Of all the seminal jazz records of the 1960s, Duster was and remains the most ignored. Upon its release, the album's innovative integration of rock and jazz never gained much traction outside a circle of well-placed supporters. The subsequent, decades-long neglect of this still luminous program can be attributed to several factors, not the least of which are the subsequent activities of its principals, vibist Gary Burton and guitarist Larry Coryell. Though Burton continued to produce substantial albums for ECM into the mid-'70s, he faded into teaching, and now makes amiable, unadventurous albums; it has taken Coryell most of the intervening years to regain most of his stature after his '70s fusion excesses. Yet, for a couple of years, Burton and Coryell crystallized the tenor of the times in four excellent dates for RCA, (including the epochal recording of Carla Bley's A Genuine Tong Funeral), of which '67's Duster was the first.
Original liner essayist Mike Zwerin asserts that Duster is the result of a contemporary "collision" of jazz, rock and "a lot of other things." Yet, in retrospect, the program seems geared more towards representing a coalition of forces rather than a collision of forces.
This is an album that takes a few well-aimed shots at controversy, and hedges the bet with unassailable jazz craftsmanship. Like the bulk of Burton's albums from the '60s and '70s, Duster is built upon the strong writing of Carla Bley, Mike Gibbs and Quartet bassist Steve Swallow.
The intelligent bonding of memorable melodies and sophisticated harmonic underpinnings of such minor classics as Gibbs' "Sweet Rain" and Bley's "Sing Me Softly Of The Blues" counterbalanced such envelope-pushing, pyrotechnic displays as Burton and Coryell's "One, Two, 1-2-3-4," a case-in-point confirmation of their avantist credentials. Throughout the album, there are crosscurrents of moderation, as the slightly insistent propulsion of Gibbs' "Liturgy" is leavened by the whole-grain groove of Swallow's "General Mojo's Well Laid Plan," and the almost lighter-than-air swing of Gibbs' "Ballet" is offset by the muscular drive of Swallow's "Portsmouth Configurations."
While Burton's Quartet was a composer's forum, it was ultimately a showcase of virtuosity. Burton's four-mallet flurries are dazzling on "One, Two..." and "Portsmouth...," while his chiseled lyricism is fully formed on the Bley and Gibbs compositions. Coryell's jazz chops are impressive, and while his use of rock and blues licks are rudimentary by today's standards, they still retain the spark of the times. Duster also provides a reminder of Swallow's sure sense of line and space on acoustic bass, which comprised the basis of his subsequent innovations with the electric bass. In a way, all that needs to be said is that Roy Haynes was the drummer on the date; still, special mention of his tour de force performances on "One, Two..." and "Portsmouth..." are in order.
Individual performances aside, this was an extremely well-balanced ensemble with an instantly recognizable collective identity. All of their work is recommended, though A Genuine Tong Funeral is their only other album available on CD, and that only on a pricey French import.
Hopefully Koch Jazz will follow with Lofty Fake Anagram and the live album in short order.