Twenty Perfect Jazz Albums of the 1970s
Many listeners have a visceral aversion to popular jazz from the ‘70s, and fusion is a genre with an only marginally better reputation than the smooth jazz that followed it. I can relate to this because I remember disliking this music myself. I find, however, that prejudices oftentimes disappear the deeper one gets into something, and I now see the jazz of the ‘70s as like the music from any other time: The great stuff hovers above any particular era, whereas the not-as-great stuff seems dated. I actually believe the best jazz from the ’70s holds its own against the best jazz from any earlier time period. (Notice I didn’t say “better” or even “equal” but “holds its own.”)
A lot of this music has not aged well, but I wonder if this is largely for superficial reasons. Many of the major jazz musicians from this era adopted gurus of some variety and seemed to see their music as a conduit for their spirituality/mysticism, and some song or album titles even mention astrology (*shudder*). The extreme free jazz of the late ‘60s could be seen as a reaction to the war, assassinations, and racial strife that characterized the era, but in the ‘70s this sound was largely replaced by musicians wanting to create music that could be enjoyed by many rather than appreciated by a few. The emerging (relatively) more enlightened attitudes about sex inform much of the music, and I think Lonnie Liston Smith captured something of the zeitgeist when on the back of Expansions he writes, “Many thanks to the Creator for all the beautiful women in the Galaxy. Their inspiration enhanced the creation of this album.” Drugs also influenced the music, though I think not necessarily any more than in other decades, and traveling swing musicians in the ’30s may have been responsible for initially popularizing marijuana across America. I actually think it could be argued that the majority of the “good kind of music” in any era is both inspired by sex and fueled by intoxication.
Personally, the thing the bothers me most about fusion is that too frequently the otherwise great jazz musicians playing it only understood the jazz side of it and seemed to have no natural feeling for what quality rock music actually sounds like. The Hendrix influence was ubiquitous, but as I hear things, it seems obvious when a player has really taken in the music of the Hendrix Experience (or James Brown) and when they are operating on a superficial understanding of what that kind of music sounds like. But at its best, fusion succeeds as both jazz and rock.
These are albums that continue to speak to me the most over many listenings. In alphabetical order:
John Abercrombie / Dave Holland / Jack DeJohnette – Gateway (ECM / 1975)
The “Gateway Trio” plays a different kind of rock-inspired jazz than Weather Report, Return to Forever, et al. Their sound is as primal as Hendrix’s trio but as empathetic as Bill Evans’s—one gets the feeling they were listening hard to each other. John Abercrombie’s guitar playing—heavy but understated—gives Holland and DeJohnette space to get into empathetic bass/drum interaction on the level of Scott Lafaro/Paul Motian. DeJohnette’s drumming in particular sounds at times so far beyond what one would imagine a singular human could be capable of that it’s a bit frightening. I probably listen to this more than any other album from this decade with the possible exception of On the Corner.
Art Ensemble of Chicago – Les Stances a Sophie (Pathe / 1970)
Recorded as a soundtrack to a French New Wave film that was never made. The AEC mix their whimsical jazz fury with soul, Monteverdi variations, and some more swinging tunes that occasionally even resemble a proper ‘60s style jazz soundtrack. I find it difficult not to get chills when listening to the opening track, “Theme de Yoyo,” as much for the jaw-dropping collective prowess of the Ensemble as the harrowing vocals by soul singer Fontella Bass, who was married to trumpeter Lester Bowie at the time. But that song is just one of the great and memorable performances on my favorite AEC album from this period.
George Benson – Beyond the Blue Horizon (CTI / 1972)
After the massive success of Breezin’ in ’76 George Benson went on to record a lot of music I’ve never really tried to get into. To me George Benson is all about the string of excellent albums he recorded for CTI in the first half of the ‘70s. Beyond the Blue Horizon—the grittiest and best of these albums—could make many naysayers a George Benson believer. Obscure organist Clarence Palmer provides a perfect foil for Benson’s consistently masterful playing, and like a good number of my favorite albums form this era, Ron Carter and Jack DeJohnette are in the house.
Billy Cobham – Spectrum (Atlantic / 1973)
Everything came together on drummer Billy Cobham’s debut, where he expanded on the sound he helped define a year earlier on Mahavishnu’s debut. Jan Hammer delves further into the heavy electronic keyboard sound of that album, but what really makes Spectrum stand out is Tommy Bolin’s heavy blues guitar (Bolin would later join Deep Purple before overdosing at 25). This album rocks as hard—and is as impassioned—as anything Led Zeppelin or The Who was doing at the time.
