Back in 1968, the music scene was undergoing a revolution that had nothing to do with MP3, but the overall effects were just as far-reaching. Black popular music had been neatly divided by the music industry into jazz, blues, R&B, and gospel, but as more listeners (both black and white) discovered these segmented genres, they began to be drawn together into a cohesive whole that threatened to create a new black identity in America. Jazz musicians such as Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and Ramsey Lewis began to seek ways to bring blues and gospel back into jazz music. Jazz had been largely replaced by R&B as the music of choice among black listeners as the harmonic complexities of bebop and the emotional detachment of cool jazz took the music on a path that veered sharply away from its roots.
In 1968, John Coltrane had already been dead for a year and Miles Davis released the album Miles in the Sky, the first of his albums to utilize electric guitar and Fender Rhodes electric piano. Cannonball Adderley and Ramsey Lewis had already had big chart successes with their recordings of “Mercy Mercy Mercy” and “The In Crowd”. Former Coltrane producer and Impulse! Records A&R man Bob Thiele founded a new label, called Flying Dutchman, with the express intention of producing a line of jazz-based records that would sell and be played on the radio. He also recorded a lot of favorite jazz artists, including a great many leading avant-garde players (Ornette Coleman, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp) and others (Oliver Nelson, Bud Freeman) who found themselves without recording contracts. In 1971, the label was acquired by Atco, a subsidiary of Atlantic Records. Atlantic was well-known for its amazing jazz, soul, and R&B catalog compiled under the auspices of Neshui Ertegun, and Atco released its share of interesting items as well, such as the first few Dr. John albums. So it should come as no surprise that many of Flying Dutchman’s most interesting experiments came about during this time period. In 1976, the label was taken over by RCA, who had signed their share of soul music acts as well. Flying Dutchman continued to release records until the early ‘80s and amassed an amazingly diverse catalog, most of which is currently out of print.
Thiele was, of course, not the only one to believe in the commercial potential of jazz/funk/soul in the early 1970s. Creed Taylor, who had come up with the concept and branding of the Impulse! label to begin with, did similar things with his CTI and Kudu labels, and there were others, including Cadet, Buddah, and Milestone. Thiele and Taylor were undoubtedly the most successful, and ultimately Flying Dutchman retained a grittier edge and seemed to come closer to capturing this groundbreaking era in the history of Afro American popular music.
Unfortunately, the Empire did strike back. The creative impulses that brought avant-garde and electric jazz into being were diverted into the music industry’s concept of “jazz rock” and then “fusion” which quickly descended into a quagmire of technically proficient but soulless recordings. Funk and soul music were co-opted and turned into disco and “urban contemporary” formats, both of which were friendlier to radio and white record buyers than their more authentic counterparts. When a new generation of jazz musicians pointed to the appalling spectacle that fusion had become towards the end of the 1970s, they were able to rewrite history and move jazz music back to the period immediately before the advent of this exciting music. Interestingly they were aided and abetted in this effort by Stanley Crouch, whose recording Ain’t No Ambulances For No Nigguhs Tonight was released by Flying Dutchman.
But someone was listening to what had been accomplished during the 1960s and 1970s. By the mid-‘80s, a club scene had grown up around a deep appreciation of the 1970s catalogs of Flying Dutchman, CTI, and Blue Note Records in the UK and some European cities. Rare vinyl copies of these recordings went for large sums of money and were spun at clubs by DJs who were not even born when they were originally recorded. Similar things happened in the U.S. with the advent of hip-hop and DJ culture, and soon this vastly under-appreciated and under-documented period of American music began to seep into the public consciousness. We seem to have entered a new period of experimentation, particularly with jazz musicians like Matthew Shipp, Erik Truffaz, Dave Douglas, and others who are willing to pick up the discarded threads of this fruitful merging of artificially separated musical styles.
With the increasing popularity of these musical styles and a wealth of material in the vaults, it seems only natural that RCA’s resurrected Bluebird label should test the waters with a couple of compilations that collect some of the best Flying Dutchman material from the 1969-1975 period. Both Flying Groove and Flying Funk are described as “Rare Grooves and Jazz Classics from Flying Dutchman, Bluebird, and RCA” and their content is quite similar. Taken as a pair, there is a wealth of history here that should appeal to jazz fans who love R&B and soul music as well as to fans of R&B and soul who also enjoy jazz.
