Night and Day: Jazz Meets Heavy Metal
The Winter NAMM tradeshow, one of the musical-instrument industry’s foremost annual events, accommodates a world’s worth of different music and musicians each year in Anaheim, Calif. But the most audible—and visible—demographic is by far the heavy metal set; Los Angeles, which in the world of commercial hard rock is analogous to New York for jazz musicians or Nashville for country-and-western players, is about 30 miles north. Spend a few hours at NAMM and you’ll not only get a crash-course in metal’s Melrose Avenue aesthetic—the paler the skin, the darker the clothes—you might also rub elbows with some of the music’s heroes: musicians from bands with names like Anthrax, Megadeth, Slayer and, in the case of guitarist Alex Skolnick, Testament.
In January, Skolnick played a post-tradeshow set in the lobby of a nearby hotel, but thrash-metal—the taut, speedy metal variation Testament helped define—wasn’t on the program. Instead, Skolnick donned a hollowbody and led his working trio through music that would have been received warmly 2,500 miles away in the West Village. Instead of shred-guitar instrumentals or hard blues, Skolnick applied elements any reader of this magazine should appreciate—a cool, transparent timbre; deep pockets of groove; harmonically astute single-note lines—to uncommon repertory choices. “Still Loving You,” by the German heavy metal band Scorpions, seemed to be filtered through Jim Hall, and an interpretation of “Detroit Rock City,” by Kiss, arrived with walking bass and postbop swing. Like the original music on Skolnick’s recent Veritas album, it was primarily forward-looking jazz music—not even fusion, really—and the many metalheads in the house ate it up.
“That’s the amazing thing,” Skolnick said a few weeks later by phone. “[Jazz and metal] have much more in common than people realize.” And he’s right, if you’re willing to ignore some pretty pervasive stereotypes. Yes, jazz is at its essence an acoustic, improvised art form with an African-American heritage. It can be elegant and orchestral or fiery and stripped-bare, but it’s generally high art and its constituency is, on average, wealthier and more intellectual than any musical demographic this side of the Met Opera’s subscriber base. Heavy metal, on the other hand, is a series of crude excesses created by British and American boy-men: impossibly loud, full of macho adolescent posturing, and sinister in its message—possibly even Satanic. If a great jazz improvisation attempts to open hidden corridors of the human heart, the electric guitar solo in metal is an overlong exercise in self-gratification. Jazz is bliss, metal is just boorish.
The truth is much more complex, and involves 40-plus years of jazz and rock and roll history. Jazz, remember, was once just as proletarian and as bastardized as rock—a jook music made by headstrong young progressives living unwholesome lifestyles. Similarly, even with heavy metal’s reputation as a working-class “music of the people,” as keyboardist and multi-instrumentalist Jamie Saft calls it, its more esoteric strains have become a new brand of art music: Chase down press clippings for bands like Sunn O))), a pair of cloaked Seattleites who match deafening, droning feedback with minimalism, and you’ll find the sort of articulate, carefully reasoned criticism usually reserved for the classical avant-garde. In terms of fan base, jazz people are generally not metal people, and vice versa, except for a slightly noticeable amount of exchange between each genre’s vanguard.
But for musicians, dots between the two styles are ripe for connecting. There are social correlations, like a common band-geekery: “I think both jazz musicians and metalheads were outcasts,” says Saft. “We weren’t the hip guys.” There are parallels related to commerce, as in, the reward for playing jazz or metal being that you get to play jazz or metal, except in rare instances of mainstream crossover—where Metallica meets the Marsalises. And there are similar pitfalls that make both musics forbidding to a general audience—say, the temptations to burrow too far inside the idiom or obsess over technique. “The thing to be careful of is a kind of shallow mastery,” says guitarist Vernon Reid, “where it’s a series of gestures that are divorced from the creation of a context.”
Mostly, though, the likenesses seem philosophical, especially the idea of character and imagination at the mercy of serious-minded musicianship. “The fact between the two styles is that there are no boundaries,” says Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo. “And you have to be proficient at what you do. … [Musicians] in heavy metal are proficient players: They practice. Same with jazz—that goes without saying.”
“Part of it’s discipline,” adds Skolnick. “It requires a certain understanding of history. In metal you have to understand Black Sabbath; in jazz you have to understand Miles.”
