Music

Trio of Doom: Trio of Doom Live

Three masters of 1970s jazz fusion re-emerge, collectively and on their own -- a mixed, if rich, blessing.


Trio of Doom

Trio of Doom Live

Contributors: John McLaughlin, Jaco Pastorius, Tony Williams
Label: Legacy
US Release Date: 2007-06-26
UK Release Date: 2007-06-25
Amazon
iTunes

John McLaughlin

The Essential John McLaughlin

Label: Legacy
US Release Date: 2007-06-26
UK Release Date: 2007-06-25
Amazon
iTunes

Jaco Pastorius

The Essential Jaco Pastorius

Label: Legacy
US Release Date: 2007-06-26
UK Release Date: 2007-06-25
Amazon
iTunes

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.

7

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image