As humor and ignorance go hand in hand, I’ll let the former lead the latter in a little poke at jazz-wise folk… No Mystery plumbs the paradigmatical prog fusion cum Latin jazz that RTF is acronymically known for (noting that in fact it’s not an acronym at all). Paralytic rhythms overtake the funky aspirations of side one, proffered most profusely on Lenny White’s darkly funny “Sofistifunk” and in a suffusion of profusity on the seven-minute “Flight of the Newborn” (with a brief layover in Axesaw and the Keys of Reed). If they don’t get your foot tappin’, try on the metatarsal modalities of Stanley Clarke’s bass on “Dayride” or steeling yourself against the humor of “Excerpt From The First Movement of Heavy Metal.” Oblations to the great funk nation, the first half of No Mystery is a piece of prog fusion history worth preserving. Side two slips into the matador’s suit of My Spanish Heart, a part and yet apart from Mystery’s space spelunking start. The title track is patronymic parlor jazz with a forest scorpion’s sting (having earlier resided underwood in ruth), the two-part “Celebration Suite” a cause for celebration if you enjoyed My Spanish Heart. The seriality of songs is less important than it was on Romantic Warrior, the ability to transhumanize jazz remains as keen. What occurs is a consubtantiation of creative forces, revealing the mysteries of the universe through sound. Ironically, it was L.Ron Hubbard who pointed out that we as human beings let our attention slip out the open window of a large and foreign word, but jazz critics insist on slippin’ ‘em in anyway. No Mystery earned them a Grammy in 1975 for Best Jazz Performance by a Group. Far from vindicating the Grammy selection process, I’ll simply note that even a blind man can pick the right nutshell in an honest game every third time.
Another bass tour de force from Stanley Clarke, this time featuring an all-star lineup that looks like a jazz readers’ poll for the year’s best artists: Jeff Beck, Chick Corea, George Duke, Steve Gadd, John McLaughlin, David Sancious, Lenny White. Journey To Love basically returns to the same approach as his last album: throw down some contagious funk, slip in a smooth-as-satin vocal song, add some old school jazz and class things up with a modern classical composition. The new wrinkle here is the addition of Duke and Beck. Clarke found a sympathetic partner in Duke, the two meshing like finely tuned and funky gears on the opening “Silly Putty” and “Hello Jeff,” the latter turbocharged with the electric guitar of Jeff Beck. David Sancious and Steve Gadd are also inspired choices, with Sancious playing lead and rhythm with equal aplomb. Maybe it was the presence of Duke, but Clarke takes on more complex arrangements on this album. “Concerto for Jazz/Rock Orchestra,” for example, features a full brass section that recalls Frank Zappa’s horny exploits (e.g., The Grand Wazoo) and stiches together several different parts with precision and skill. Compared to the concerto, the Corea-Clarke collaboration, “Song to John” (dedicated to John Coltrane), is a snooze. I get where the first part sounds like the shimmering and slowly unfolding sound of John’s later music, but the second part just sounds like Chick noodling around, and John McLaughlin’s acoustic guitar is a wet match that never lights. Still, it’s a minor complaint against a major work. Journey To Love continues to fill a special need for bass-driven jazz/rock. So few musicians were making (or were capable of making) music like this, and it’s easy to hear why many considered Clarke the instrument’s greatest champion. Together with his last and next albums, this represents a triumphant trio of jazz/rock that every bass aficionado (and plenty of pure music lovers) should own.
