Although quite a lot of jazz is played at Vinyl Connection headquarters, I rarely write about it. There are a couple of reasons. Firstly, I am less confident writing about America’s contribution to world music; it somehow seems harder to capture in words than rock. Perhaps the language of jazz is less comfortable, less familiar. The other doubt concerns the general level of interest in jazz. Are folk curious? Bemused? Suffice to say, it’s often easier to skip over the Chick Corea records or Horace Silver CDs (there’s a bias towards pianists in these parts) and stick to what is more familiar. But enough of such wimpy writing. Begone timorous typing! Join me on a journey from dawn to dusk on a Vinyl Connection day of modal scales, improvisations and experimentations.
There are some, I know, who will happily spin metal for breakfast. I am not one of those who greets the day with a roar, so my first visit to the VC jazz shelves was in search of something gently rousing to accompany the corn flakes. Eyes being somewhat bleary, I reached for the solidly packed Bill Evans section. Trio 64 snuck into my hand, a set from (you guessed it) 1964 featuring the pianist with Gary Peacock on bass and Paul Motion on drums. It’s fascinating to hear this inventive and ‘modern’ rhythm section under Bill’s meticulous playing.
During the jaunty opening number, “Little Lulu”, I begin to wake up. After the unexpected arrival of “Santa Claus is coming to town” (it is July, after all) I’m smiling and ready for a typically lyrical interpretation of the old standard “I’ll see you again”. Is this a favourite Bill Evans album? Probably not a podium finish, but very enjoyable none-the-less, augmented by the sparkling sound of the Verve Master Edition.
A morning ritual is checking the weather forecast—how many layers will be required today?—and this particular a.m. I’m doing so accompanied by Weather Report: their first, self-titled LP from 1971. I love the abstract expressionism of this record, captured beautifully in the cover art. Opening with the spacey sounds of Joe Zawinul’s treated Fender Rhodes, it moves into the jazz-rock territory pioneered by several of these players with Miles Davis during the sessions for In A Silent Way (covered here). Often jazz-rock (or fusion, if you like) is characterised by dense interplay and busy charts. Weather Report has plenty of space for Wayne Shorter’s soprano sax to pierce the stratosphere while Alphonse Mouzon (drums) and Miroslav Vitous (bass) manage to be both economical and fiery. It’s great stuff, especially if you already like turn-of-the-decade Miles.
Having spent forty minutes with the Weather, I need to crack on. Some high octane fusion to kick start the program, that’s what is needed. Often I return to Return To Forever and today is no exception. Their 1975 album No Mystery showcases a band that could truly be described as the fruitful fathers of fusion. Chick Corea on keyboards, Al Di Meola on guitar, Stanley Clarke on bass (and some keyboards) and the fabulous Lenny White on drums and percussion.
Opening piece “Dayride” is a bright, tuneful Stanley Clarke composition; lots of energy and a fine introduction to this band of virtuosos. “Sophistifunk”, Lenny White’s contribution, is probably the funkiest thing here and offers a step up after the delicate, almost romantic funk of Al Di Meola’s “Flight of the newborn”. Corea’s skills are at the forefront of the tongue-in-cheek “Excerpt from the first movement of Heavy Metal”, where a neo-classical piano introduction gives way to a brief Di Meola solo then echoed by Chick’s synths. It’s short, punchy, and good cheeky fun.
There are many progressive flourishes on No Mystery—largely from Corea’s synthesisers—along with searing jazz runs and lots of funky bottom end. In fact, fusion is too small a word for the variety on this terrific LP. It’s a mystery why more people didn’t get into it at the time.
Isn’t it annoying how life gets in the way of listening to music? It is late in the day, dappled sky tinged with orange above sullen grey clouds, before I get to spin the last album of this minor jazz odyssey. Over a glass of Sauvignon Blanc I sink onto the couch to reflect on the day. Who better for company than John Surman, veteran innovator of the UK jazz scene and respected ECM artist?
His 1979 album Upon Reflection is an entirely solo effort. Mr Surman plays soprano and baritone saxophones, bass clarinet, and synthesisers. These last are what makes this luminous LP memorable. On several pieces Surman paints impressionistic pictures with his various woodwinds over pre-recorded sequencer patterns, creating a mesmerising canvas of colour and melody. Sometimes it gets moody, often lilting. There is even a charming folk dance. This is avant-garde jazz at its most accessible. Ms Connection walks in from a hard day’s night and says, “John Surman?”. I nod and pour her a glass of wine.
The previous ‘Jazz Day’ post is here