“I like to know what’s going on, which is what I love about jazz,” explains Page Hamilton, a jazz-trained guitarist and the frontman of the alternative-metal band Helmet. “You have to know the language, know tunes.”
Sometimes it’s simply a matter of mutual respect, of sharing history and keeping an open mind, and the back-and-forth may not be that obvious. Other times it’s about intentionally or unintentionally combining traditions and melding elements. For the avant-garde, it’s most often about a shared energy and a spirit of defiance.
The interaction between the two seemingly disparate genres extends back to before one of them even existed. Heavy metal is essentially a baby-boomer invention—a ’70s phenomenon that streamlined and intensified the heavy blues-rock and dying flower-power of the mid- and late-’60s. Its roots can be found in the likes of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cream, the Jeff Beck Group and particularly Led Zeppelin: highly amplified bands whose legendary guitarists spread their electric-blues improvisations on top of jazz-influenced foundations. “[W]e thought we were a jazz rhythm section, and Eric [Clapton] wasn’t a jazz musician,” Cream bassist Jack Bruce told this magazine’s George Varga in 2006. Cream’s drummer, Ginger Baker, as the jazz and avant-garde drummer Joey Baron notes, “is very vocal about Elvin Jones and Baby Dodds being big influences,” and you could cite similar inspirations for Zeppelin’s John Bonham and Hendrix’s Mitch Mitchell.
But heavy metal, most aficionados would agree, officially arrived in the winter of 1970, when a quartet from rough-and-tumble, working-class Birmingham, England, released its self-titled debut. Black Sabbath, featuring vocalist Ozzy Osbourne, guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler and drummer Bill Ward, expanded on and diverted from blues-rock and outlined principles that would come to define metal: a sense of thundering volume; dark, low, monolithic riffs; a high premium on guitar solos; and lyrical imagery reflecting the theatrics of horror and the occult but also the realities of violence and political alienation—or, as Iommi describes it, “where you were brought up and what you went through.” Strangely enough, however, the groundbreaking band—and, you could argue, metal in total—might not have come to pass if it weren’t for an influential Gypsy whose left hand was disfigured in a caravan fire.
As the story goes, a teenaged Tony Iommi was involved in an accident during what was planned as his last day of work at a sheet-metal factory. After slicing the tips off of the middle and ring fingers of his right fretting hand, Iommi recovered at home, despondent, his imminent dreams of becoming a professional musician quashed. “I was very depressed,” he recalls. “The manager of the factory brought me a record to listen to, and he said, ‘Play this.’ And I said, ‘No, no, I don’t want to.’ And he said, ‘Please put it on and I’ll tell you a story.’ And he put it on—it was Django Reinhardt—and I said, ‘Yeah! Great!’ And then he told me the story of what’d happened to him and his fingers, and that inspired me to play again.”
Iommi soldiered on, painfully at first, tuning his guitar down to lessen the tension (which made his riffs more devilish and imposing), playing a lot of fifth or “power” chords, and devising caps made of leather and plastic to fit over his damaged fingertips. The quartet, who began performing in the late ’60s as the Polka Tulk Blues Band and became Earth before settling on Black Sabbath, suggests in its early demo recordings a cruder, more lumbering take on John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, and the outfit included a saxophonist and a slide guitarist at one point, though Iommi says that format “didn’t last five minutes.” If connoisseurs like Mayall were known for their encyclopedic grasp of electric-blues repertory, the formative Sabbath was reacting more to sheer feeling. “When we first started doing blues stuff,” says Iommi, “it was all, of course, 12-bar stuff, [and] we’d get albums. And to be honest, we really wouldn’t even know who some of the artists were. It was just, ‘Oh, we like this song and we like this sound.’”