Ornette Coleman – Science Fiction (Columbia / 1971)
Before Coleman moved into an electric direction with his Prime Time group, he begun the ’70s taking the radical sound Coleman pioneered in the late ’50s to its zenith. Ornette’s group at the time included quartet veterans Dewey Redman, Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, and Ed Blackwell, and all unite on Science Fiction to relentlessly bring to fruition Coleman’s one-of-a-kind musical vision. Indian vocalist Asha Puthli sings two otherworldly pop songs, and even the jazz poetry and sound effects of a baby crying on the title track somehow work for me in the context of this consistently superb album.
Miles Davis – On the Corner (Columbia / 1972)
Miles Davis’s electric ninth symphony and the last truly essential Miles Davis album. His previous electric masterworks—In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, and Jack Johnson—seem to point in the direction of On the Corner, where Miles gets his freaky vibe just right. (And yes, I do also love Pangaea, Agharta, and the mid 70s stuff too.) I don’t know what people are talking about when they mention this as a commercial period for Miles Davis. Selling out? Have you ever played this music for “normal” people? But I actually have no idea what this album sounds like, since every listening hits me in an entirely different way. All I’m sure of is that it’s a work of genius that I will spend the rest of my life absorbing.
Jim Hall – Concierto (CTI / 1975)
Though CTI was known for high-quality fusion releases, it’s the meticulously recorded and arranged straight-ahead albums on this label I come back to more, especially Paul Desmond’s Pure Desmond and this one by guitarist Jim Hall, which is considered his greatest work by many. On the up-tempo numbers Jim Hall with Paul Desmond, Chet Baker, and pianist Roland Hanna pull off one brilliant solo after another over Ron Carter and drummer Jim Gadd’s rock solid timekeeping. Then they journey together into an epic 20-minute arrangement of “Concierto de Aranjuez.”
Herbie Hancock & Mwandishi – Sextant (Columbia / 1972)
As great at the Headhunters were, the preceding Mwandishi sextet is in my opinion Herbie Hancock’s greatest group of the fusion period. They took the sinister funk Miles Davis invented further than any group other than, well, Miles Davis’s. As great as The Crossing and Mwandishi are, this group’s final album is the one that most effectively lights a fire in me. These indescribable electronic textures might make one wonder if Herbie Hancock recorded the greatest electronica album ever.
Dave Holland Quartet – Conference of the Birds (ECM / 1973)
Virtually any listener interested in jazz that could remotely be considered adventurous needs to own and absorb this album. Like Kind of Blue, Shape of Jazz to Come, or Ah-Um, it is impossible to see how any credible reviewer could award this album anything less that 5 stars / A+ / “Core Collection” / whatever the best is. In its own way I believe the sound exemplified here will prove as timeless as be-bop or swing. The interaction between saxophonists Sam Rivers and Anthony Braxton is astounding, and drummer Barry Altschul and bassist/composer Dave Holland give career-defining performances.
Keith Jarrett – Nude Ants (ECM / 1979)
Keith Jarrett started the ‘70s in Miles Davis’s group and then recorded the most commercially successful solo piano album ever, but many aficionados love most the albums with his “American quartet” and “European quartet.” I myself find it mystifying that the last European quartet album, Nude Ants, is not more widely regarded as top shelf Keith Jarrett on the level of The Koln Concert, Survivors Suite, or Standards. Maybe Belonging or My Song, the other great albums by this quartet, are safer places for the Jarrett novice to start, but to me he has hardly ever sounded as impassioned as he does on this album, where Jarrett delves into beautiful extremes that encompass his full range. This live at the Village Vanguard recording also gave me a new appreciation for Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek, who sounds equally enflamed.
Rahsaan Roland Kirk – The Case of the 3 Sided Dream in Audio Color (Atlantic / 1975)
There are jazz fans who turn up their noses at Roland Kirk, but I’ll bet they’re not much fun to party with. Musical savant Roland Kirk was a true multi-instrumentalist who could play just about anything (and two saxophones at once if necessary). Even beyond Bright Moments and Blacknuss, he recorded many great and underappreciated albums in the ‘70s, but this strange album is my favorite of them all. In twenty-one (!) typically succinct tunes Kirk proves beyond any doubt that he intimately understands every style of funky music there is, and I believe he invents a few new kinds along the way.
