Sunday, October 26, 2008

Setting the Music Free

Miles Davis - photo © 1983 by Paul Natkin

Tony Williams Lifetime - photographer unknown

Headhunters - photo by Beth Herzhaft

Weather Report - photographer unknown

Mahavishnu Orchestra - photographer unknown

Return to Forever - photographer unknown

In constructing the Mount Rushmore of Jazz-Rock Fusion, this photograph might seem redundant in some ways, or unnecessarily obscure in others. It is included here for two reasons: 1) the shot, likely taken in July of 1972 at Moldejazz, a large international festival held annually in Molde, Norway, includes four of the five people who in October would go into London's I.B.C. Studios on two successive Sundays to record Light As A Feather (Polydor 1972/ Verve 1998), regarded now as among the half dozen truly seminal recordings of the genre; and 2) the photo includes Airto Moreira, whose impact in shaping the formative sound of this band cannot be overstated. His face isn't carved into the history of jazz-rock like Tony Williams, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter, John McLaughlin or Miles Davis, but like scores of other musicians whose faces should be immortalized, he is missing only because of the limitations of the dangerously fickle worlds of engineering celebrity and sculpting mountains with dynamite.

In the beginning stages of creating his band Chick had been employing Horacee Arnold as his drummer. Arnold was no slouch, but at the time he was more interested in straight ahead and free jazz than the band's Latin-flavored fusion. One day Chick asked his singer, Flora Purim, to bring her husband along to a rehearsal for an upcoming gig at the Village Vanguard (the two had played together in Miles Davis' band, so they were already somewhat familiar with each other). When Airto sat in with them it was immediately apparent that his samba rhythms were exactly what the band needed. The influence he had in creating the wide open spaces and sunny, relaxed atmospherics of the early editions of Return to Forever is immeasurable.

Also pictured in the photo between Airto and Stanley Clarke is Billy Tragesser, whose vocal talents were temporarily being employed in the absence of the fifth member of the band who was busy giving birth to her and Airto's daughter, Diana. Standing on Chick's right is one of his oldest friends from the early scuffling days in New York, Joe Farrell, the multi-reedman (all saxes, flutes, even double reeds) who had fortuitously taken the place of flautist Hubert Laws and whose extraordinary talents ultimately did as much as Wayne Shorter's in defining the uplifting positivity and emotional high that was created by early Jazz-Rock. This exact configuration of musicians, consisting of (l. to r.) Farrell, Corea, Clarke, Tragesser and Moreira, did a taping for the television program Reelin' In The Years which showed them playing their current book of material. In seeing and hearing it live the real woof and warp of the music, the real spirit of it, is conveyed in all its glory. Unbelievable as that sounds... because certainly, anyone familiar with the Polydor recording knows Flora's nearly six-octave range and incredible vocal gymnastics are an integral part of it. But Tragesser is a good vocalist and does fine by the material. The unfortunate irony is that this is the only available video of that stellar band in performance. It is strangely absent from the RITY catalog ( so until they work out how to release it as a DVD, it exists only as a very hard-to-find VHS bootleg,

The only audio recording I've ever heard of this band performing live is also, unfortunately, a bootleg. This bothers me on a number of levels. As a fan, I always want to hear good recordings. Listening to scratchy, low-fidelity crap hasn't ever been my idea of a good time, so I really don't mind paying a fair price for a well-made professional recording. I actually like to support the artists involved, too, and thus have never felt a strong urge to "rip" commercial recordings. I know that if I enjoy hearing a particular musician's music, I need to make sure he has money to pay the bills and keep making music -- not many jazzers are in a rock-and-roll income bracket. But when musicians and/or their record companies can't manage to release recordings, especially of live performance, then bootlegs are what we fans are left with.

Over the past few days these ruminations have taken on an almost mystical quality for me as I've pondered the carefree expression on Airto's face in the photo, recalling something he said to me in an interview we did three years ago. As he reminisced and compared those early days in the Village in New York to the atmosphere in music today, he said, "Music became a commodity, a big commodity, you know, that people buy and they sell." With nostalgia in his voice, he described being afforded the opportunity to hang out and play with the likes of Elvin and Thad Jones, Billy Higgins, Jimmy Garrison, Billy Hart, Mel Lewis, Jerry Dodgion, Walter Booker and Jan Hammer, during a time when "music kind of represented a fraternity in the world, because we played for everybody and we played with each other, for no reason... no money, you know, we wanted to jam. . . I remember, sometimes we used to go, you know, just take the subway, going up and down, and we used to go to three different places in one night, jamming. . . Now, instead of sharing music, it's a lot of competition, actually. Competition replaced sharing. But since then... Of course, there's still sharing. Sharing is going to be in the world forever. But it's very different now."

