Three masters of 1970s jazz fusion re-emerge, collectively and on their own -- a mixed, if rich, blessing.
The 1970s were strange times for jazz. Rock had swept in like a flood, and things were not the same. Under the radar, free jazz was in post-Coltrane reassessment, taking root in downtown lofts and in Chicago's AACM. Other artists, scrambling for relevance (and income) gooped up their music with half-hearted backbeats or cheesy wah-wah guitars. However, a thin line of successful innovation actually captured a young audience with strong, idiosyncratic jazz-rock.
This bold strain of early fusion didn't last long. Chick Corea's early flirtation with pop forms and rock guitar in Return to Forever quickly turned to treacle, and the hip amalgam of soul-jazz and R&B that was Grover Washington's Mister Magic became Kenny G almost as fast as you could say "President Reagan". The first explosion of creativity in Tony Williams's band Lifetime, John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul's Weather Report was similarly gone not long after Miles Davis -- the father of so much of it with his Bitches Brew -- had gone into a career-ending 1976 retirement.
Today, jazz musicians with heavy downtown credentials have fully rediscovered the messy acid-funk of Bitches Brew. There's no longer any shame in a jazz musician laying down a funky bottom or brandishing a Fender Rhodes electric piano, as long as the solos are fresh. But it's not quite as easy to hear all of the fusion that was recorded during the 1970s crucible. Some of what sounded invincible then sounds merely skilled today.
A case in point is the material recorded in 1979 by an all-star band dubbed the Trio of Doom: John McLaughlin on guitar, Jaco Pastorius on bass, and Tony Williams on drums. Assembled by Columbia Records to play a groundbreaking concert in Havana, the trio was state-of-the-art fusion power. Barely rehearsed, the group blazed through the concert, then reassembled in the famed Columbia studios later in the week to get more acceptable takes of the same four tracks, and all of the material (live and in studio) is now available for the first time on Trio of Doom Live. Simultaneously, Sony Legacy has released two new entries for Pastorius and McLaughlin in its "The Essential" series -- both double-disc career retrospectives that invite us to assess the careers of the two guitarists.
There is no doubt that McLaughlin and Pastorius were among the most imposing players on their instruments in jazz history. The Essential John McLaughlin begins by showing us a merely fine jazz guitarist working with an English organ trio, but it quickly gets to the meat of things: early work with Lifetime, with Miles Davis, then with Mahavishnu that exhibits his signature traits of speed, precision, and volume mixed with surprising lyricism. The first disc of this collection is a string of pearls -- with the obvious ("Right Off" from Miles' Jack Johnson and "Dance of the Maya" and "Birds of Fire" from the first two Mahavishnu albums) mixed with exquisite solo work ("Goodbye Porkpie Hat") and sideman appearances ("Follow Your Heart" from a criminally unknown disc by reed player Joe Farrell).
The length of the collection, however, demonstrates the narrow quality of McLaughlin's -- or is it fusion's? -- musical conception. Disc Two runs us through some of the much, much weaker music from the later fusion "orchestras" that McLaughlin fronted, including the various attempts the guitarist made to revisit his short-lived glory years. While the cut from McLaughlin's Indian-fusion band Shakti is fantastic ("India") and there is supreme picking everywhere (on an acoustic "My Foolish Heart" as well as a Miles reunion from the Aura record), none of this music matters anymore. Though I loved hearing John swing with Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke on "Do You Hear the Voices You Left Behind" when it first came out, a quarter century of perspective is sobering -- there is no guarantee that even a deeply beautiful and powerful player like McLaughlin will be a great bandleader. As bracing as the early '70s material still is, the bulk of this recording is a bit of a nostalgia trip.