Mahavishnu Orchestra – Birds of Fire (Columbia / 1973)
The jazz guys in Mahavishnu Orchestra got deep into progressive rock on their 1971 debut, Inner Mounting Flame. As great as that album is, it’s Birds of Fire that most consistently sounds better every time I listen to it. Each of John McClaughlin’s memorable compositions are mind-blowing, and Billy Cobham again defines himself as perhaps the top drummer to come of age in this decade after Jack DeJohnette. Complex time signatures have never rocked this hard.
Pat Martino – Footprints (Muse / 1972)
I once thought of Pat Martino as good but more of a “musician’s musician.” It took spending some time with his ’70s work—and seeing him live—for me to realize he’s actually a Bad Motherfucker. His playing is rooted in a hard-bop style informed by Wes Montgomery and Kenny Burrell, but Martino’s volatile sound is very much his own.
Charles Mingus – Let My Children Hear Music (Columbia / 1972)
Mingus’s last masterpiece is on par with Ah Um and Blues and Roots. He himself considered it is his greatest recording according to some sources. For the first time Mingus controls a large orchestra with a proper string section, and all the mercurial elements that make Mingus a genius of 20th century music are here in abundance. I find if mystifying that Columbia has never given this a proper CD release with re-mastering using current technology and decent liner notes with personnel (not to mention including Mingus’s original liner notes printed in full).
Joe Pass – Virtuoso (Pablo / 1974)
During the height of the fusion movement Joe Pass recorded his old school magnum opus, a solo guitar album of jazz standards basically played in the style of Art Tatum. I don’t have the musical vocabulary to properly describe why each note of each piece sounds so damn masterful, but I hear a man who sounds like he would die for these songs (sorry if that sounds melodramatic). There is no jazz collection that should be without Virtuoso.
Sam Rivers – Crystals (Impulse! / 1974)
Sam Rivers leads a jazz big band that sounds damn fine, even in a world where the competition includes Mingus and Ellington. Personally, I found it pleasantly surprising to discover that Sam Rivers’ stuff as a big band composer so uncompromisingly fascinating, and of course it helped that he’s assembled a superb lineup of ‘70s powerhouses in their prime, including Billy Hart, Hamiet Bluiett, Bob Stewart, and many others.
Max Roach & Anthony Braxton – Birth and Rebirth (Black Saint / 1978)
The 1968 Coltrane/Rashied Ali collaboration Interstellar Space set the bar monumentally high for this kind of sax/drummer duo recording, but this is the album I come back to more frequently. (In fact, when Rashied Ali heard that Max Roach was playing free, he said, “Well, Max is playing free now. I guess I’ll go home and get my little rubber practice pad and wait for him to get ten years older.”) Ultra avant-gardist Anthony Braxton and be-bop master Max Roach get deep into soulful music that is outside while still swinging like hell. However one chooses to classify this —free or whatever—this is an album that could easily convert the unbeliever to this kind of music.
Sun Ra and his Astro Intergalactic Infinity Arkestra – Space is the Place (Impulse! / 1972)
Simply one of the most majestic jazz albums ever recorded. At first June Tyson and the “space ethnic voices” may sound dated, but listen to it again under the right circumstances. I can’t say what it means exactly, but I know space is in fact the place. And from there the album goes, well, deeper into outer space. Best credit ever: “As all Marines are riflemen, all members of the Arkestra are percussionists.” (Can’t resist a shout-out to Sun Ra’s equally awesome 1978 album Lanquidity, where he gets deep into fusion.)
McCoy Tyner – Enlightenment (Milestone / 1973)
Though I listened frequently to his late-‘60s Blue Note albums, it took me a while to get hip to the fact that McCoy Tyner in the ‘70s is a period worthy of even greater attention. Tyner is committed at this time to keeping true to the sound of the classic Coltrane quartet circa ’64, and he recorded several albums a year during this period with excellent bands featuring saxophonists like Gary Bartz and Sonny Fortune. Enlightenment features a more obscure but equally good saxophonist, Azar Lawerence, and is recorded live at the 1973 Montreux festival. While the band is consistently great (especially powerhouse drummer Alphonze Mouzon), Tyner himself sounds frantically possessed performing several of his extended compositions.
Weather Report – Weather Report (Columbia / 1971)
Weather Report is for me all about their first few albums. I have yet to develop much appreciation for their more commercially successful albums recorded after bassist Miroslav Vitous left and the band went in a more funk/r&b direction. To me their best album is their haunting self-titled debut, where they expand upon the brooding fusion of In a Silent Way. If the dozen or so albums they went on to record never existed, this absolutely unique album would still make Weather Report worth celebrating.
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