80s), and ‘Stepping Stones’ from 1978 is one of the best recorded examples of Shaw in full flight. Here’s ‘In A Capricornian Way’ a Shaw original in which all the trademarks are on display – the burnished sound with vibrato at the end of phrases, the brilliant outside/inside harmonic approach, and blistering intensity. Truly one of the greats.

7. Kenny Wheeler

A very different trumpeter to Shaw, (and indeed Rava), Kenny Wheeler is nevertheless a musician who also came into his full maturity in the 1970s. Active in the 1960s, and becoming known as a big band writer and composer of lyrical and somewhat poignant tunes, as well as a very individual soloist, Wheeler’s sound and harmonic approach matched perfectly the way he wrote. Canadian, but in the UK since the 1950s, Wheeler was very well known on the UK jazz scene, and in certain parts of the European free scene. But the announcement to the world of the arrival a major new trumpet and compositional voice came via his first ECM album ‘Gnu High’ in 1976.

The stellar quartet of Wheeler, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette was completed by Keith Jarrett, in his last ever appearance on a recording as a sideman. The importance of Jarrett’s presence on this recording can’t be overstated, he brings all of his improvisational, technical, and harmonic brilliance to bear on Wheeler’s beautiful compositions, and when listening to this recording it’s difficult to believe that the one and only time they played together as a group was on this recording. Kenny told me that Keith was a reluctant participant in the session initially, and didn’t really look at the music before the recording. So what you’re hearing is him basically sight reading the music. This is extraordinary given how much Jarrett contributes to the greatness of this recording, plays brilliantly with the others, and negotiates Wheeler’s challenging pieces with ease. Here’s a great example,  ‘Smatter’, with its classic descending ¾ tag which traps lesser players into a rhythmic and harmonic straightjacket. Not here. A Desert Island Disc.

(You’ll have to go to Spotify for the complete track – or, even better, buy the album!)

This just a tiny sample of the huge amount, and wide variety of wonderful music which came out in the 1970s. I could have easily tripled the examples here, there is so much stuff – Billy Harper,  Weather Report, Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard, Headhunters, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Charles Tolliver, Bob Degen, John Surman, and on and on…. Ignore the naysayers, creatively, the 70s were great for jazz – check it out.