Flying Groove gets off to an intense start with the Gil Evans Orchestra’s version of the Jimi Hendrix tune “Crosstown Traffic”. The band is made up of fantastic musicians, with the vocal credited to trumpet player “Hannibal” Marvin Peterson. To some this big band jazz/rock approach may sound dated, but as usual Evans’ arrangement is exceptionally well executed and the group actually does rock. Guitar work is credited to Keith Loving, Ryo Kawasaki, and John Abercrombie, so I’m not sure who does the solo work, but it is good despite not being as innovative as that of Hendrix (surprise!). A number of big band leaders attempted to appeal to younger audiences (often quite successfully) by using electric guitar and playing arrangements of popular rock tunes, but few were as convincing as the Evans Orchestra is here. Next up is sax/flute player Harold Alexander with a group that includes bassist Richard Davis and drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, a veteran of recordings by artists as diverse as King Curtis, Donny Hathaway, Tom Jones, and Steely Dan. “Mama Soul” is just a funky blues featuring Alexander doing some outrageous flute vocalese a la Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Singer Esther Marrow checks in with a vocal rendition of Joe Zawinul’s composition “Walk Tall (Baby That’s What I Need)” that shows just how closely jazz musicians were influenced by blues and gospel at the time.
Of course, not every experiment or attempt to update a group’s sound can be successful, and the Lambert, Hendricks, and Bavan track “Yeh-Yeh” is a prime example. Recorded in 1963 at Newport, it comes off as one of those “hep” groups on an episode of the Flintstones (The Way Outs or the Beau Brummelstones) despite the solo turns of Coleman Hawkins and Clark Terry. Nothing else here is quite that egregious, but Tom Scott’s “Head Start” also sounds pretty dated, like something from an episode of Mannix. There are, however, some truly groundbreaking tracks here. Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, recorded in April 1971, is definitely one of the blueprints for rap music. There were precedents—the Last Poets released their first album in 1970—but “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” comes across as the ultimate link between the jazz/Beat poetry of the ‘50s and early ‘60s and the hip-hop/rap of the late ‘80s and ‘90s. The group playing behind Scott-Heron is most certainly a jazz group, including the flute of Hubert Laws, Bernard Purdie on drums again, and Miles Davis veteran Ron Carter on bass and electric bass (interesting, since it is often assumed that one reason Carter left Davis was because he didn’t want to play electric bass). But they play the most righteous funk/soul beat you’ll ever hear, which is surely one reason for the track’s success. The lyrics are fiercely funny, recalling a time when social commentary could use such effective tools as sarcasm and outright humor and actually reach people.
Oliver Nelson, an incredibly innovative arranger, contributes the track “Skull Session” from the album of the same name. The piece has a languid, funky feel and features an outrageously talented band that includes Nelson, saxophonist Jerome Richardson, guitarist Lee Ritenour, keyboardist Lonnie Liston Smith, drummer Jim Gordon, and percussionists Shelly Manne and Willie Bobo. The track features very heavy (as in so far forward in the track as to cultivate brain damage) ARP synthesizer work by Mike Wofford. It’s not especially innovative considering what other folks (most notably Herbie Hancock and Weather Report’s Joe Zawinul) were doing with synthesizers in 1975, but it’s a very well-conceived and arranged piece of music and will stick in your mind long after it’s over. Nelson died later the same year “Skull Session” was recorded. The very next track is a Nelson composition called “Afrique” that features the Count Basie Orchestra arranged and conducted by Nelson and recorded in 1970. It’s not really a groove track, but it’s a really good composition and the arrangement doesn’t sound like any Count Basie you’ve ever heard. Hubert Laws provides solo flute work, but the vibe or marimba that is used isn’t credited on the listing provided here.
