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When Jazz bonded with Rock

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If writer Rudyard Kipling had lived another 30 years after his 1936 demise, he might have written, “Oh, jazz is jazz and rock is rock, and never the twain shall meet.” But then, musicians like guitarist Larry Coryell, vibraphonist Gary Burton, saxophonist Charles Lloyd and the legendary composer-trumpeter Miles Davis would have wished to prove him otherwise.

Overnight, in the late 1960s, the term jazz-rock was born. Some called it jazz fusion.  Albums like Davis’ ‘Bitches Brew’, and acts like drummer Tony Williams’ Lifetime, Weather Report, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, pianist Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, Return To Forever and violinist Jean Luc Ponty became sudden sensations. Later, guitarist Pat Metheny stormed the scene.

The movement came out of a desire to attract the younger rock-oriented audiences to jazz, a movement which evolved in the 1930s and went through different stylistic changes over time. As the

late Coryell said in an earlier interview, “In the mid-1960s, we were all experimenting with ideas. The world had tuned in to rock ‘n’ roll, Elvis Presley, Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Who and Bob Dylan. Jazz records weren’t doing as well as them. So some of us said, let’s blend the styles.”

Initially, it started as a limited, cult movement. The Coryell-Burton album ‘Duster’ became a trendsetter.

Though Davis had experimented with the style on his albums ‘In A Silent Way’ and ‘Filles De Kilimanjaro’, it was his 1970 record ‘Bitches Brew’ which changed the scenario. Featuring a galaxy of stars like guitarist John McLaughlin, keyboardists Joe Zawinul and Chick Corea, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, bassist Dave Holland and an assortment of multi-styled drummers, it created a sound that influenced many musicians with a desire to experiment and break free.

jazz rock

McLaughlin soon formed the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Zawinul and Shorter teamed up on Weather Report, which over the years featured legendary bassists Miroslav Vitous, Alphonso Johnson, Jaco Pastorius and Victor Bailey.

Says McLaughlin, who is performing with his current band the 4th Dimension at the Royal Opera House on February 8 and 9, “Mahavishnu was all about team spirit. It wasn’t just about my guitar, but I wrote pieces keeping each musician in mind. That’s what jazz is all about.”

One distinctive feature of jazz-rock was its prominent use of the electric guitar, electric bass and synthesisers. Rock techniques like distortion, feedback and crashing drum solos were used freely. The other unique bit was the blend of diverse styles like rock, funk, African music, Latin sounds and in some cases Indian elements with jazz, thus creating newer, unheard sounds.

In India, the style had a limited but devoted following in the 1970s but picked up in the early 1980s. Abroad, most records in the genre were released by Columbia (now Sony Music) but stores had limited stocks. Says veteran jazz, blues and rock radio jockey Ravi Khanolkar, “We all loved the sound but availability was restricted. We depended mainly on friends who brought LPs from the US or UK.”

Sunil Sampat, jazz connoisseur and event organiser, says the actual following for jazz-rock happened more because of the Indo-fusion movement created in the 1970s. Shakti, featuring McLaughlin, violinist L Shankar, tabla maestro Zakir Hussain and ghatam player Vikku Vinayakram did successful shows.

“With Shakti, people got exposed to McLaughlin’s music and then tried out Mahavishnu Orchestra which led them to Weather Report and others. Also, keyboardist Louiz Banks played a huge role. His album ‘Sangam’ with Rama Mani was a hugely admired and got many people into jazz fusion,” says Sampat.

The jazz-rock movement lasted well into the mid-1980s but simultaneously the smooth jazz culture took over. This involved a blending with pop and simple styles, making it accessible to younger audiences. Artistes like guitarist George Benson, saxophonist Grover Washington Jr and flugelhorn player Chuck Mangione grabbed a huge following as did the bands Spyro Gyra and keyboardist Joe Sample’s Crusaders. Though critics called him an elevator music player, saxophonist Kenny G was marketed in the smooth jazz genre, and sold huge volumes of records.

Media exposure to jazz in India was limited. Banks had a popular radio show and later Khanolkar handled the jazz section at WorldSpace. “I wish there was more exposure of any form of jazz on radio and TV,” says Khanolkar.

Yet, there were followers of the original, experimental form of jazz-rock. As jazz fan, Milind Gupte says, “I would get those albums recorded on a Sony or TDK blank tape. Later on, a lot were available on pre-recorded cassettes which I bought from Rhythm House in Mumbai. Then I picked up their CDs. Today, I am collecting vinyl records of Mahavishnu, Weather Report and Ponty.”

That brings us to today’s digital world, where labels and copyright owners are using newer ways of marketing music. A Sony Music spokesperson talks of the company’s approach to jazz-rock, “Today we primarily use social media, pop-up stores or even jazz venues like the Quarter in Mumbai or Piano Man in New Delhi. When anniversary albums are released, there is a global noise. We also feature tracks on mood-based playlists.”

The following for jazz-rock may have dwindled compared to the past. Primarily, it remains a genre that was seriously followed by those born in the 1950s and 1960s. But there’s a twist here too. I told 57-year-old Hindustani classical fan Vasant Kamath I was doing a piece on jazz-rock. His response, “Great. I will note down the names you mention and search on YouTube. Will hear everything free. Have stopped buying classical music too.”

As Kipling would have said, “Oh, vinyl is vinyl and YouTube is YouTube, and never  the twain shall meet.” Maybe his ‘Jungle Book’ needs to be written in a music industry context.

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Narendra Kusnur

Author: Narendra Kusnur

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