Weather Report Play “Birdland”

weather_report-heavy_weatherListen to this track by jazz-rock innovators with a rotating line-up Weather Report. It’s “Birdland”, a bona fide hit single as taken from their 1977 album Heavy Weather. The record was a smash success, selling loads while also impressing the reviewers at Downbeat at the same time.

In particular, the album showed off the dynamics of the band and where they’d pushed the boundaries of jazz as a form, coupling it with many strains of music that included rock, funk, and electronic music. This is perhaps a reflection of the group’s leadership under keyboardist Joe Zawinul and his “partner in crime” saxophonist Wayne Shorter. Both men had come up in other bands in the sixties under Cannonball Adderley and Miles Davis respectively, with each of those being musicians who also sought to escape the rigidity of jazz as a form in order to put across musical visions using a wider palette. This certainly set the stage for Zawinul and Shorter to do the same.

Here on this song and on the rest of the record, this is evident. But it’s not just about redefining the boundaries of jazz in terms of texture and style. It’s also about form, with a specific element for which jazz is known largely left out of the equation.  Read more

Miles Davis Plays “Shhh/Peaceful”

Miles-davis-in-a-silent-wayListen to this track by boundary-pushing jazz trumpeter and genre-defying sonic visionary Miles Davis. It’s “Shhh/Peaceful”, the first track and indeed whole of side-A on his 1969 landmark release In A Silent Way.

The album gathered some of the greatest jazz musicians of the day into one space, with the music recorded during a single session on February 18, 1969, after almost a year on Davis’ part of working up ideas, and experimenting with new textures and instrumentation. Joining jazz luminaries like Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, and Chick Corea, were European jazz players including bassist Dave Holland, Joe Zawinul on organ, and electric guitarist John McLaughlin.

Besides Davis’ creative vision supported by producer and engineer Teo Macero, perhaps it was this cross-cultural exchange that helped to move this project into another dimension. Likely too it was the addition of electric instruments that made this record the harbinger of Davis’ foray into what would become known as jazz fusion, wherein he would employ electric wattage to his instrumental excursions that paid no mind to traditional melodic frameworks, making critics wonder if Miles Davis was even interested in jazz any longer.

But, when it came to the critics, this piece of music, and In A Silent Way in general, much of it stemmed from a significant paradigm shift when it came to how jazz was understood, and that which was very common in the recording of rock music at the time; studio trickery undertaken after the musicians went home. Read more

Herbie Hancock Plays “Chameleon”

Herbie Hancock Head HuntersListen to this track by jazz-funk pioneer, future electro innovator, and all-around influential musical barrier-breaker-downer Herbie Hancock. It’s “Chameleon”, a key track on his seminal 1973 album Head Hunters.

That record would spin the heads of many who’d first heard it, perhaps not being able to immediately figure out whether or not it was a jazz record. Many of these people would be the critics. Well, it certainly is a jazz record. But, it also carries with it influences that stood apart from the traditions of the jazz world at the time too; Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone, and the funk genre in general, which is in turn very much influenced by jazz. Talk about spinning heads!

The barriers between the musical forms expressed here had always been fairly permeable. But, as jazz expanded its borders by the end of the ’60s, the definition of jazz as a musical form became harder to ascertain. It had shifted, and morphed, having taken on new influences, as it had done since it was first recorded.

In the middle of all of that, this record was a big seller, standing as a sign of the musical times where the evolution of jazz was concerned.  And it would provide an avenue that would open things up for Hancock, and for other musicians down the road. Read more

Herbie Hancock Plays ‘Tell Me A Bedtime Story’

fat_albert_rotundaListen to this piece by post-bop keyboard innovator and soundtrack composer Herbie Hancock, ‘Tell Me A Bedtime Story’ as taken from the album Fat Albert Rotunda. The music on this album, including this piece,  originally served as the soundtrack to Bill Cosby’s first Fat Albert TV special, aired in 1969.

Herbie Hancock had served under the tutelage of Miles Davis for a significant period of both men’s careers, from 1963 to 1968, although he’d cut classic jazz records as a leader in between those years as well including Empyrean Isles, Speak Like A Child, and Maiden Voyage.  All of these records forged what is now known in jazz circles as ‘post-bop’, which is an amalgm of all that jazz had come to mean by that time, incorporating everything from modal jazz, bop, avante-garde, and free-jazz, yet still retaining something of an ear for mood and melodic effect. Like many of Davis’ proteges, Hancock was barely out of his teens, supremely gifted, and above all musically curious.  And therefore, his efforts in bringing the new ingredients in jazz together with the old would not be where Hancock would rest.

Hancock had been involved with soundtracks for films before. He’d scored the film Blow Up, directed by Michealangelo Antonioni. But, by 1969 he’d been invited to score an entirely different project; an animated special featuring the central figure of one Fat Albert, based on a boyhood friend of comedian Bill Cosby.  The special was among the first of its kind, a children’s  tale as set in the inner city projects based on Cosby’s Philadelphia upbringing. The music needed to follow suit with the material, which allowed Hancock access into another form of jazz – jazz funk.

