Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Strange Feelin’: When Rock Meets Jazz









In July of 1969, while Neil Armstrong took his walk on the moon, here on earth, Tim Buckley and Miles Davis were taking their own giant steps toward where only few had gone before: Buckley changed his style and went jazz-rock on his acoustic odyssey Happy Sad, while Davis went entirely electric, forever changing jazz and launching fusion with In a Silent Way. Both men had their reasons for changing their songs… Dig these origins of the new music.

Davis’1959 album Kind of Blue had already revolutionized jazz, steering away from chord progression and toward modes or scales as the base for its jams. Contributing to Miles making the leap in his own music was his contemplation of the piano style of Ahmad Jamal. “In Jamal he recognized a kindred spirit and freely borrowed whatever he could from him,” wrote Jack Chambers in Milestones: The Music and Times of Miles Davis. “Davis made no effort to conceal his debt.” Nor would Buckley try to hide his 10 years later when he used Miles’ “All Blues”, from Kind of Blue, as the inspiration for his vocal improvisations on “Strange Feelin’”, which opens Happy Sad. Improvisation, interpretation, and expression of influence are of course just a part of what makes jazz swing.

Buckley had been studying up on the music’s construction while hanging out at his Venice, California pad, listening to Miles and guitarist Gabor Szabo and saxophonist Roland Kirk, among other jazzers. He was a fan of the Modern Jazz Quartet, especially its vibraphonist Milt Jackson, who specialized in cool, and was inspired to secure a vibes player of his own, David Friedman, for his new lineup. In December of 1968, Buckley, with his 12-string acoustic, headed to Elektra Sound Recorders in Los Angeles with Friedman, Lee Underwood on lead guitar, Carter Collins on congas, and John Miller on acoustic bass for the recording of Happy Sad. The acoustic lineup was a switch, as was the absence of Buckley’s writing partner, Larry Beckett—an attempt to break free from the constraints of poetic social protest and into the revolution of his own mind. Guitarist Underwood recalls this period and his time with Buckley in his memoir, Blue Melody: Tim Buckley Remembered.

“Tim treasured his independence above all,” he wrote. “Right from the beginning, the music industry’s business categories never fit. Buckley was unique. He played Buckley music.” As a singer-songwriter Buckley appreciated the spirit of Fred Neil and his acolyte Richie Havens, both of whom pushed folk’s limits with the use of suspended chords and improvisatory jams. Underwood confirms the genesis of “Strange Feelin’” as the result of Buckley walking in on Friedman and Miller playing Miles’ “All Blues” at the recording session.

With roots planted in the same American soil that sprouted the work and sacred songs that bloomed into blues and R&B, it was inevitable that by the mid-’60s, post-bop/modern jazz and rock (which was doing its Beatles/Dylan self-contained band and singer-songwriter thing) would meet. Twenty-two-year-old composer and pianist Herbie Hancock had pointed the way in 1962 when he used the blues as a base for “Watermelon Man” and scored a pop hit with it; he was then promptly snapped up by Miles for his band. Young guitarist Larry Coryell created a synthesis in 1966 when, with drummer Bob Moses and saxophonist Jim Pepper, he formed the Free Spirits. They released one album, Out of Sight and Out of Sound, before Coryell left the group and went on to conquer the world of jazz fusion guitar, while Jeremy Steig, with Jeremy and the Satyrs, gave jazz-rock-fusion a shot in 1968, too (you may know Steig’s “Howlin’ for Judy” as the main sample from the Beastie Boys track, “Sure Shot”). Though one-offs, Coryell and Steig had succeeded in bringing a touch of rock’s freaked-out psychedelic vibe to jazz, while freaked-out rockers were getting all jazz-like. As Jimi Hendrix, Duane Allman, and Jerry Garcia were taking soloing and improvisation to new extremes, rockin’ the jazz organically grew: The Doors specialized in Miles-forged modalities, while acts diverse as Blood Sweat and Tears, Frank Zappa, and England’s Soft Machine all drew from variations on jazz themes. So too did Van Morrison on his singer-songwriter-folk-jazz-solo-acoustic album Astral Weeks in 1968, for which real jazzers (including bassist Richard Davis and the Modern Jazz Quartet drummer Connie Kay) were hired for the sessions.