Jazz, as was wont in the ’60s, coincided with blues, and Iommi tried to cop the swinging music he loved by ear. “I liked the feel,” he says. “I liked the way it would just roll. But I couldn’t read music.” He cites Joe Pass, Tal Farlow and Charlie Christian as favorites, and is the proud owner of a Barney Kessel signature guitar—one of only a few left-handed models produced, he says. With Ward, a devotee of the big bands, and Butler, who had his mind blown by jazz-loving Jack Bruce, Sabbath’s sound and setlist was defined via jamming, a practice that continued even after the band broke through. “Nothing was ever the same two nights, really,” says Iommi. Some of these jams were undeniably jazz-indebted. Take, for instance, a 1973 recording of “Wicked World” that first appeared on the album Live at Last. The 19-minute tour de force begins faithfully enough: Bill Ward’s furiously swinging, Krupa-style hi-hat rhythms open a trio intro that might be the closest any metal band has come to playing a head.
Eventually Sabbath’s trademarked leaden riffs emerge—the blueprints for entire metal sub-genres like “doom metal” and “stoner rock”—and Iommi is spotlighted solo; he offers first some vaguely mystical fingerpicking, then simply wails. Eventually the shredding slows and the notes become bluer, and the rhythm section rejoins—Ward comfortably swinging, Butler walking on electric bass. Iommi begins soloing, leading one chorus into the next in an unpolished jazz-blues style that imagines Leigh Stephens of Blue Cheer—another proto-metal band worth looking up—after a year of private study with Kenny Burrell. Obviously this isn’t harmonically earth-shattering stuff; in fact, a Berklee instructor would probably scoff. But it has tremendous feel, and as the ’70s wore on, “heavy metal”-proper lost much of the earthiness associated with blues: The tempos got faster and the leads less greasy and eventually more classically affected. (And this is where etymology gets tricky, as the terms “hard rock” and “heavy metal” are sometimes used interchangeably but shouldn’t necessarily be.)
You must also consider, obviously, the shadow of ’70s jazz-rock fusion and its kissing cousin progressive rock. But jazz-rock’s influence goes deeper than the hyper-composition, metric complexity and unfathomable chops that connect Yes and Return to Forever to the labyrinthine music of many contemporary metal bands. In their earliest incarnations, both prog and jazz-rock touted a sort of urgency that would influence even the most radical fusions of heavy music and jazz. Bill Laswell, a bassist and a producer who’s shaped records for everyone from Herbie Hancock to Motörhead, cites Tony Williams’ Lifetime as ground zero for Last Exit, the violently overdriven free-music ensemble he formed in the mid-’80s with saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson and the sonically audacious electric guitarist Sonny Sharrock. “I thought [Lifetime] was really the beginning of this idea of improvising rock music and creating an electric language,” Laswell says. “And Last Exit was a freer version of that—a lot closer to free jazz.”
Vernon Reid, who became famous as part of the funk-metal band Living Colour, cites King Crimson’s Red and, especially, the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s debut, The Inner Mounting Flame, as essential points of inspiration for what was to come—in terms of musicianship but also texture and spirit. “The sound of The Inner Mounting Flame was just incredibly edgy and raw,” he says, “and if anything I’ve always referred to that album as a kind of punk-jazz. … The attitude of it, the intensity of it, was really redolent of punk.”
The relationship between punk rock and jazz could very well occupy its own book, and the synergy between punk and heavy metal is equally circuitous. When it began solidifying in New York in the mid-1970s, punk rock was largely a reaction against the highfalutin musicianship and pretentious scale of metal and prog; it was revolutionary in its emotional directness and populist non-musicianship. But, as critic Robert Palmer wrote in the New York Times in 1986, “While some punk rockers develop minimal competence on an instrument principally so they can participate in the lifestyle and make a lot of noise, others have genuine musical talent, and a decent musician will improve, even without trying.”
