Jazz-beyond-rock: Tony Williams addressing today’s emergency

Spectrum Road — electric guitarist Vernon Reid, bassist Jack Bruce, keyboardist John Medeski and drummer Cindy Blackman — playing high energy, high volume music at the Blue Note (NYC) this weekend inspired by the jazz-rock amalgam the late, great Tony Williams created 40 years ago, seems utterly cutting edge. Or is it just my old ears, getting deaf to quieter subtleties?

Opening night the quartet was over-the-top exciting, as Reid’s fast-fingering of long and urgent phrases, Bruce’s unfalteringly creative and propulsive bottom lines (he’s the guy who kept Cream’s long jams like the 16-minute “Spoonful” from bogging down), Medeski’s swirling, splashing organ-and-synth physicality and Blackman’s ferocious full-on attack cohered into a huge sound with a single intent: improv intense enough for headbangers, bluesy but harmonically exploratory enough to satisfy avant-jazzers. 

These musicians have plenty of cred in this vein, incidentally: Reid most famously in Living Colour, Bruce forever known for Cream, Blackman in Lenny Kravitz’s band as well as leading her own projects like last year’s Another Lifetime, Medeski the first up in Medeski, Martin & Wood.
The full house for the first set was obviously appreciative, getting just what it had come despite a snowstorm to hear: the free-flowing, unmuted sound Williams (1945 – 1997) introduced with his trio Lifetime on Emergency!, a two-lp set released in 1969 which broke open heated-debated back then about what jazz, rock and soul could/should be. This crowd looked of the age to remember that, old enough to have lived through it the first time around.

Experiments in crossover were already occuring then. Among those leading the charge: flutist Jeremy Steig and his Satyrs; the Free Spirits with guitarist Larry Coryell, saxophonist Jim Pepper and drummer Bob Moses; the Blues Project; Paul Butterfield’s Blues Band; Blood, Sweat and Tears under the direction of Al Kooper, and Miles Davis, Tony Williams’ boss (Frank Zappa and Jimi Hendrix, too). Miles had not yet had his breakthrough with Bitches Brew — in fact, Williams left the trumpeter, who’d been his mentor, before then, because Davis had cast guitarist John McLaughlin, whom Williams had brought from England to be in Lifetime, for In A Silent Way. As if Miles could steal Williams’ thunder!

Williams provided only a tight, sizzling drum figure to IASW. He cut loose entirely on Emergency! with McLaughlin and organist Larry Young, as well as on its follow-up 

tonywilliams.jpgTurn It Over (Jack Bruce joining to make Lifetime a quartet) and Ego (different personnel), before getting swamped by who-knows-what for Lifetime’s least successful outing, The Old Bum’s Rush. None of these records were admired by the old-guard jazz fans of the early ’70s who mostly ruled the critical roost, but that didn’t stop Williams’ cohort — kids 25 and younger, who were open to psychedelia as well as jazz, from eating them up. Lifetime rocked. Oh yeah — Williams took a lot of heat for his wimpy vocals, but as sung by Bruce (“There Comes a Time”) especially, and Blackman (“Where”), the lyrics and songs are just fine.

I liked Lifetime’s maximallism then, and I like such sophisticated power-ups now. What’s the point of having a lot of amplifiers onstage if not to let us hear what a musician can do with all that gear? Bands such as McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, Santana (Cindy Blackman is now Mrs. Carlos Santana), organist Young (aka Khalid Yasim)’s Fuel that recorded Spaceball, Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band and even the Grateful Dead were explosive but also went for substance and believed in what they were doing. Not just noisy for noise’s sake, they matched the ebullience, perhaps idealism, and, ok, bombast of their followers and gave us some serious music to hold onto. Like Prince says, they featured “real music by real musicians.” Same with Spectrum Road (named for a Williams composition).
Is such jazz-rock fusion dated now? To me, it seems right on time to blow the lid off   balance a strain of jazz-referencing music that favors studied but too often empty virtuosity, pretentiously abstract and precious conceptualization, rather than grit and juice, confrontation and resolution. Biting, funky fusion is also bait with which to reel in adventurous listeners who want more than repetitious beats over sing-song chord progressions. When jazz is typified as “parents’ music” or thought to have died after a fabled golden age, Spectrum Road, its constituent members and many colleagues prove that’s a lie. 
Forty years is a long time in this culture for a style, movement, repertoire to survive. That jazz and rock, blues, roots, salsa, soul have all mixed themselves up and remain fervently alive at a time when so much else in the world of entertainment is glitzy yet conventional,  virtual and mediated speaks well for the American soundscape. Now, as in the ’60s and ’70s, we have an emergency! Thanks to Spectrum Road for looking ahead while recalling the not-so-distant past, for clearing cobwebs off works and, moreover, an approach that are as vital today as decades ago. Reid, Bruce, Medeski and Blackman play hard, smart, loud, proud, fun, strong, open-ended music. Listen.
[ps. — Prior to Emergency!, Tony Williams recorded a beautifully mysterious, airy, acoustic album titled Life Time for Blue Note Records. After 1975, Williams reformed Lifetime with guitarist Alan Holdsworth, keyboardist Allan Pasqua and bassist Tony Newton, for two albums I’ve never cottoned to, as they feature a lighter if still “progressive” sound: Believe It and Million Dollar Legs, which  have been reissued as Lifetime: The Collection. After 1985, though he still found time to drum for Public Image Ltd. and Bill Laswell projects, Williams  concentrated on composition studies and recorded several solid albums with a relatively more straightahead jazz quintet, which have been reissued by Mosaic. Williams was a brilliant drummer in every context — all his performances on ’60s Blue Note albums and with Miles’ quintet with Ron Carter, Her
bie Hancock and Wayne Shorter make for fine listening. But for the still generative big bang of jazz-rock, I recommend Spectrum – Anthology. which has most of the best of Emergency!, Turn It Over, Ego and The Old Bum’s Rush].

