Imperial Triumphant
Photo: Alex Krauss / The Orchard

Metal’s Imperial Triumphant Present 10 Jazz Albums That Inspire

Metal’s Imperial Triumphant create a type of fusion that marries black/death metal with jazz from across its history. The band discuss their favorite jazz LPs.

The relationship between metal and jazz goes back to metal’s ‘Big Bang’—Black Sabbath‘s eponymously titled 1970 debut. The symbiosis may have been subtle at the start, but over the years, the ties between both daring genres of music have become more defined. 

Avant-garde composer/saxophonist John Zorn brought free-jazz’s explosiveness to the brutality of grindcore during the 1990s with Naked City; the Earache-released Torture Garden (1990) has gone down as one of the more insane albums from that once-great metal label. At the same time, death metal’s supreme musicians took the instrumental dexterity and adventure synonymous with jazz to equally vertiginous heights—Cynic, Atheist, Gorguts, or (later) Death all had players with the chops worthy of supporting the creative endeavors of jazz maestros such as Miles Davis or Ornette Coleman

Hell, even Norwegian black metal, a staunchly outsider extreme expression at the time, got into jazz’s technicality and free-form aspects. None more successful from a creative standpoint than Ved Buen Ende on their 1995 masterpiece, Written in Waters, released the same year as Mr. Bungle’s obtuse jazz-indebted experimental head-fuck, Disco Volante. While in the late 1990s, one of metal’s more staunchly traditional subgenres, hardcore, shattered its self-imposed glass-ceiling through the stunning work of jazz-nimble bands like the Dillinger Escape Plan, Candiria, Botch, Refused, and their ilk. 

Since the turn of the century, however, and as a consequence of the efforts of bands above and many others uncredited here, jazz’s stylistic calling cards have popped up many times across metal’s ever-widening spectrum of styles, with 2010’s Blackjazz by Shining (Nor) a standout, statement-making release from the last decade. 

However, few jazz metal records are as fully realized as Imperial Triumphant‘s Alphaville. This acclaimed 2020 album, the New York City trio’s finest release yet, acted as a love letter to the band’s home city and the jazz history associated with it while still operating within the vast parameters of extreme metal of the black/death varieties. 

“There are similarities between jazz and metal,” begins Imperial Triumphant bassist Steve Blanco when asked about the commonalities between both movements, “such as the fact that you need a certain level of proficiency and musical ability to execute ideas and emotions that one may be channeling from the universe and within”.

He continues, “Jazz really existed as music for music’s sake and, in the spiritual sense, of lofty communication. While it did find a place among an aspect of popular culture during the artistic apex of mid-20th century creativity and mind expansion, it suffered a decrescendo and became rather obscure by popular standards, remaining a strong beacon among some musicians and academia. Metal also enjoyed huge popularity during the late 20th century, speaking powerfully to many outside the mainstream. It has since been dwindling into tiny subgenres as civilization moves into a digital economy. Metal still has a passionate following worldwide, which I find inspiring.”

Blanco describes jazz as “quite possibly the only truly American art form” and a “true pioneering movement”, which gripped him instantaneously during his formative days. “It fascinated me in the sense that when listening to it in my early years, the music sounded complicated, often dissonant, and possessed a rhythmical fire that spoke to me,” he offers. “It was a puzzle that I just had to figure out. I’m still figuring it out!”

When pressed about the future further convergence of metal and jazz, Blanco replies: “It is possible for it to become a movement—if it hasn’t already—as the live music world shrinks and people look for new inspiration from the past. The past is the future. I think there’s much room for metal musicians to explore jazz and vice versa. However, it will take time to understand the history of both in order to combine it in a meaningful way, a genuine way. It may take a sophisticated listener to decipher the codes presented now, but eventually, we’ll hear it.”

While many metalheads are cognisant of jazz’s impact on extreme metal over the years, it’s probably safe to say that fewer fans of heavy metal are as well-versed in jazz’s own rich history. Blanco suggests to those interested in exploring jazz classics to go right back to the beginning. 

“Just as with anything of substance, it is only deep if it is built upon something,” he shrewdly notes. “Listen to old eras of jazz from stride piano bordello, depression swing, to post-bop, etc. It’s a huge world of music to explore. Like anything, some of it is total shit, but then you find a gem like Duke Ellington’s Money Jungle that happens to be from right in the goddamn middle of the 20th century.”

To elaborate further on his recommendation to eager metal fans looking to deep-dive jazz, Blanco’s Imperial Triumphant colleagues—guitarist/vocalist Zachary Ezrin and drummer Kenny Grohowski—have been kind enough to give us ten of the band’s favorite jazz LPs.

ART BLAKEY & THE JAZZ MESSENGERS – Night in Tunisia (Vik, 1958)

Ezrin: Art Blakey is just a monster drummer. This record is filled with excellent tunes and top-quality playing. This is another album that has inspired me and still does to this day. I always say that great heavy metal inspiration often lies in other genres. The first time I heard this record—I think Grohowski showed me—I was blown away by the energy and speed.

BILL EVANS – Portrait in Jazz (Riverside Records, 1960)

Grohowski: [This LP] remains one of the most inspiring trio recordings of all time in my universe. The trio had a particular way of playing together with simultaneous rhythms and abstractions of form. The dynamics between the three instruments are so perfectly executed, while Bill [piano], Scott [LaFaro, bass], and Paul [Motian, drums] all keep to a minimal and non-egotistical approach. The album swings. The recording is superb, and the album has beautiful melodic content. The Bill Evans Trio, in my opinion, gives the listener a deep, rich experience that elevates.