Let me share with you my secret paramour in the field of fusion: Romantic Warrior. Loosely based on a medieval theme, this is the final installment in a very fruitful collaboration between Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, Al DiMeola and Lenny White. Each of the four contributes at least one track to the proceedings, with the ever-fertile imagination of Corea assuming the lion’s share at three compositions. Opening up the songwriting leads to the kind of variegated musical vision most often encountered with Weather Report, only better. Heresy, you say? Not having heard this record, you might think that. But listening to Romantic Warrior will lead to a change of heart. As much as fusion bleeds into the progressive landscape, it rarely takes root. This time is different, as RTF blends the two on tracks like “Medieval Overture” (casting the silhouette of no less a titan than Gentle Giant) and “Majestic Dance” (Frank Zappa this time). As happens with most composers, Chick tends to fall into idiosyncratic tendencies. The two-part “Duel of the Jester and the Tyrant,” for example, could just as easily have turned up on My Spanish Heart (where “El Bozo” can claim some kinship with the Jester). But there it would have lacked the grace, the sinew, the inventiveness that the rest of RTF brings to the table. The band doesn’t simply explore progressive rock sounds, they embrace them. That opens the discussion to include wider implications than composition; instead of cramming as many little black notes onto the paper as they can, RTF seems to understand that melody isn’t the enemy. The music that follows is complex but accessible, Protean while serving an aggregate good, sliding between fusion and prog as though it belonged to both worlds. And so you can have a sultry “Sorceress” painted from Lenny White’s perspective, “The Romantic Warrior” ambling on stilts of semi-classical structure, and “The Magician” steeped in mystery as exhibits in the same supernatural gallery. Prog rock fans who fancy themselves amenable to fusion (e.g., anyone with albums by Soft Machine, Bruford, and Brand X in their collection) would do well to take up the standard of Romantic Warrior. The 1990 digital remaster from Columbia/Legacy sounds excellent and features illuminating liner notes from John Swenson.
Quintessential Corea. My Spanish Heart displays the duality of Chick Corea’s music: the Romantic classicist on one hand, the mad Moogician on the other. Though born in New England, the Latin music of Corea’s home has followed him throughout his career. On My Spanish Heart, we follow Corea as he paints the brilliant nightsky, sheltered gardens, proud hilltops and street festivals of a Spain remembered. Featuring only a handful of carefully chosen collaborators, these songs become a showcase for Corea’s articulate playing garnished with graceful flourishes, a style that draws comparison to past Romantic composers Franz Liszt and Frederic Chopin. (Incidentally, I don’t invoke these titans of the tinkling ivory lightly; to my mind, Corea earns their esteemed company on this outing.) Of the songs and cycles featured here, “Armando’s Rhumba” deserves first mention. It is one of the few Corea originals to become a classic in his lifetime. Joined by violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, the pair blend their sympathetic styles into a timeless celebration of sound. Also notable is Corea’s transposing of the flamenco for keyboards, exhibited in “Day Danse” and the opening of the four-part “Spanish Fantasy.” These pieces, and to a large extent the entire effort, are forcibly stamped with a Spanish mood. Not that you wouldn’t find the same themes at work on many Corea albums; the airy vocals of Gayle Moran on “Love Castle” or the intellectual pursuits of “Day Danse” and sections of “Spanish Fantasy” are hybrids that Corea has revisited many times over his career. What separates My Spanish Heart from the horde of also-rans is the consistent twisting of the diamond to illuminate a different and yet related facet of Corea’s Spanish fancy. Throwing the listener in the midst of the party on “Night Streets,” then painting a peaceful scene with Stanley Clarke on “The Hilltops,” keeps the audience attuned to the great variety of sounds that Spain can evoke. And Corea even finds occasion to deflate his own balloon for the humorous grotesques of “El Bozo.” At once refined and passionate, My Spanish Heart gets to the heart of Chick Corea’s appeal like no other album I own from him.
This elpee was a source of speculation for years, as I wondered what such a serendipitous summit of ivory merchants might sound like together. Apparently, I am a rube. This is simply a compilation of old and, in most cases, previously released material cobbled together to make a buck off of inexperienced jazz-tasters like, well, me. The selections are culled from Atlantic’s vaults: a pair each from the debuts of Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea, two selections from Ron Carter’s Uptown Conversation (Atlantic didn’t have the rights to any of Hancock’s solo material) and two unreleased tracks featuring three-quarters of John Coltrane’s band that date from the My Favorite Things sessions. The goal here, I guess, is to sample and compare the pianists’ different styles, but you’d really want a different platter to pick from. The album seems to get progressively difficult as it moves along. Jarrett is fluid and gentle, Corea plays in terse bursts of sound, Tyner is a torrent of notes and Hancock plays the willing accomplice to Carter’s artier explorations. I was only familiar with the Corea songs going into this, and they did sound different to me; the liner notes allude to a remix by Lew Hahn, so I’ll have to do a little more digging into that some day. Except for “This Is New,” everything here features the bass/drums/piano trio format, which always gives the piano plenty of room to breathe. You can hear that each pianist has their own distinctive style, but these styles would change over time, so comparing them here is pointless. Surprisingly, Atlantic re-issued this compilation on compact disc so a new generation can now experience the magic of being suckered into a star-studded compilation of stale treats.
