The 1970s were a funny time for jazz. Even as jazz musicians broke new ground and some rock audiences embraced jazz fusion, the market for straight acoustic jazz was withering away to nothing. In a way it makes perfect sense. The best jazz fusion– Weather Report, Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, even Miles Davis’ cocaine-fueled funk-rock tirades– were aimed explicitly at a consumer audience with ears for electronic sounds and straight 4×4 rhythms. On the other hand, acoustic jazz in the 1970s was in general a distinctly post-everything affair. All the old movements had run their course or had gone back underground, and there wasn’t much development going on to keep casual jazz fans from putting on a Sly Stone record instead.
Naturally, this state of affairs led to some very fine music being made and immediately filed away without release. Columbia Legacy (an appendage of Sony) has begun pulling out some of these old never-weres and finally giving them a US release. Even if the jazz audience in 2005 is just as small and far more fickle than in 1977, Columbia/Legacy’s new-old releases show us that looking backward sometimes means finding out just how much we missed the first time around.
VSOP was an on-again off-again supergroup consisting of the four backing members of Miles Davis’ second quintet. Without Davis to guide (dominate) them, Herbie Hancock became the de facto leader of a quartet that also included Wayne Shorter on saxophone, Tony Williams on drums, and the ubiquitous Ron Carter on bass. The group toured and recorded in 1977, then reconvened every so often through the early 1980s. They were big in Japan, their domestic popularity crippled by accusations from the jazz establishment that their fusion experiments had desecrated the hallowed legacy of jazz itself.
VSOP recorded the double live album VSOP: Live Under The Sky direct to digital tape over two nights in Japan in 1979 in front of an enthusiastic audience, with each night’s (identical) set included in full. Living up to the great 70s tradition of killer double live records (see: Frampton, KISS, Queen, Zappa), Live Under the Sky is a world-beater, a stunning, white hot, smack-your-mother tour de force of post-everything acoustic jazz.
A clue to how the album is going to unfold comes when the band bites into the opening “Eye of the Hurricane” at about 260 beats per minute. Within 90 seconds drummer Tony Williams is beating the brains out of young Freddie Hubbard. I mean, beating the brains out of him. Leaving Ron Carter to provide the bedrock rhythm, Williams breaks into a dizzying array of pounding fills, kicks, cross-rhythms and subthemes beneath (and over top of) Hubbard’s solo, putting the young trumpet player on notice that he better bring it and good. Hubbard responds with a solo of dizzying virtuosity, repaying Williams in kind.
Throughout the number Williams spars with his bandmates, completely abandoning the beat under Hancock’s solo in favor of a barrage of rhythmic commentary on Hancock’s playing. The resulting musical dogfight finally resolves with both Hancock and Willams dropping out to let Carter walk the bass for a minute before the whole band comes back to the head, finally laying out into the serene and beautiful next selection, “Tear Drop.” For the next hour, the entire band tear into song after song with boundless creativity and power.
Lest I give you the impression that the entire record consists of two discs of musical ultimate fighting deathmatches, I must hasten to mention that about half the selections are cool downtempo meditations. More than just breaks to allow us and the musicians to catch their breaths, beautifully rendered performances of “Tear Drop,” “Para Oriente” and others find the group exploring textures, harmonies and intensities of emotion in ways that frantic workouts just won’t allow.
There is something mind-boggling about listening to four (five) players among the greatest of all time leaving behind all the rules and just playing whatever feels right in the moment. With nods to everything – bop, modal jazz, cool jazz, Mingus-style third stream suites, free blowing a la Ornette Coleman, the group move in and out of song structures, extending, reiterating, and demolishing at will.
Interestingly, the extended post-bop VSOP are doing here is the stylistic exact opposite of what most of its members were pursuing in their day jobs. The Headhunters (Hancock) and Weather Report (Shorter) were exploring space, extended funk jams and newfangled electronics, and Williams was recording noisy jazz-punk with Ronnie Montrose. By way of contrast, VSOP relied on the tried and true devices of acoustic instruments and bop harmonies. Live Under The Sky comes on like a Cassius Clay uppercut. A thrilling, breathtaking, incredible live set from five players in perfect tune.
Herbie Hancock’s recorded output is both extensive and spotty, and it can be difficult for someone just getting acquainted with his work to know quite where to begin. Both VSOP: Live Under The Sky and its Columbia/Legacy partner release The Piano deserve a place on every jazz fan’s shelf as major contributions not only to the work of one the greatest living keyboardists but to the state of the art of jazz.
This post also appears at the Ministry of Minor Perfidy. The Ministry of Minor Perfidy is clinically proven to prevent heart disease, the staggers, dropsy, and aftosa.*
The Ministry of Minor Perfidy is not clinically proven to prevent heart disease, the staggers, dropsy, or aftosa.