CHARLES MINGUS – The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (Impulse, 1963)

Ezrin: I’m going to sound like a broken record, but this piece is another favorite of mine because of the inspiration it brings me. Charles Mingus is one of my favorite jazz bassists and composers. He really doesn’t color within the lines. He writes what’s necessary for the piece to be perfect. I love to walk around New York City listening to this record.

CHICK COREA – Now He Sings, Now He Sobs (Solid State Records, 1968)

Grohowski: I have been a fan of Chick Corea‘s since childhood, but was far more familiar with his work with Return to Forever and the Electrik/Akoustic bands, essentially his 1970s and beyond period, so upon hearing Now He Sings, Now He Sobs for the first time, I got to hear his music with one of my favorite drummers and one of the few living today who has seen the enigmatic timeline of American Music, Roy Haynes, in one of the most impactful piano trios ever to play. 

Taking many nods from Bill Evans, this record was important in getting me to look back at all the fusion masters I had grown up loving, like Jan Hammer and Joe Zawinul, and to find out and hear where they came from, at least musically, as they all came from top-notch, straight-ahead jazz backgrounds. It is sort of like finding out that Bill Ward from Black Sabbath was super into Mel Lewis, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington and how that inspired him to be the musician he is today and the “Godfather of Metal Drumming”.

DUKE ELLINGTON – Money Jungle (United Artists Records, 1963)

Ezrin: Money Jungle is one of my all-time favorite jazz records. I love trios—obviously—and Duke Ellington, Max [Roach, drums], and Charles [Mingus, double bass] are an incredible combination. I’ve taken a lot of inspiration from this album: the playing, the production, the composition—it all speaks to me. I think I discovered it years ago when I was going down a Mingus rabbit hole. His style and playing are really spectacular.

JOHN COLTRANE – Crescent (Impulse!, 1964)

Grohowski: The latter era in John Coltrane‘s career is where many musicians of the path find themselves spending a significant amount of time, with his latter catalog being a culmination of the various music and theoretical approaches that he either created or learned, the life he lived, and the personal revelations he received that inspired him to leave behind a legacy of work he was racing towards. 

My dear friend and long-time colleague, [composer/guitarist] Richard Padrón, was the first person I grabbed a copy of Crescent from back in high school. The interplay and ferocity and nuance were enrapturing, and it was something he and all our friends would obsess over. It was some of the best playing I’d heard yet come from Elvin [Jones, drums] at that age and time. This series of albums, followed by albums like A Love Supreme, Ascension, and Interstellar Space, laid a lot of the groundwork for not only American music henceforth but my own playing and finding the deeper connection within and through [it].

LENNY BREAU – The Velvet Touch of Lenny Breau – Live! (RCA Victor, 1969)

Ezrin: Lenny Breau is maybe a strange pick because he’s not a straight jazz guitarist. I actually learned about him when I was playing a swing/country gig, and the other guitarist recommended I check out Lenny Breau. He’s definitely a guitar player’s guitarist. He really plays so many different styles. I think I was attracted to the open-mindedness of his playing and that he didn’t stick to just one style. He can play incredible country, classical, jazz, and flamenco styles.

MILES DAVIS – Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1970)

Grohowski: This was one of the few jazz records my dad owned, but one that he cherished. Perhaps it was the psychedelia aspect to it, the experimentation and inclusion of rock and funk into what people would later come to call “jazz-rock” and “fusion”, or that the incoming crop of fusion mainstays, with members of Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report, and Return to Forever all contributing performances, taking what Ornette [Coleman] did with a quartet and expanding it in approach, sound, timbre, style…  in essence, proving Ornette to be as prophetic as he was gifted. For someone like my dad. who pretty much could listen to any music save for the schmaltzy crooners of the late 1940s/early 1950s, Bitches Brew was my dad’s jazz gateway drug.

MILES DAVIS – Nefertiti (Columbia, 1968)

Ezrin: This album is very special to Imperial Triumphant. It’s our go-to choice when winding down after a show. It’s not Miles’ most well-known album, but it’s got a completely stacked line-up, incredible playing, and an unbelievable vibe. I personally discovered it on one of our first tours when Steve and Kenny were playing it on the drive, pretty much every night, and occasionally multiple songs at the same time. This record really feels like New York and like Imperial Triumphant.

ORNETTE COLEMAN – The Shape of Jazz to Come (Atlantic, 1959)

Grohowski: Ornette’s intrepid quartet, comprised of such luminaries as Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, and Billy Higgins, all of whom as individuals have literally shaped the sound of jazz throughout the generations, came together to create what is considered today to be one of the go-to albums for anyone’s introduction into free jazz and the avant-garde. 

By the time I came to this record, I had already been exposed to the likes of Ligeti, Schoenberg, John Zorn’s Naked City, Mr Bungle’s Disco Volante… so The Shape of Jazz to Come did not feel so disharmonious and aggressively ‘out-there’ as it would have seemed upon initial release, but it was massively important in helping me to understand how jazz was able to progress from the likes of Charlie Parker to those aforementioned artists. It is only in recent years, now having gotten the chance to work with Zorn, that having spent time with Ornette’s, and others’, work proved to be edifying and beneficial in both [my] approach to music/orchestration, but [also] in dealing with obtuse music.