David Axelrod was a record producer at Capitol who provided signature sounds for Lou Rawls, Cannonball Adderley, and the Electric Prunes. He was also an ambitious composer and arranger. Perhaps best known for the loud, funky drum work on many of his tracks, his work has been sampled extensively by hip-hop artists including Lauren Hill. Here we get the Overture from his Messiah, a unique musical work that combines classically-based string arrangements with a soul rhythm section and touches of electric piano and distorted electric guitar. It’s not like much you’ve probably heard before or since, like Andrew Lloyd Webber with a keen ear, a bit more avant-garde taste, and some soul. Another pleasant surprise on Flying Groove is the track “El Pampero” by Brazilian tenor sax player Gato Barbieri. Barbieri started out with a fiery style that was influenced by avant-garde American saxophonists like Archie Shepp. He later adopted what can only be described as a neutered smooth jazz style, but on the performance here, recorded at the 1971 Montreux Jazz Festival, he plays with a great deal of energy, accompanied by Lonnie Liston Smith, the omnipresent Bernard Purdie, and bassist Chuck Rainey. It’s a reminder that some of musicians who later appeared to be nothing more than commercial hacks were actually talented and probably just responding to the pressures of the marketplace. Flying Funk offers a similar collection, though it also includes a few non-jazz soul and funk performers like the Jimmy Castor Bunch and the Main Ingredient. Jimmy Castor, who plays saxophone and does the vocals, is probably most famous for his novelty hit “Troglodyte (Cave Man)”, but the group was a source of some very solid grooves, such as “It’s Just Begun” included here. Featuring some percolating electric bass by Doug Gibson and a King Curtis-influenced sax solo by Castor, it’s hard to imagine anyone not getting out on the dance floor with this one. The Main Ingredient, a vocal trio who had their biggest hit with “Everybody Plays the Fool”, features Cuba Gooding, the father of the Oscar-award winning actor of the same name. Their “Happiness Is Just around the Bend” is a positive slice of early ‘70s soul complete with Philly-style string arrangement.
Two of the best performances on this disc are those by Nina Simone. Her rendition of Aretha Franklin’s “Save Me” sounds like a female James Brown with jazz vocal chops, and was recorded with a big band that includes a young Eric Gale on guitar. “Funkier Than a Mosquito’s Tweeter” is a Tina Turner composition originally performed by Ike and Tina Turner, but Simone makes it so thoroughly her own that it’s difficult to imagine anyone else getting the better of her on this song. On this one she has a relatively small combo backing her, with Don Alias (George Benson, James Taylor, Al Jarreau, Quincy Jones, Chick Corea, Miles Davis, and Roberta Flack) on drums. Simone squeezes so much disdain from her voice on this track it’ll make you cringe. Also back on this disc is Gil Scott-Heron with “Home Is Where the Hatred Is”, which singer Esther Phillips also recorded for Creed Taylor’s Kudu label. When Aretha Franklin won the Grammy Award in 1971, she gave the award to Phillips who she felt deserved the award. The song is a brutally honest account of junkiedom, and Scott-Heron’s version is blessed with the same great talent that backed him on “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”.
Lonnie Liston Smith contributes a pair of performances with his group the Cosmic Echoes. One of these, “A Chance for Peace”, has Reggie Lucas, veteran of Miles Davis’ funk-on-steroids 1973-75 band. Another member of that group, alto saxophone player Sonny Fortune, appears on the Weldon Irvine track “We Getting Down”, and the funkiness of much of the Flying Dutchman material demonstrates just how influential Davis’ post-Bitches Brew scorched Earth funk was. Though by 1976 Davis had embarked on a five-year period of silence, there is no question that he pioneered the sound that got a lot of people—musicians and listeners—thinking in this general direction.
The New Birth’s “Got To Get A Knutt”, recorded in 1972, is an inspired piece of psychedelic funk tomfoolery of the sort that will probably show up on a Quentin Tarantino soundtrack someday. The group could do just about anything, from funky big band arrangements to Motown-style soul, but on this Sly Stone-influence piece of weirdness they just let fly with some free-association vocals starting at about three minutes in (the track is over seven minutes long). The instrumental portion of the group was comprised of a group known as the Nite-Liters, and their track “Afro Strut” is also included on Flying Funk.
It should be clear to anyone who cares to listen to these two compilations in their entirety that what was essentially a black music renaissance in the 1970s has, by the dawn of the 21st Century, influenced all genres of popular music. It appears that a new generation of jazz musicians, as well as some who were around back then, are ready to continue to progress rather than recapitulating and pretending that this fertile period in black music history never happened. The mending of black popular music, which the largely white American entertainment conglomerates tore asunder, has now been underway for nearly four decades. Surely it’s time to stop fighting about which genre is which and what the relative importance of each element in the musical pot is.