Palmer was writing about Black Flag, a Los Angeles band credited as being progenitors of the breakneck punk sub-genre called hardcore, which burgeoned during the early ’80s. As both a distillation of and departure from punk orthodoxy, hardcore saw many of its principals indulge curious influences. Black Flag’s longest-running vocalist, Henry Rollins, himself an impressively knowledgeable jazz fan, recalls being introduced to Albert Ayler by Mike Watt of the band Minutemen and Mahavishnu by Flag’s leader and guitarist, Greg Ginn, “who always had a copy of Birds of Fire with him.” Indeed, Ginn, a jazz enthusiast and Deadhead, punctuated his claw-hammer rhythm playing with scribble-scrabble lead breaks that evoked the almost-anarchic technique of John McLaughlin, and his penchant for atonality could encourage comparisons to Sonny Sharrock. Recordings like Black Flag’s The Process of Weeding Out (1985), and those by Ginn’s instrumental unit Gone, found the guitarist moving more squarely into the fusion avant-garde. Reid, who was around this time exploring metallic timbres in Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society, also hears Mahavishnu’s influence on Bad Brains, an influential African-American quartet who pioneered a balance of hardcore and reggae and adopted Rastafarianism after seeing Bob Marley (on a bill with Stanley Clarke). Bad Brains began in D.C. in the ’70s as Mind Power, whose influences included Mahavishnu, Return to Forever, Weather Report, Parliament-Funkadelic and even Stevie Wonder and Chaka Khan. As Brains guitarist Dr. Know relays in an explanatory note, a certain spirit came first and the musical cross-pollinations followed: The “hardcore dynamic [came] from growing up in [hypocritical] D.C. Being a rebel was absolute. Jazz, rock, funk, blues—all rebel music.”
By the mid-’80s, hardcore and heavy metal were intertwined in a number of ways. Some of the more adept hardcore acts had inched stylistically into metal territory: Bad Brains incorporated impossibly fast solos and played their hardcore with a smartly produced, metal-ish precision, and Black Flag decelerated some of its music to a Black Sabbath-like dirge. Heavy metal by this time existed in a state of polarity. At one end were the hopelessly dimwitted and unreasonably successful “hair bands”; burrowed in the underground—or, in the case of thrash-metal, appealing to the more daring metal mainstream—were extreme-metal sub-genres like death metal, black metal and grindcore, that last school an amalgam of the most caustic varieties of hardcore, metal and certain experimental music.
This is as good a time as any to introduce into the genealogy John Zorn, the longtime linchpin of New York’s Downtown scene—a community that held cross-pollination as an artistic value in and of itself. Zorn delivered two albums in 1989 that should be essential in any heavy-jazz canon: Spy vs. Spy, a veracious “acoustic hardcore” retooling of Ornette Coleman’s music, and Naked City’s Naked City, probably one of the few albums from the jazz-leaning avant-garde to make it into many metalheads’ record collections. That latter album seemed to play a perverse parlor game with repertory and arrangement and, in a way, personnel; in addition, it made an argument for the avant-skronk saxophone as a viable metal instrument. Music by Coleman, Ennio Morricone, Henry Mancini and Johnny Mandel is treated faithfully or given a near-scandalous makeover. Zorn’s original music seemed to strive to hit every available genre in the most startling manner possible: “N.Y. Flat Top Box,” to name just one track, flips momentarily from honky tonk to grindcore squeal; elsewhere the band swings, grooves with New Orleans spirit, investigates jazz-noir and tackles noise and ambient soundscapes. And then there are Zorn’s shockingly named “hardcore miniatures”: a series of brief (8-second songs, anyone?) musical grenades that bring to mind bands like Napalm Death, Die Kreuzen and a group with the initials A.C. whose full name is unprintable. For Zorn, the degrees of separation between hardcore and fire music were few. “The intensity and energy seemed to connect directly with the power of free-jazz,” he wrote in an e-mail, adding that he was struck by the music’s “message of defiance, rebellion and outrage.”
“I was inspired by this music and was interested in creating a new world out of those inspirations,” Zorn writes earlier in his note. “[Naked City was] never a metal band nor a hardcore band nor a jazz band. To this day what we created is totally unique.”
Much of that uniqueness had to do with the players Zorn chose. Naked City featured the raucous guest vocalist Yamatsuka Eye, of the Japanese noise-rock band Boredoms, as well as versatile improvisers with limited experience with extreme-metal styles. They included one of jazz’s most elegant and thoughtful contemporary guitarists, Bill Frisell; onetime prog-rocker and Downtown mainstay Fred Frith on bass; keyboardist Wayne Horvitz; and drummer Joey Baron. “I was thinking, why doesn’t [Zorn] just get a guy who does this all the time?” remembers Baron. “And then I realized it’s because he likes to have people doing things beyond their limit. There’s a certain quality when you’re pushed just slightly beyond what you can really do—there’s a certain urgency to that. I think that’s what John thrives on.
“Also that thing about being able to switch gears on a dime [and play other styles],” he continues. “That’s not a common thing.”