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  1. Carlos Bill says

    Hey wow man!!! From a long time I haven’t seen deep music articles like this; congratulations Mandel, congratulations…whoever wrote this show review. Great man. It is interesting…I was a young boy when I first heard Lifetime and Between Nothingness & Eternity, the live Mahavishnu McLaughlin record. Both records are masterpieces, and Vuelta Abajo…well, free jazz played by men who originally aren’t John Coltrane players from his quintet, and nothwithstanding, they play this type of music at their very best. Vernon, Jack, everyone knows how these players can produce so strong jazzy lines from the jazz-rock and it is amazing how they are playing coolly and better than never. Hope only that these performances may appear live on records, because with so much stuff coming out from music industry, it is not hard to someone else stay confused with so many styles, hip-hop, Eminem, house, so it is good to register that on records, so one can remember easily these rare encounters of veterans.
    Carlos Bill, bass player, composer, Rio, Brazil.

  2. says

    you bring up a very good point about how long it has been for this jazz rock fusion movement to be at or near the forefront since its introduction. But I feel as if we need to figure out what’s coming next. Is it a throwback to the golden age, is it something more in the fusion arena, or is it something we haven’t heard yet that someone is working on right now?
    HM: No telling, that’s what’s exciting about going out to hear jazz. I hear lot of music I never heard before — which doesn’t preclude aspects of the “golden age” or fusion being inspirations, influences or ingredients within what’s new.

  3. phil allen says

    I live in my car now. Even so, nothing was going to keep me from Spectrum Road’s first Thursday show at Yoshi’s/Oakland. I was hungry then,..I’m hungrier now–for a live recording I can take home and keep. And, I hadn’t seen my man Jack on stage for 18 years.
    I met 3 fellows in the line, all musicians, and we sat together. As the set progressed, the 4-part personality on stage melded into one flowing river, turning upon itself to create a vortex into which we were groovily drawn.
    Dang! Back in the glorious Spring of ’63, it was decided that I’d stay with Gim (my grandmother) just off Lake Merritt, also in Oakland, while finishing my 8th-grade term. Fortunately, I was tossed into Mr. Stevens’ music class, where I picked up the rudiments of bass and cello. He’d say,”Learn an instrument. You can make money on the side, playing parties, dances and such in a combo.” (Combo?) Too bad, on two counts: I had absolutely no musical guides or frames of reference; and then, such small groups looked pretty square–black tie and slacks, plaid dinner jackets, and blond buzzcuts. Had I but known, could I have but seen..
    We four, meanwhile, had made the first show, thinking maybe we’d stay around for the second. Not to be..we were wrung out and exhausted and beat. And Spectrum Road had another set to perform! Cindy Blackman must eat Wheaties. I slept well.
    Oh,..my point in writing: I’m curious as to just where, in the minds of the cogniscenti, Brian Auger stands in the pantheon of fusion pioneers. He’d put together Steampacket c65, and the Trinity and Oblivion Express thereafter. Yet, his name doesn’t seem to appear in the credits. Too vanilla?
    HM: How can I pose as a member of the cogniscenti if I don’t have an opinion on Brian Auger? I remember his name and don’t know why I can’t think of his music. I’ll do some research. . . Other readers have a comment on him?