Steely Dan (featuring Wayne Shorter): Aja

Steely Dan's claim to fame is high-minded jazz-rock presented in a radio-ready format. "Aja," the title cut from their blockbuster 1977 album, is what results when Becker and Fagen forget about airplay. Fraught with more subtleties and tempo shifts than a symphony, this song contains highly unusual chord changes for the genre, yet with a melody that always manages to find its way back home. This is also a showcase for some of the era's finest studio musicians, featured in an extended instrumental segment that gives these cats room to untie one of the knottiest compositions in all of rock.

The three guitarists do great work in that stretch, but the climactic interaction between Wayne Shorter and drummer Steve Gadd is one for the ages. Gadd's muscular, off-center flurry of fills ranks near the pinnacle of this renowned session-drummer's career. Shorter doesn't compete with Gadd, but opts instead to gradually build momentum with many notes held long, some cascading down and often running just slightly behind the beat. A short slower interlude gives him just enough windup time to bring his solo to a peak that invokes the angular blues-based tough tone of his Blue Note years.

When performing such a complex song, Steely Dan recognized that only the very best will do. Even if the best—Wayne Shorter—normally doesn't do session dates.

January 22, 2009 · 1 comment


Billy Joel (featuring Freddie Hubbard): Zanzibar

The storyline is that Billy Joel went for a jazzier approach on 52nd Street, the chart-topping sequel to his breakout The Stranger. In reality, he made only some nods in that general direction on three or four cuts, because Billy Joel was/is an unabashed pop practitioner of the grandiose style.

One of those nods came on "Zanzibar," which has more going on under the hood melodically than the showy confection of tracks extracted for radio play. While Joel sings that he's "got a jazz guitar," he does not play one. Instead, he lets Freddie Hubbard play a jazz trumpet. Good move.

Also a good move is shifting the song from a mid-tempo rocker to double-time, bass-walking classic bop for the trumpeter. Hubbard gets not one but two of these instrumental breaks. He does nothing in these brief interludes but cook and glide through the changes in his trademark virtuoso style.

Hubbard's appearance on a Billy Joel song isn't as unforgettable as Phil Woods's because his solo doesn't blend into the overall song as effectively. But Freddie was well worth creating the space for.

January 21, 2009 · 0 comments


John Abercrombie: Love Song

Despite being hidden amongst the pyrotechnics of the fusion album Timeless, this gentle and quiet piece of music never fails to stir my soul with its sheer sensitivity and unabashed beauty. Hearing Jan Hammer abandon the synthesized sounds that have become his legacy, in favor of acoustic piano, is a rare insight into how this European-trained musician had not forsaken his classical influences. Abercrombie, for his part, never fails to enter into the dark recesses of the mind with his concise, economical, at times Towner-esque guitar work that belies his ability to shred a tune when appropriate. In this composition, Abercrombie allows that a thought, in this case a musical love poem, can be best portrayed by the delicate interplay between piano and guitar. Abercrombie's and Hammer’s empathetic playing is like two lovers caressing each other in a musical embrace that is both poignant and uplifting. This is quite literally a beautiful and classic love song.

February 23, 2008 · 0 comments


John Abercrombie: Red and Orange

Back when top young musicians embraced the jazz fusion concept, three great practitioners of their respective instruments came together to produce a seminal album that abruptly entered the genre. For some, who find this foray into fusion "corrupting," this was one of those times when no amount of musicianship or creativity would be enough to allay the criticism. This was just another side road cluttered by electronica and gimmickry that blurred the true path of acoustic jazz's artistry. But for musicians and their fans growing up in the shadows of Parker, Rollins, Coltrane et al. and wanting to blaze our own paths, this was at once a statement of independence and vision.

In this 1974 effort, guitar virtuoso John Abercrombie skillfully weaves a tapestry of sound that incorporates the talents of equally artistic impressionists Jan Hammer on keyboards and Jack DeJohnette on drums. Sharing a CD with some very un-fusion-like but poignant pieces, the testosterone-laden force of Jan Hammer's masterpiece "Red and Orange" provides a powerful contrast. We are given a portal into the inner angst that comes with trying to create something forcefully new and different. If at times it seems like this amphetamine-driven music is overpowering, that is because it has successfully channeled all the bursting energy, creativity and tortured virtuosity that these brilliant musicians could muster. DeJohnette's driving skin and cymbal work on "Red and Orange" has to be a tour de force of drumming's physicality and musicality. Abercrombie's probing guitar work is perfectly prodded to new heights by a relentless hammer – Jan Hammer, that is. The most underrated of his fusion-era keyboard contemporaries (Zawinul, Corea and Hancock), Hammer is stunning for his amazing harmonic dexterity, subtly and sonorous use of all the sounds that keyboards can yield. For those of us who grew up in this volatile era, this is music that will speak to us forever.

February 23, 2008 · 1 comment


John McLaughlin: Marbles

The behind-the-scenes story is now infamous. McLaughlin recorded the sessions for Jimi Hendrix producer Alan Douglas. McLaughlin went away. When he came back he discovered, much to his horror, that the tapes had been edited and spliced back together every which way. It was a nightmare. The story from the Douglas camp was that somehow the tapes had been damaged and editing became a salvage operation. While McLaughlin may still be upset about the whole affair all these years later, Devotion is still a prized possession in many a fusion collection.

Straight from gigs with Jimi Hendrix, drummer Buddy Miles and bassist Billy Rich joined Larry Young and McLaughlin for this outing. Despite its spacey introduction, "Marbles" is one of the most accessible pieces McLaughlin has ever recorded. Miles's thumping drums introduce McLaughlin's simple but hypnotic scalar riff. "Marbles" becomes a kick-ass psychedelic jazz-rock number. As Rich and Young continue the riff, McLaughlin plays off it every which way from Sunday. He goes pentatonic and uses blues scales to produce trebly rapid-fire lines and screeching howls. While Miles and Rich are an okay rhythm section and Larry Young provides some interest, this tune was clearly a showcase for young guitarist McLaughlin's shredding. I challenge Mr. McLaughlin to pull this tune out some night on the road. It will kill! As an interesting aside, the "Marbles" riff motif would often later appear in the music of McLaughlin's Shakti band. Of course, they would play it acoustically with an Indian twist.

February 23, 2008 · 0 comments


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