Baron did his hard-rock homework by checking out Napalm Death, Slayer and Blind Idiot God, a band that accompanied Zorn on a program of Coltrane covers at CBGB in 1987. (“I remember a three-minute version of A Love Supreme,” Zorn writes.) “When I first heard Napalm Death,” says Baron, “I was like, ‘Wow, that’s got the unbelievable spirit of [the Who’s] Keith Moon, but it’s really just microscope-focused on this one zone.’ And the blast beat and everything, it’s like a particular extreme thing.”
Metal drumming has certain techniques with forebears in jazz: You can, for example, trace the double-bass drumming that is essential to modern metal back through Ginger Baker to Louie Bellson and Sam Woodyard. And the requisite “blast beat,” a violent, steady thrashing spread evenly throughout the kit, can be linked arguably to Sunny Murray’s playing on “Holy Ghost” during a 1965 date with Albert Ayler. It’s an exhausting technique—“One of the easiest ways to achieve maximum density on a drum set,” says the drummer and multi-instrumentalist Weasel Walter—and not the only reason Baron went into training.
“It’s not just the energy or the physicality of it but the mental aspect of [Zorn’s] music,” he says. “It’s incredibly complex: Thirty seconds of music could be as detailed as a 30-minute overture from a classical composer.” Baron strengthened his technique by studying with, funnily enough, Joe Morello, but he retained much about his playing, which, in the end, only made the music more interesting.
As Zorn recalls, “Techniques and directions were explained in detail, but I tried to be open to their own variation and interpretations. These are virtuoso master musicians I have the utmost respect [for] and faith in. They are there to realize my vision, but their voice and engagement in the music is very important to me. For example, I suggested Joey play blast beats with a match grip but he preferred his usual way of holding the sticks; a double-bass drum pedal offered more power, and I carried one around for Joey to use, but he seemed to prefer playing his usual single pedal instead. I suggested effects boxes to Bill and Fred but always deferred to their own taste and sound in giving me what I needed.”
“We were all working together and we all trusted John’s vision,” says Baron. “A lot of times we’d look at each other and say, ‘Are you serious?’ And then we’d realize, yeah, he was dead serious, and it worked. … Bill made adjustments, everyone made adjustments.”
Naked City’s album art, including Weegee’s notorious photographs of murder victims, the sadistic illustrations of Suehiro Maruo and even a photo of a slow-slicing execution, was also influenced by traditions from the heavy music underground. “The intensity of the music seems to demand an intensity of imagery to represent/accompany it,” Zorn writes. “I tried to make choices that contained the duality of pain/pleasure, high/low, dark/light, violence/peace and ugliness/beauty that was also in the music via tension and release.”
Zorn continued (and continues) to work in extreme electric music. Following its debut, Naked City went on to record everything from Debussy and Charles Ives (with Bob Dorough, no less) to the impossibly slow, ambient sludge-crawl of Leng Tch’e. In the early ’90s Zorn formed Painkiller featuring Bill Laswell and Napalm Death drummer Mick Harris (later replaced by Hamid Drake), and that trio explored dub as well as the correlation between the improvising avant-garde and experimental heavy music. As a composer and conductor, Zorn has led the Moonchild trio of Baron, bassist Trevor Dunn and Mike Patton—the latter two of whom performed in Mr. Bungle, a California act who shared Naked City’s fearlessly eclectic spirit during the ’80s and ’90s. Dunn is a prominent player in adventurous jazz circles, and Patton, a frequent Zorn collaborator, could be considered avant-rock’s answer to Bobby McFerrin: His vocal athleticism includes everything from gagging and shrieking to rapping, beatboxing and, yes, tuneful singing.)
Through all of the Zorn projects, the sheer sonic audacity of the amplification took the avant-garde to places acoustic out-jazz couldn’t fathom. “Amplification is like severe enhancement,” says Bill Laswell. “It takes it much further out. And there are electronics involved, there’s feedback, and things come into the picture that create its own random performance in a way. So you don’t just play a note, you’re playing like layers of different multiphonics.”