Hancock assembled a nonet for the music he’d written, which included saxophonist Joe Henderson, Johnny Coles on trumpet and flugelhorn, Garnett Brown on trombone, and others.  Hancock played electric piano, and synthesizers, recently becoming enamoured of electronics and electric instruments, independent of his mentor Miles Davis’ similar interest as revealed on Davis’ Bitches Brew LP released around the same time. But where Davis’ exploration of electric instrumentation was about whipping the sound into a frenzy in order to produce a raw groove, Hancock’s Fat Albert Rotunda was about lyrical arrangements,  and a jovial, playful spirit in relation to his subject matter.

This piece in particular is something of a favourite for me, a melodic and atmospheric tune that could have come off as a throwaway from a lesser artist. But, there seems to be real connection with childhood here, with a feeling that Hancock wanted the sound of innocence to be captured, without it sounding trite or patronizing. I think he succeeds brilliantly, with his dreamy Fender Rhodes piano whispering behind the gentle lead voice of Coles’ flugelhorn.  And I love that the horns are used orchestrally, rather than held back until solos.  It really lets the melody, and the feel of the piece, breathe a bit more.  This is one of my favourite instrumental pieces by anyone.  It’s  gentle, and kind of sad too, capturing possibly the most central aspect of childhood innocence – the promise of its ending.

Hancock would continue to press the boundaries of jazz with his seminal 1973 jazz-funk classic  Headhunters, which made critics wonder whether Hancock was still a jazz musician, and whether his record was jazz.  Yet, Fat Albert Rotunda, and “Tell Me A Bedtime Story”  remains to be something of a unique statement between standard post-bop, and the blurry lines between genres that Hancock would explore while also taking on electro-funk and early hip-hop sounds in the decades to follow.

For more information about Herbie Hancock, check out his website.


Joni Mitchell Performs ‘Black Crow’ Featuring Bassist Jaco Pastorius

Here’s a clip of Joni Mitchell on stage with some of her jazz-fusion buddies in 1980, performing her song ‘Black Crow’ which can be heard in its studio incarnation on her 1976 album (and my personal favourite of hers) Hejira. Among the players on stage is electric bassist Jaco Pastorius, who was a constant sideman to Mitchell from that album up until her 1980 live album Shadows and Light.

Joni Mitchell 1980sRecently, I’ve been reading a book called This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel Levitin, a former professional musician and producer and current neuroscientist who specializes in how music is processed by the human brain. It’s an utterly fascinating read. One of the many issues the book talks about is the idea that the brain has its own means of organizing how sound is perceived and executed by musicians who have no formal training.

This type of musician of course includes Mitchell, who developed a style of her own based around non-standard guitar tunings, which is more akin to impressionist painting than it is to standard musical notation. Levitin had dinner with Mitchell one night and asked her about the challenges of this unique approach to songwriting and arranging music for other musicians.

One of the challenges she faced when it came to arranging for a band had to do with what is called the root, or the root note. For example, if the song is in the key of G major, the root is ‘G’. If the song is in the key of C minor, the root is ‘C’. The root is the note that feels like ‘home’ to the ear. Simple enough, right? But because of Mitchell’s use of non-standard tuning, there are often multiple notes which may serve as starting points in a scale, rather than just the one. There is more than one possible ‘home’, in effect.

This was particularly problematic for bassists, who typically rely on the root note of a scale to figure out what it is they’re going to be playing in relation to the chord changes in the song. But, the challenge in playing a Joni Mitchell song is leaving enough space for all of the harmonic possibilities, without limiting them by tying them to one root. For bassists, this meant having to approach their instrument in an entirely new way. And many arguments arose out of this between Mitchell and many of the bass players she worked with; without the specified root, they were lost.

But, not in the case of Jaco Pastorius.

Jaco Pastorius 1980sAlong with fellow bass innovator Stanley Clarke, Pastorius is known to be one of the most melodically-oriented bassists ever to have taken up the instrument, and Mitchell tells Levitin that Pastorius was one of the few who could operate in the open spaces which her tunings allowed. He had the natural ability to wander around inside one of Joni’s customized tunings, making counter-melodies while leaving each possible harmonic variation in balance with the next.

Although he was a difficult man to work with – very temperamental and often very aggressive in his attitude – his unique playing serves as an anchor, as well as a second melodic voice on her albums of the latter half of the 70s. His ability to draw together basslines, and meld them with his instinctual ear for melody is a prime example of what Levitin talks about with regard to the advantage of one who is not traditionally trained.

In this, he and Mitchell were musical kindred spirits; her lack of formal training allowed her to be unbound by the limits of standard tunings and allowed her to be more impressionistic when it came to the business of composition and arrangements. It also may be why she turned to the jazz community so enthusiastically during this period at the end of the 1970s, as her approach drifted away from her folk-rock roots. Joni Mitchell would of course make peace with the problem of the bass, and even married bass player Larry Klien!

Pastorius had an intense decade from 1976 to 1986, as a session player, band member of jazz fusion giants Weather Report (until 1981), as a solo artist, and as leader of his own band Word of Mouth. Unfortunately, his mental problems (he was bi-polar) and drug abuse made him a difficult personality to deal with. His problems led to a decline in reputation and eventual death in September 1987 when he sustained fatal injuries while engaged in a violent altercation in trying to get into a Florida nightclub. Yet his genius among his peers was never in question.

Check out Joni Mitchell’s official site.

For more information about Jaco Pastorius, check out the fine Jaco Pastorius official site.

Find out more about Daniel Levitin’s book This is Your Brain On Music.