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The Rockologist: My Journey Into Jazz

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Jazz Music used to really piss me off.

Back when I was in high school in the seventies, there were basically two classes of kids when it came to music. You had your long haired rocker types like me, who favored pre-heavy metal bands like Alice Cooper and Uriah Heep. And then you had the "straight" kids — the cheerleader girls who swooned to Elton John and Seals And Croft, and the fathead macho jocks who grooved to jazz influenced bands like Chicago and Blood Sweat And Tears. So, since the rock and roll music guys like me enjoyed was widely believed to be made by long haired communist hippie queers, I knew for sure that I wanted no part of jazz on principle alone.

This pre-determination was further reinforced by my high school journalism rival, a guy named Mike DeFelice. Mike and I were friendly enough — we even got involved as partners for a time organizing a public forum about the school levy. But when it came to music, we just couldn't see eye to eye. At the time, I wrote a popular column for the school paper called "Rock Talk." Mike of course countered that with his own music column, "Jivin' With Jazz."

But Mike actually got to me with one record, a jazz version of "2001: A Space Odyssey," by this guy named Eumir Deodato. I already loved the movie, so he pretty much had me right there. Deodato's version jazzed up the original with a slick arrangement centered around the artist's Fender Rhodes keyboards. I had discovered my first guilty pleasure. Which was a secret I had no small problem in trying to keep from my rocker buddies at the time.

So, this began my teenage exposure to jazz music. In the early going though, it would prove to be a rough journey. Deodato's album was recorded on a "jazz boutique" label called CTI (which stood for Creed Taylor Inc., named after the label's founder). In addition to the music, what I liked most about CTI was their glossy album packaging. So I decided to seek out other recordings on this label.

What I would soon find out about CTI is the music was even glossier than the packaging. Their specialty, it seemed, was this sort of watered down, heavily orchestrated version of what I would later find out was "real jazz." So this meant that for every good album like say, Mr. Magic by Grover Washington Jr., you'd have to wade through five or six other records of what amounted to cleverly disguised elevator music from guys like Stanley Turrentine, Bob James, and George Benson. My brief flirtation with CTI's brand of jazz ended as quickly as it began.

Years later however, I discovered "fusion," mostly as an outgrowth of my newly discovered love for the progressive rock of bands like Genesis and Yes. The first "fusion" album I bought was Where Have I Known You Before (attracted once again by it's gorgeous album cover) by Chick Corea and Return To Forever. The musicianship on this album just knocked me out from the get go. Not only did you have the none too subtle keyboard flourishes of Corea here — you also got the guitar flash of Al DiMeola and the bass popping of Stanley Clarke as a bonus. By the time of RTF's followup album, No Mystery, the band moved in a more funk oriented direction and Clarke in particular was allowed to really shine. Both Clarke and DiMeola would of course go on to achieve even greater heights as solo artists.

As I delved ever deeper into fusion, wading my way through endless albums by the likes of John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra and Josef Zawinul's Weather Report, I discovered yet another "jazz boutique label" called ECM. Like CTI, this label also had the slick, artsy-fartsy album covers, but the music here came more in the form of atmospheric soundscapes. I discovered a myriad of great artists here, from Julian Preister to Norweigan guitarist Terje Rypdal. But none of these floored me on near the level that a guitarist named Pat Metheny did.

The thing about Metheny was that accomplished a guitarist as he obviously was, he understood the meaning of economic playing like few guitarists that good ever could. In other words, Metheny never clobbered you over the head with his playing the same way his peers like McLaughlin and DiMeola did. Metheny's specialty was more in leaving enough space between the notes to allow the listener to color their own images for themselves.

With his musical partner in crime Lyle Mays, Pat Metheny made what in my mind remain two essential albums of what I call "late night road music." To me, there is simply no music in existence that without the benefit of words, paints a more perfect image of driving down a lonely stretch of highway at 1 AM quite the same way that As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls does. However, it's followup Offramp comes pretty damn close, particularly with the track "Are You Going With Me."

So with these records, what I guess I discovered about the meaning of "real jazz" is that once you get beyond the idea of great musicians improvising their asses off (which is certainly a key element of good jazz), it's really all about painting a picture or creating a mood.

Which is why it wasn't too far a stretch for me to get from Metheny's lonesome country highway to the inner city, smoky nightclub of Billie Holliday or the last call melancholy of Miles Davis Kind Of Blue.

It's not a place musically where I choose to live twenty four-seven for sure. But it's a place I visit often to this day. And the best thing about it, for me at least, is the journey getting there.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, Ultimate Classic Rock, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • http://daslob.blogspot.com/ Pico

    per Glen:
    “What I would soon find out about CTI is the music was even glossier than the packaging.Their specialty, it seemed, was this sort of watered down, heavily orchestrated version of what I would later find out was “real jazz.” So this meant that for every good album like say, Mr. Magic by Grover Washington Jr., you’d have to wade through five or six other records of what amounted to cleverly disguised elevator music from guys like Stanley Turrentine, Bob James, and George Benson. My brief flirtation with CTI’s brand of jazz ended as quickly as it began.”