As the ’90s dawned and Nirvana hit, metal as a sellable commodity took a nosedive. The more bohemian, punk-influenced sects of grunge and alternative-rock ruled, and the sort of guitar-shop values of metal became passé. But the metal underground thrived artistically, as it always has, producing more worthwhile jazz-metal: Fusion heads especially should check out Atheist’s 1993 album Elements. The juxtaposition of technical death metal and interludes that approach the “contemporary jazz” tag is fascinating.
More commercially solvent were a series of alt-rock-leaning metal bands that were pushing heavy music’s propellant rhythmic feel toward a bounce suggestive of jazz, funk and hip-hop. The shift could be heard in the ’80s, on albums like Vivid (1988) by Reid’s Living Colour and Faith No More’s The Real Thing (1989) with Patton. Henry Rollins’ post-Black Flag outfit, Rollins Band, worked in a brainy, grooving alternative-metal style that became even more musicianly when the bandleader hired Decoding Society veteran Melvin Gibbs to replace longtime bassist Andrew Weiss in 1993. The band also included guitarist Chris Haskett and Sim Cain, a virtuoso drummer with Downtown-scene credibility. Says Rollins, “[Gibbs] was someone the three of us thought would get our desire to improvise and that we didn’t want to be a straight rock band. … [T]hat’s the direction we wanted to go in, where we could bring in a guy like [avant-garde saxophonist] Charles Gayle and Vernon [Reid] to be onstage with us, which we eventually did.” (A disc titled Weighting includes improvised jams with Gayle.)
Metal-with-a-groove eventually leads from some genuinely great bands into one of heavy music’s most commercially successful but artistically regrettable sub-styles, a rap-metal hybrid known as nu-metal. Heavily indebted to hip-hop, it lacked guitar solos, which was in a strange way artful, but it was sullied by a melodramatic, nonintellectual aggression. But musical genres often have unknowing architects, and nu-metal, which became extremely popular in the late ’90s, is no exception. Many point the finger at Helmet’s Page Hamilton, who insists that a mix containing music like Jobim and Monk be played through venue PA systems as he and his crew are prepping for a gig. Why? “So I don’t have to listen to nu-metal,” he says.
Hamilton can chat about Monk, or Wes Montgomery, or 11th chords, or chromaticism with the eagerness of a Berklee undergrad. In many ways he sounds more like a jazzbo than some of the jazz musicians interviewed for this piece: After the conversation he was headed to Jazz Fest to see Sonny Rollins, and he mentioned that the week prior he’d transcribed Herbie Hancock’s intro on “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum.” “I work on jazz tunes every day when I’m home,” he says. “Jamey Aebersold books with ii-V-Is. … I continually work on it.”
Hamilton started on guitar relatively late, at 17, but quickly went all in. He switched instructors when his first teacher thought “Stairway to Heaven” was too difficult, and the replacement turned him on to Grant Green. Through guitarist Garry Hagberg he learned from Howard Roberts, and a move to New York found him tightening his grasp of harmony and theory at the Manhattan School. Over time he rediscovered rock sonics by working with ambitiously noisy artists like Glenn Branca and Band of Susans. In 1989 Helmet formed and Hamilton began writing and arranging its music: huge unison riffs in drop-D tuning, a practice Hamilton adopted when he imagined the riff to his song “Repetition” but couldn’t find those notes on the guitar. Most important, he bolstered those riffs with a swinging, “kind of hypnotic groove thing” the songwriter can correlate to his jazz experience—even if he didn’t make a point to fuse genres. It has more to do, he says, with the sort of “active listening” he’s heard guitarist John Stowell talk about. “Bird and Monk, they swing their balls off,” he says, “and Helmet feels really good to me.” His uniquely involved chordal work often coincided with his jazz studies—“Playing through ‘Autumn Leaves,’ I would work on Helmet voicings”—and his “quote unquote ‘solos’” proffer the intensity of rock guitar at the same time they evoke an inside-outside saxophonist; in those leads you can hear Branca-inspired noise, unusual scales and a desire to drift tensely away from the tonal center.