On the Miles side, this was the period in which he was said to have proclaimed, “I could put together the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band you ever heard.” Until then, he assembled a great band period for the recording of In a Silent Way, its individual members going on to inform the direction of jazz fusion from those days forward. Convening at CBS Studios in February of 1969 were Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea on electric piano, Wayne Shorter on sax, Dave Holland on double bass, John McLaughlin on electric guitar, and Tony Williams on drums, with Joe Zawinul, the composer of  “In a Silent Way”, on organ. The album’s electric keyboard sounds would become identifiable as one of fusion’s prime instruments. Having opened the door to electric music on the albums just prior to In a Silent Way, Davis’ follow-ups, Bitches Brew and On the Corner, took melding new tastes and textures even further out, while fusion became the dominant direction for jazz in the ‘70s. In the wrong hands, fusion is a senseless mess, which is how it earned its bad rap. But in the hands of experts, it served as a gateway to funk and hip-hop and a great harmonizer between all styles. Hancock specifically would become fusion’s jazz warrior with the full synth sound of Head Hunters, but he’d been working the borders since his “Watermelon Man” was recorded by Afro-cuban bandleader Mongo Santamaria. Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island” is said to have brought the funk rhythms to jazz as early as 1964; his slamming ‘80s “Rockit” period (on which DXT rocked the turntable) and the return of “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)” with a rap by Us3, put Hancock at every juncture of rock ‘n’ rap and jazz.

Down through the years, it’s been widely acknowledged that Davis’ wife at the time, singer and scenester Betty (Mabry) Davis, exerted her rock ‘n’ soul interests on her husband, introducing him as she did to Hendrix, among other rock ‘n’ rollers. But it was all part of a logical progression for Miles, who had even tried the slogan “Directions in Music by Miles Davis” to lift him beyond the limits of just jazz. Buckley’s record company had tried a slogan to describe him too—“Buckley music”—though Buckley liked “heart music” to describe his work, if in fact he had to have a label at all. “I feel proud of Happy Sad,” writes Buckley guitarist and friend Underwood. “Rough spots and all. Its heartsong flies in spring’s blue skies outside of time. Some of the music on it will last for decades to come.” True that, though it would take another folk-singing switch-hitter to turn rock toward jazz and into something entirely new, and then sustain that direction for the rest of her career: Joni Mitchell had also studied Miles, and following a period of woodshedding with the blue notes in 1971, she released Blue. Composed with alternate tunings and unusual juxtapositions of notes, the album was a game-changer in pop and certainly a milestone for Mitchell, who steadily moved into regions you could only call “Mitchell music.”

I asked my friend Pat Thomas, who leads the contemporary jazz-prog-rock consortium Mushroom, to weigh in on the subject of jazz and rock, and he pointed to 1970 England and Soft Machine’s Third,another considered classic of the genre. “Some of the most over-the-top fuzzed-out and distorted playing I’ve ever heard,” he says. The Soft Machine’s meeting of jazz, rock, and classical also equals the birth of prog, another subject for another column. Jazz-rock-prog is alive and kicking on Mushroom’s latest, Naked, Stoned & Stabbed, an adventure in Afro, Latin, and jazz rhythmics mixed with freaked-out folk, blues bases, and ambient, Alice Coltrane-trance states. Like Tortoise, Mushroom use music—all music—to travel outta sight and outta sound. If you’ve got any contemporary or classic fusion faves, we’d love to hear your comments, as you’ve just read some of mine save for one:

In 2007, though you couldn’t call it fusion, you wouldn’t call it rock, though you might call it jazz, two legends collided after four decades of music making. River: The Joni Letters, was a collection of mostly Mitchell songs performed by Herbie Hancock, joined by Wayne Shorter, Dave Holland, and special guest vocalists for the sessions. The jazz cats would call it too much, but I think it’s out of this world. Better yet, leave off the label and just call it Music: It’s the next big thing.–published May 13, 2010 in Crawdaddy!

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