But if the McLaughlin collection is like a brief but bright flame, then The Essential Jaco Pastorius is a nuclear blast followed by fizzle. Even more than McLaughlin, Pastorius is a virtuoso legend. Nothing less than the "Jimi Hendrix of the bass guitar", Jaco seemed to emerge fully formed from the Florida music scene, playing electric bass like no one ever had before (and like everyone would later). The Jaco collection digs generously into his best early work: some lyrical tracks from his debut disc, a track from his trio record with Pat Metheny (Bright Size Life), his work accompanying Joni Mitchell at the height of her powers ("Hejira" and "The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines"), and his first year with Weather Report, where his bass was fit into a logical context that showed how unique and brilliant it could be.
But, again, the second disc of the collection demonstrates how little Jaco really had to say on his own. The liner notes tout Jaco's Word of Mouth as a culminating masterpiece -- Jaco would tragically die in a bar fight clouded by his drug problems and bi-polar disorder in 1987 -- but a fresh hearing reveals the truth. Jaco, perhaps like McLaughlin, was a revolutionary player and sideman nonpareil, but his own compositions and arrangements are precisely the kind of goopy, even sentimental, commercial fusion that would make move the genre in a "smooth" direction. Jaco's work is distinguished by the use of steel drums in some arrangements, and of course by his own lyricism or dancing funk. But even the tastiest of this material comes off now like a virtuosic party trick -- "Hey, that's Jaco! Man, no one can play like that!" But the ensuing decades would feature more than a few capable Jaco imitators, of course, whose recreations of his style would also reiterate its own limitations. If you don't believe me (and legions of bass-technique-obsessed Jaco-heads never will), then check out the hackneyed work on "Three Views of a Secret" from Word of Mouth or the later Weather Report stuff. Jaco, who burned so bright, burned waaaaaay short.
What, then, of the Trio of Doom material? Originally, McLaughlin blocked the live recordings from appearing on Columbia's Havana Jam record, and the studio version of "Dark Prince" appeared instead. Jaco, in fact, was the alleged culprit, playing out of control on these mostly burning demonstrations of flaming fusion prowess. Heard today, this material survives better than all but the best of John's and Jaco's later solo work. It has the advantage, of course, of being powered by one of the greatest drummers in any style, Tony Williams, a musician whose later work and whose compositions and bands would get better rather than lamer. Williams owns these sessions from beginning to end, in fact. And while the thrill is certainly in hearing these evenly matched talents go toe-to-toe on fast, loud, complex material, it is Williams who brings the most beauty and the most insistence to the summit. He lights the fire at the start, and he keeps the whip at the back of his band mates throughout.
The concert segment begins with a drum solo straight from Williams's muscle, and it feels like a wave bursting around a dam. It leads into McLaughlin's line, "Dark Prince", which drops the needle right on the good stuff of fusion: loud, precise unison playing on a boppish theme as imagined by Hendrix or Keith Richards. The range of the music is surprisingly wide: a contemplative theme from Pastorus ("Continuum"), a funky "Para Oriente" by Williams, and a rock/jam-y "Are You the One, Are You the One?" But there is still a sameness to the performances still -- Tony shaping and coloring, Jaco racing or filling the landscape with notes, John trying to tell stories with his solos but, perhaps, hampered by the sound quality or just the "power trio" demand that he play for energy rather than melody.
The studio versions of the same tunes are, of course, more tame and more clean -- less exciting. And they point to the dilemma behind this band and this music generally, a dilemma that may explain why it never recorded or performed again. As jazz players in a trio setting, these musicians are trying to work in a tradition established by the likes of Nat Cole, Bill Evans, and Sonny Rollins, a three-way conversation in which three terrific musicians improvise on a theme and tell interesting stories with their musical imaginations. The arena settings and rock tradition out of which this musician draws its other side, however, is not about telling stories with your solos -- it's about a collective energy that supports the song.
These "songs" are just jazz riffs created as an excuse for the blowing that follows, and they still sound that way today. The blowing is gloriously strong and even thrilling, but it lacks the alchemy of Nat Cole. And the collective power of the trio never quite gathers -- they are under-rehearsed and moving in different directions at once.
That said, Trio of Doom remains a first-class souvenir of not only a historic concert but also a particular era, a time when jazz and rock had collided and burst into a short-lived shower of sparks. This trio is more light than heat, but the show glitters.