The innovation actually paid off. Helmet became one of the rare metal-oriented bands working in heavy music to break through commercially in the early to mid-1990s. With their post-collegiate looks and cannier, more understated vibe, they fell in aesthetically with the alt-rock scene. But all these years later, even as Helmet pushes onward, Hamilton continues what he expects will be a lifelong pursuit of jazz. “I’m still so inadequate as a jazz player, and I’ve been working at it for so long,” he says, mentioning one of his other projects, the Jazz Wannabes. “We have five gigs every two or three months, and it’s fun, but we’re just butchering standards, and I feel like, ‘God, I gotta get it. I gotta keep working.’”
Over the past 15 years a number of technically astounding bands filed under tags like progressive metal, experimental metal or metalcore have emerged, and the more musicianly the group, the more often the phrase “jazz-influenced” is assigned to their work as a sort of generic brand of intellectualism. There’s Candiria, from Brooklyn, who’ve included in their experimental, metal-inflected hardcore everything from Afro-Cuban rhythms to postbop (trumpet included). Meshuggah, a Swedish band in operation since the ’80s, utilizes polyrhythms and guitar prowess that arguably knocks Allan Holdsworth down a notch. The Dillinger Escape Plan, who’ve recorded music that recalls the median between ECM and new age, play progressive hardcore whose stops, starts and shifts contain the algebraic precision of computer music.
As impressive as this sort of hyper-composition can be—and, keep in mind, the composing and rehearsing is often done without scores—it’s really an extension of prog-rock more than jazz. As Jamie Saft notes, “Jazz is about the process and rock is about the result. Rock is not about the process of developing the tune right before your eyes, it’s about something immutable.” To encounter the sort of improvisation and group empathy characteristic of acoustic jazz in a metal-inclined setting, you have to seek out the intersection of metal with the ambient and noise genres. Or, better yet, check out a group of youngish iconoclasts working in the improvising community who have no use for stylistic barriers.
For Weasel Walter, it’s less a matter of consciously fusing genres than it is improvising and composing with a consistent spirit of violence and confrontation. The drummer and multi-instrumentalist, who led the steamrolling Flying Luttenbachers throughout the ’90s and aughts and has collaborated with extreme-metal bands as well as improvisers like Henry Kaiser and Peter Evans and Mary Halvorson, speaks about discordant, outré music with an enthusiasm that borders on radical-political fervor. “All the music I made and still make is crazy, fast, weird, dissonant music. And great free jazz is that, and death metal is that,” he says. “My own playing, people will make these comments like it’s either/or, like, ‘Oh, dude, you’re playing death-metal drums in free jazz.’ It’s like, no, not at all. I have no interest in doing that whatsoever.”
Saft, known for playing keyboards in John Zorn’s bands and for his multifaceted solo work, is a self-described “heavy metal dad” who values feel and accessibility rather than virtuosity for its own sake—despite his classical training and New England Conservatory pedigree. He talks about the importance of making records you yourself would want to listen to, and says he’s not much of a fusion fan. He dug the avant-garde and the Impulse!-era, ostinato-based spiritual-jazz of the ’70s growing up, and connects that to the rock of his youth, acts like AC/DC, ZZ Top and Black Sabbath. Of newer metal, Sunn O))) is a favorite, and that band’s influence is evident on Doom Jazz, a 2007 recording featuring Saft on acoustic piano and bass and drummer Bobby Previte. (The pair goes by the moniker Swami LatePlate.) “It’s getting away from a focus on the technical … and trying to get to something way more intuitive,” says Saft. Followers of the hypnotically glacial doom-metal genre will makes connections, as will fans of the svelte minimalism of certain European piano trios.
Then there are recordings by Beta Popes, the improvising death- and doom-metal trio of Previte, Saft on guitar and Skerik on overdubbed sax and vocals. “Metal can get so rigid and defined and predetermined,” Saft explains. “And that was the great thing about the Beta Popes. There was this not just rhythmic but really harmonic freedom a metal band could never tap into.”
Skerik, the electronically savvy saxophonist whose prankish, hardcore-influenced Dead Kenny Gs recently released Operation Long Leash, shares Saft’s sentiments about metal’s potential closed-mindedness. While he mentions Sunn O))) and other bands on the artsier Southern Lord label as go-to road music, he has less appreciation for the metal mainstream. “I definitely do not listen to 95 percent of metal. I think it’s completely pathetic,” he says. “They live in this prison that they’ve erected for themselves. For me, living in a musical world where you’re rejecting 99.9 percent of the rest of the music of the world literally is a prison, whether it’s Wynton Marsalis or a bunch of metal bands.”