So what exactly constitutes a Return To Forever album anyway? Musicmagic blurs the line between RTF and Chick’s solo recordings, since the same basic lineup (Farrell, Moran et al) was employed on Secret Agent and The Mad Hatter. Far from the stellar fusion of Romantic Warrior, Musicmagic is a song-oriented album. It’s some of the most commercial music that Corea has recorded (e.g., Clarke’s “So Long Mickey Mouse”), but not some of his best. Corea conjures the usual keyboard wizardry, Clarke takes a bow to his bass, and the rest of the band kicks something into the kitty, so there’s fire behind the RTF smokescreen, just not enough of it. Blame the high bar on earlier incarnations; of the RTF albums I own, this is the lamest and it’s still a pretty good record. Gayle Moran’s voice is expressive, warm and occasionally captivating. It’s on Musicmagic that she becomes, in the words of Beavis, “a full-fledged member,” playing keyboards and writing the graceful “Do You Ever.” The horn section also gives the band a different flavor, evoking memories of Frank Zappa’s The Grand Wazoo. Of Corea’s compositions, “The Endless Night” and “Musicmagic” have their mind candy moments where the mustachioed magician coaxes an armoire of sounds from his speaker cabinets. Stanley Clarke, who also sings on this album, adds the popular “So Long Mickey Mouse,” which is la-la-lovely in spots. Surprisingly, more than half of this album turned up on The Best of Return To Forever. If you bought that compilation, you were robbed. The selections on Musicmagic are simply too timid when RTF’s toils are taken in toto to testify in such a trial. If your tastes skip toward smooth jazz, then Musicmagic might be the safest entry into deep waters, but you can’t stand in the shallow end forever.
These are the midnight perambulations of the extant Miles sextet (minus Moreira and Miles himself), congregated in some eternal kitchen of the soul where scraps of meat and melody are served to the insatiable jazzeaters who would have a bronze cast of Miles’ every footfall. Originally recorded in September 1970 (and purists will point out that Steve Grossman was technically out), the music on The Sun didn’t see the light of day for years, and only then appropriately in the land of the rising sun. It is, like much of the Miles Davis marginalia, worthy of time and note. You could see this as a semi-Circle: a quartet of bass, drums, piano and sax with Chick Corea, Dave Holland and the brilliant Jack DeJohnette at the core. The songs fit squarely into Corea’s avant-garde phase: dissonant with a very tactile and percussive quality that includes scratching, groaning and quick staccato clusters of keys jumbled together. Solos devolve (evolve?) into an orgy of frenetic notes, structure and chaos play an endless game of tug of war, and throughout you’ll find the occasional moments of calm that pierce through the stormclouds of fierce invention and remind you of the potency of melody. Now, nothing on The Sun could be called timeless music. Corea fans have likely had their fill of this stuff already; Grossman’s fans may be more inclined to make the effort, since he shines on this recording. It appears from the liner notes that a few guests (including Dave Liebman on some bagpipe-like instrument called the musette) joined the fun on the last three tracks, although their contributions are barely audible.