    I used to think that about CTI, too, then I dug deeper into CTI’s catalog and found a lot of gems there.

    If you hadn’t listened to The Straight Life or Red Clay by Freddie Hubbard you’re missing out on two of his best albums. Turrentine’s Sugar was a mighty fine record, too.

    And while he had his share of light fare in that period, Benson’s most substantial records were CTI records. Beyond The Blue Horizon is an unheralded masterpiece.

    The key with Creed Taylor records is that most of the good stuff came from his record company’s first 3 or 4 years of existence. After about 1971 or ’72, the Don Sebesky arrangements often added too much syrup; but even then, there’s a few good records to be found in that period (Mr. Magic that you mentioned is one). When these artists defected to big record labels in the mid seventies, the quality of their records generally went south.

  • http://mondoproject.com Mark Saleski

    i love you man!!!! 😉

    seriously tho, i think i’ve only got one CTI record, and that’s some live “summer jazz festival” thing.

    it’s interesting that people like Turentine, Benson, and James have made both straight ahead jazz and the more slick stuff.

    still, i don’t think what came out of CTI was nearly as bad as some of the GRP material, or what we’d call today’s smooth jazz.

  • http://southsidestar.blogspot.com kweenkong

    My, you’re striking some beautiful chords here! I’d like to add to your superb list a few of my favorite fusion albums, each a classic:

    — “Romantic Warrior” by Return to Forever. I saw RTF perform this album live when it dropped — flawess.

    — “Man Child” by Herbie Hancock. The Herbster at his “most funkiest,” every track smokes!

    — “Electric Dreams” by John McLaughlin.

    — “Spectrum” by Billy Cobham.

    — “Black Market” by Weather Report.

    There are so many goodies — too many for us to cover. But it sure feels good to make contact with a like mind. :-) Check me out sometime.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    So Pico, I concur with you 100% on Benson’s most substantial work being the albums he did for CTI. I mean by the time he was doing stuff like “Breezin” for Warner Bros, I’m not sure you could even really call him a jazz artist anymore. He got more syrupy than ever as he crossed over to the R&B audience.

    Kween – Great list. With regard to Herbie Hancock, my favorite album of his was “Thrust,” to the point of actually forking over 30 bucks for a Japanese import CD. The song “Butterfly” off that album just gives me freaking gossebumps.

    Mr. Saleski – I’m flattered to hear you say that you “love me, man.” Just understand that this doesn’t mean we will be taking any long, hot showers together okay?

    Thanx for the comments everybody.

    -Glen

  • http://trinimansblog.blogspot.com/ Triniman

    The guitar players in high school, and one in particular, was into Pat Metheny. Soon, a few of my friends were into Pat and I was hooked early on.

    Saw him live about 8 years ago and it was an awesome experience.

    Since entering my twenties, I became fascinated with acoustic jazz and the music of Miles Davis, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Clifford Brown, Lester Young, etc. Herbie Hancock is coming to town in a few months and I can’t wait to see that show.

    I never really warmed up to Spyro Gyra or anything else that approximated their sound.

  • http://jonsobel.com/ Jon Sobel

    I had a weird introduction to jazz, I guess. Friends of mine in junior high were into Maynard Ferguson. We even went to see him once when he played at a neighboring school. In our Jazz Ensemble we did Weather Report and “Straight No Chaser” and “Malaguena” and r&b stuff like Shaft. We were into an album called “Ennea” by a band called Chase – big crazy brass stuff. (My favorite album was “Bach Takes a Trip” by Pierre Gossez, which unfortunately never came out on CD.)

    My first ever rock concert was Chicago. In the pouring rain, at Aqueduct Race Track. The things you never forget…

  • http://daslob.blogspot.com/ Pico

    BTW, I was remiss in not taking the opportinty to say that this was another enjoyable read of yours.

    Cool that you mentioned Terje Rypdal, perhaps the first bona fide whack jazz record I bought while still in high school was Waves. It’s the one with the album cover that looks like Fleetwood Mac’s Bare Trees *grin*

  • http://www.lookoutforhope.com Tom Johnson

    Great piece, Glen. I think I’ve noticed a similarity with a lot of a jazz listeners – we seem to have developed the interest essentially alone, whereas most other music interests developed from our experiences with friends. I know my interest in rock as a teen was dictated around what my friends listened to, at least until college when I really started exploring on my own, but jazz was my own thing. I knew no one and still really know no one that really gets into it the way I do, locally at least. Weird.

    And I’ll second Pico’s mention of Hubbard’s The Straight Life and Red Clay. Killer stuff.

  • Mark Saleski

    It’s the one with the album cover that looks like Fleetwood Mac’s Bare Trees *grin*

    every ECM album cover looks like Fleetwood Mac’s Bare Trees

    😉