As in jazz, puritanism and history can be an enemy to innovation in metal, which is one reason it’s so difficult to find metal musicians who can improvise with a jazz-oriented consciousness, or with a jazz-like balance of composition and improv. (They are out there: In addition to Saft and Walter, look up the unremittingly intense Italian band Zu, who’ve collaborated with Mike Patton, drummer Han Bennink, Hamid Drake and others.) “The people who improvise in metal are freaks,” says Walter. “It’s not the status quo by any means. … I think the metal milieu is really conservative.”
The modern metal audience doesn’t get more mainstream or inclusive than it does in relation to Metallica, whose crowd includes metal diehards and dilettantes alike. But even the band’s most ardent followers might be surprised to learn about its jazz and fusion roots—particularly those of current bassist Robert Trujillo.
Studious metal fans know Trujillo as an imposing fingerstyle and slap player who performed with Suicidal Tendencies, Infectious Grooves and Ozzy Osbourne before joining Metallica in 2003. What they might not realize is that he’s a graduate of Los Angeles’ Grove School of Music, and studied with Joel DiBartolo from the NBC Orchestra and veteran jazz and session bassist Max Bennett. His knowledge of jazz, especially its funk- and fusion-leaning history in L.A., is striking. (And he’s not Metallica’s only jazz-rooted member: Drummer Lars Ulrich is the son of woodwinds player and critic Torben Ulrich and a godson to Dexter Gordon.)
While working at the Venice fusion hotspot the Comeback Inn as a teenager, Trujillo checked out many bands, including his favorite, Billy Childs’ Night Flight featuring Dianne Reeves. “She was young and fiery,” says Trujillo. “A lot of funk and R&B and it was just a different outlet for her.” He can talk about Mingus and Dave Holland, or his friend Jeff Berlin, or his jamming buddy L. Shankar, or how he got to hang with Anthony Jackson, a personal hero, the week prior. He’s even studied some upright, but not in a while.
But a couple topics crop up again and again: His appreciation for Jaco Pastorius, about whom he’s working to produce a fact-driven documentary, and the importance of feel. “For me it all boils down to a groove and a pocket—all across the board,” he says. This is where that jazz training figures into the world’s biggest metal band. He says there’s a lot of that swagger in Metallica already, and that he’s working to strengthen his chemistry with drummer Ulrich, who has generally propelled the band by homing in on James Hetfield’s rhythm guitar. “[Lars and I are] starting to lock in more, there’s better communication as players, and this has been happening recently,” he says. “And I think that’s where we’re really going to grow.” The band has also recently sought out new paths to inspiration by jamming and improvising with punk forefather (and Zorn collaborator) Lou Reed, for an as-yet-undetermined project. “He’s definitely free-form,” says Trujillo. “He’s all about the moment.” For a band whose focus has been tightness and rigor, the elasticity is refreshing.
“The levels of improv and connection that we’re having creatively is really, really beautiful,” Trujillo explains. “[Reed] feels the energy, and that’s what he lives for. He’s everything to me; he’s punk, he’s jazz, he’s no boundaries.”
But the jazz-metal connect Trujillo discusses mostly has to do with adept musicians with open minds following their interests. He relays a telling story about Suicidal Tendencies guitarist Rocky George. “We’d get up there and play this kind of hardcore punk music and headbang and do all that crazy stuff,” he remembers. “And right after the show he’d get on the tour bus and start studying his Ted Greene lessons and working out Wes Montgomery solos. He’d be challenging himself with this stuff all night long.”
Alex Skolnick, who became a metal standout while still a teenager in Testament, knows about that duality well. After going on an extended hiatus from Testament in 1993 and later being passed over for a spot in Ozzy Osbourne’s band, he decided to wholeheartedly pursue his developing interest in jazz. He eventually moved from the Bay Area to New York to attend the New School and form his trio—a long and unpopular road but one he believes paid off. “For me it was really good to be in this situation where it was brutally honest, where it was, ‘You know what? You need a lot of work.’
“I knew what I was getting into,” he continues. “But I knew that in the long run … it would really mean something.”
Originally published in July/August 2011