I’m a sucker for program music, even when the pretense to a program is pretty flimsy, as it is here. Without the concept of Alice In Wonderland to tie things together, The Mad Hatter would simply be another of Corea’s eclectic jazz samplers from the late Seventies. But by giving the pieces themes (e.g., “Tweedle Dum mournfully recalls the beauty of his distant past”), Corea affords us a wider window into the music than might otherwise exist. Having gazed at these songs intently on a half dozen occasions, I’d proclaim The Mad Hatter one of my favorite Corea albums from this (or any) period. The music ranges from moogy mind candy (“The Woods”) to classical jazz hybrids (“Tweedle Dee”) to Latin-inflected jazz (“Dear Alice”) to a blowin’ quartet of the straight stuff (“Humpty Dumpty”). The same fare you’d find in mixed amounts on a lot of Corea albums, but The Mad Hatter stands taller than a Secret Agent or Tap Step. In fact, next to My Spanish Heart, this is the ‘70s Corea album closest to mine (not including RTF). The reason is the quality of the material; Corea has mined these forms many times, but rarely have they sounded so good. Gayle Moran’s voice (which I usually have to brace myself for) works very well in this setting, whether propped up against the strings at an angle on “The Trial” or soaring in and out of “Dear Alice” as if she’s always been there. Even Chick sounds more inspired than usual, building a palpable setting for “The Woods,” blending his piano perfectly into the potentially daunting number of players assembled for some of these pieces. From the rest of the cast, the rhythm section of Steve Gadd and Eddie Gomez is superb, and Joe Farrell is always a pleasure to hear. Herbie Hancock also appears on Fender Rhodes for the closing “Mad Hatter Rhapsody,” but to my ears it just sounds like so much noodling at first, improving only when the distortion is turned down. In the end, the story of The Mad Hatter really isn’t important; think of it as a nice package that makes you want to find out what’s inside. If you enjoyed the confections contained in My Spanish Heart, The Mad Hatter holds more of the same.
Not a McLaughlin matter worth overanalyzing, simply a septet of songs in various permutations. The idea here seems to be to show off the guitarist’s range, from Mahavishnu to Santavishnu to contentious energy-lord of the avant garde. Interesting but rarely arresting, Johnny McLaughlin, Electric Guitarist doesn’t belong at the top of John’s resume. I’ll concede that “Friendship” delivers where Love Devotion Surrender didn’t, finding middle ground between the styles of McLaughlin and Santana, and the dreamy “Every Tear From Every Eye” conjures butterflies. But the rest of the record is a little too loose and jammy, from the drum-guitar boxing match of “Phenomenon: Compulsion” to the aimless funk of “Are You The One? Are You The One?” While it covers a lot of ground, spectacular scenery is scarce. A Mahavishnu reunion of sorts (“New York On My Mind”) arrives at the same attainable height as Jean-Luc Ponty’s early also-rans, a session with Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke is standoffishly notey. McLaughlin’s tripping bursts of guitar notes are technically impressive, though he only generates warmth by turning off the fireworks display for “My Foolish Heart.” The track placement seems to suggest a predestined course, stripping away layers until the irreducible is left. If it’s not the guitar workshop some hoped for, drummers won’t be disappointed: Billy Cobham, Jack DeJohnette and Tony Williams are their usual awe-inspiring selves. Fine cameos from Patrice Rushen, Jerry Goodman and Jack Bruce further underscore the who’s who lineup on this all-star assembly. But great musicians don’t automatically equate to great music, at least not here. Perhaps he should have retitled this Johnny McLaughlin, Eclectic Guitarist.
Circle is fast becoming my benchmark for free jazz. This double-elpee compilation fills in more of the history around their brief but remarkably fruitful association. The first track, recorded several months earlier than the remaining pieces, features just the trio of Corea, Altschul and Holland. Where their earlier trio work was noisy and confrontational, “Drone” is soothing and natural, like a landscape painting of sound. I keep coming back to kinetic theory when trying to describe the two: A.R.C. and its ilk were superheated molecules that didn’t impact one another except on impact, but with Circle the molecules are in sympathy. There’s also a curious spirit at work in Circle, almost a sense of innocence as the musicians seek to discover new sounds together. On a piece like “Quartet No. 2,” for example what strikes me isn’t the quality of playing—it’s the quality of listening that impresses. The quartet is keenly tuned in to what the other person is playing, and what ensues is not merely a conversation but a kind of free jazz support group where the members goad each other on to cathartic discovery. That sense of discovery starts with their own instruments: Corea hammers, plucks and punches his piano to get new sounds out of it, Braxton’s breathing goes from lungfulls of fury to a death rattle, Holland moves effortlessly between bass, bow and guitar, and everyone gets into the percussion game. (If you really want to hear the band head into the wild, check out the Cartesian catharsis that closes “Quartet No. 2” and stick around for the brilliant experimentation of “Quartet No. 3.”) The songs of Circle are miniature musical adventures ripe for rediscovery. You’ll need a needle for this one for now, but maybe some enterprising label will reissue Circulus on compact disc some day.