When Jazz Went Bad

The same old thing wasn’t going to cut it in the early 1970s. And just about anything recorded before Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, in other words before 1969, was the same old thing. That wasn’t going to grab the ears of the hip new audience Miles had attracted with his magnum opus. And record companies wanted that audience…bad.

The music collected on Bridge Into the New Age, all of it (with the exception of one cut) recorded between 1971 and 1974 documents attempts to bring jazz into the age of Aquarius. There are reflections of the political, social and cultural trends that influenced the music, mirrored by peace-and-love themes and cries of “Free Angela!” as well as attempts to meld Afro-centric rhythms and soul–the “bad” sounds of James Brown, Sly Stone and Issac Hayes among others–to an art form which was popularly seen as  becoming to intellectual and formless  (though this wasn’t necessarily so).

As Bridge illustrates, there was much about this movement that was successful. The period (and earlier) produced some great music, not all of it by Davis. Any comprehensive selection of the era’s hits would have to include Miroslav Vitous’ Infinite Search, Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi, Wayne Shorter’s Super Nova, Joe Zawinul’s Zawinul, Weather Report’s eponymous first album and a host of others. Bridge documents the Milestone/Prestige label’s attempts at staying current. That most of the music here is satisfying and timeless in its appeal speaks to the musicians on the label’s roster–Joe Henderson, McCoy Tyner, Idris Muhammad, Gary Bartz–and their ability to maintain their individuality even as their approach to music changed.

The music reflects trends of the era: spiritual and ethnic-consciousness themes, electric instrumentation, emphasis on vocals, percussive color, accessible beats that supported strong and sometimes free-form solos, attempts to include non-traditional instrumentation into the mix, movement towards larger ensembles. Here, those trends are represented by drummer Muhammad’s eight-piece ensemble playing “Peace,” with two additional percusionists (occasionally augmented by saxophonist Clarence Thomas on bells) joining the drummer in rhythmic layering.  Larry Willis attaches echoplex and ring modulator to his keyboard for Henderson’s “Tress-Cun-De-O-La” with the leader’s vocal and guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer providing dissonant elements.  Alice Coltrane brings harp to Henderson’s “Fire.” Todd Cochran, performing then as Bayete, balances clavinet against the horn section on one of “Free Angela”‘s three sections. Gary Bartz sing lyrics from Langston Hughes before cutting loose on alto.  None of the tunes would be identified (except by militant purists) as anything other than jazz. Yet they all sound different than earlier schools of swing, be-bop, post-bop. New.

It’s impossible to tell if (or how much) this direction resulted from label influence (as it did from the Columbia label) or if it came from the artists themselves.  And not everything here is music to our ears. Compare vocals from artist themselves (Henderson, Bartz, Cochran’s chorus) to Jean Carn’s strong and convincing voice on Azar Lawrence’s tune that gives the collection its title, or her work on  “Mother of the Future” from Norman Connors’ Slewfoot. The one piece that stands apart from the rest–Jack DeJonette’s “Brown, Warm and Wintry”–was recorded in 1968. Maybe something from the 1975 Prestige date Cosmic Chicken would have better fit the program (his excellent1970 recording Have You Heard? on Milestone may have been too far out or its trio too underpopulated to be included).

Needless to say, much of this music’s positive direction lost out as jazz recording moved on to jazz-rock and fusion. Too bad. But the Rabbit, who owned all but one of these recordings as a bunny, remembers the hopeful feeling this music gave him…and the conviction it gave that there indeed was something new under the sun. Dumb bunny.–Cabbage Rabbit

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