As long as there are people like Airto, I believe he's right: there will always be sharing in the world, and it will inspire performances like this improvised homage he did for Miles in the 2004 documentary, Miles Electric: A Different Kind of Blue (Eagle Rock Entertainment).

That spirit of sharing has me intrigued. It is the opposite sentiment from the one engulfing the Free World at the moment. After a steady diet of bad and worse economic news in recent months, people have backed fearfully into their corners, the Haves barricading themselves and secreting their wealth while the Have Nots try to force them at bayonet-point to share it. Sort of a silent French Revolution. How stupid. It is the very ethical short-sightedness and political selfishness of one and all that precipitated these awful economic problems in the first place.

The music industry's own variation on the problematic economy is in free fall as well. Through monopolization and price gouging they have helped produce poor sales and a whole segment of the population that sneaks into clubs and "shares" digital files. Once again, how stupid.

In the spirit of the moment, I want to promote a few websites that openly share their musical bounty. These sites are particularly near and dear to my heart because they contain recordings of live performances. In the case of National Public Radio's World Cafe, you've already helped support them with your tax dollars. Wolfgang's Vault (The State of the Art and Wolfgang's Vault ) will gladly sell you 256K MP3 CDs of their massive collection of performances. In JazzFusion.TV's case you aren't going to be able to spend money on Rich Rivkin very easily. With all three you can stream the audio of untold thousands of incredible live performances. These people are in the business of setting the music free.

WOLFGANG'S VAULT ( has tons of classic 70's performances by Miles Davis, Weather Report, Return to Forever, Jean-Luc Ponty, Jeff Beck, Mahavishnu Orchestra (a staggering collection of 25 shows recorded in that beautiful year, 1973). The owners of the site say they pay appropriate royalties to all involved.

JAZZFUSION.TV's videos are not the attraction, the audio files are. Many of these are privately recorded, so the quality is sometimes poor, but usually it's acceptable. Distinguishing features include a half dozen recordings of the under-recorded Tony Williams Lifetime, a few minutes of a rare Lenny White performance from 1977, Airto and Flora and a veritable trainload of Return to Forever (including one of the few decent captures of their 1983 reunion tour), Bill Bruford, Jeff Beck, Gary Burton, Larry Coryell, etc. The site is unique in that its proprietor does not sell his recordings, and makes them available on the basis that visitors to his site do not, either.

NPR's WORLD CAFE is unique in the respect that it is comprised of live in-studio performances digitally recorded at Philadelphia's WXPN studios since 1991. You can hear high-fidelity recordings of all manner of musical performers, including jazzers like Pat Metheny, Bela Fleck, Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, and Herbie Hancock.

And you can stream the audio from all these sites for FREE. If you want to even up the kharmic exchange, make what comes around go around, you can buy the artist's CDs.

Yes, buy their CDs, and go see them perform live. Experience the music with all your perceptions and participatory might. Have some fun and give that kharmic wheel a good shove at the same time! It is worth noting: Flora told me that while she and Airto were playing in Return to Forever, they were lucky to make fifty bucks a week after expenses, but they didn't really care as long as they were able to help create that great music. Then she smiled and pointed out that when Verve did the 2-CD box re-issue of Light As A Feather in 1998, Chick sent them "a couple big checks".


Carlton said...

"music kind of represented a fraternity in the world"

These words echo from a period in time lost seemingly to commercialism, and gains. Yet they bring a smile to my face that lives in my soul and rarely has the opportunity to come forth. The joy that "jamming" brought to a generation was a reality. No video games, sports was not plastered in every nook and cranny of advertising realty. Your blog brings home a time lost to many but very much alive in musicians hearts and souls, Carl keep up the great work and Keep Jazzing!!!!

Carl Hager said...

Thanks for the kind words, Carlton. I'm very happy you liked this. I will keep on jazzing, that's for sure!

Olli Laasanen said...

Carl, thanks for this information. I just posted pictures I took during a gig by Return to Forever in 1972 in Pori, Finland ( Your blog helped me to understand and clarify Billy Tragesser's role in the band.