Last fall, at a New York performance by the current incarnation of King Crimson, I was reminded yet again of the long-running alliances between progressive rock and jazz—in the music, which upholds a similar respect for virtuosity and ensemble dynamics, and in the crowd, whose patience and focus met or even surpassed what can be found in today’s serious jazz rooms. A triple-drummer frontline understood the depth of its power, but operated with a choreography and thoughtfulness that was equal parts orchestral percussion section and avant-jazz collaboration—paring down and beefing up, listening hard and locking eyes. Saxophonist and flutist Mel Collins, throughout suitelike arrangements that made space for improvisational daring, functioned like both a supercharged studio technician and a post-Coltrane fire-breather. Tony Levin, on basses and Chapman Stick, was a nimble, strong source of harmony, more Dave Holland than hard rock. Guitarist Robert Fripp led from within, like certain big-band leaders who were also instrumentalists bearing signature styles. And let’s not get started on the unison lines of the penultimate song, “21st Century Schizoid Man,” like steroidal, psychedelic bebop.
Rolling Stone veteran David Fricke was at that show too, and we got to talking about those exhilarating LPs on which jazz, fusion, and prog coalesce. Enjoy his survey of 10 essentials. —EVAN HAGA
Things We Like (ATCO, 1971)
The Scottish bassist’s second solo LP is a work of striking postbop turbulence actually recorded in August 1968, during his last months with Cream, and it features Bruce on his first instrument, the double bass. The original music on Things We Like was allegedly written even earlier, in 1955, when Bruce, a fervent Charles Mingus fan, was just 12 years old.
His choice in sidemen reflected the already porous borders between jazz and progressive rock in late-’60s Britain. Drummer Jon Hiseman and saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith were John Mayall alumni who’d recently formed the prog-jazz group Colosseum, while guitarist John McLaughlin was a late addition to the sessions, about to join the Tony Williams Lifetime in New York. McLaughlin’s studio fee for his angular, clawing fury here helped pay for his passage to the U.S. and is, in a way, responsible for all of his subsequent fusion fame.
Extrapolation (Marmalade, 1969)
Cut in London on a single day in January 1969, the guitarist’s solo debut was finally released in the U.S. three years later, to capitalize on the overnight success of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Extrapolation catches McLaughlin in transit, shortly before his departure for America. The guitarist fronts a traditional quartet but slashes at the format’s conventions with a spiky, wide-body tone somewhere between Gábor Szabó and Derek Bailey, with the exploratory saxophonist John Surman riding shotgun. The ballad “Arjen’s Bag” points forward to Mahavishnu’s instrumental prayers, and McLaughlin’s flaying solo on “Pete the Poet” (named for Cream lyricist Pete Brown) proves that he could have stayed home and made a different name for himself in Britain’s free-improvising underground.
Third (Columbia, 1970)
On this landmark double LP, the Canterbury-born Soft Machine—named after a 1961 novel by William S. Burroughs—swerves out of organ-trio psychedelia into a fiercely original fusion of advanced jazz math, breakneck rock and dense tape collage over four side-long compositions. Commencing with organist Mike Ratledge’s spasm of free soloing in “Facelift,” Third features studio and live performances edited and overdubbed into suite-like sequences (à la Teo Macero for Miles Davis), with the core group—Ratledge, bassist Hugh Hopper and singer/drummer Robert Wyatt—newly armed with several horn players, including the alto saxophonist Elton Dean. The vocal section of Wyatt’s “Moon in June” remains a rarity in British prog-rock: a truly gorgeous ballad. I’m still waiting for Brad Mehldau’s definitive piano-trio cover.
Lizard (Atlantic, 1970)
Implosion came early and often to this British prog-rock institution, which made its third album in as many lineups only 18 months after a spectacular public debut opening for the Rolling Stones in Hyde Park in July 1969. On Lizard, founding guitarist Robert Fripp affirms and expands the avant-jazz strains already lurking in Crimson’s brawny, frantic dynamics by featuring pianist Keith Tippett, a robust modernist, and adding two members of Tippett’s own incendiary band, cornetist Marc Charig and trombonist Nick Evans. It was a short-lived experiment—this Crimson never toured—but it produced at least one enduring jazz-prog crossover moment: the plaintive dancing of Tippett’s piano around the dulcet croon of Yes singer Jon Anderson on “Prince Rupert Awakes.”
A year after Lizard, Fripp repaid Tippett’s contribution by producing this double album from the pianist’s short-lived 50-plus-piece big band. Opening with a brass-and-reed invocation over massed, droning basses, Septober Energy is a single, extended work of composed and improvised sections, alternately sublime, swinging and chaotic. Most remarkable is the spectrum of musicians in Tippett’s army, among them members of both Crimson and Soft Machine; the fusion trumpeter and future Miles Davis biographer Ian Carr; the experimental trombonist Paul Rutherford; and, in the vocal corps, Tippett’s wife, the former mod-era pop star Julie Driscoll.
Barefoot Boy (Flying Dutchman, 1971)
Two years before the 1973 launch of his fusion vehicle the Eleventh House, the guitarist made this pure-blowout album at Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady Studios with the late superstar’s engineer Eddie Kramer at the console; another jazz-rock adventurer, Steve Marcus, on saxophone; and drummer Roy Haynes in surprising rock-charged form, like a one-man version of the Allman Brothers’ engine room. In the manic tear through Gábor Szabó’s “Gypsy Queen,” Coryell solos in exultant feedback skids and wah-wah spasms. “Call to the Higher Consciousness” is 20 minutes of modal trance, Coryell dialing back the noise but remaining steadily ascendant and biting. Barefoot Boy was Coryell’s opportunity to be Hendrix for an hour, and he didn’t waste it.
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The Mothers (Frank Zappa)
The Grand Wazoo (Bizarre/Reprise, 1972)
Zappa and jazz were tight from the start: A photo of pianist Les McCann appears in the gatefold art of Freak Out!, Zappa’s 1966 debut with the Mothers of Invention; drummer Shelly Manne plays on the 1967 oratorio Lumpy Gravy; a track on 1970’s Weasels Ripped My Flesh is named after Eric Dolphy. With The Grand Wazoo, Zappa concluded his early ’70s spell in jazz-rock, combining the pure-soloing focus of 1969’s Hot Rats and the big-band armament on 1972’s Waka/Jawaka in muscular, inventive charts touting a fluid, funky exuberance. A 2007 archival release, the two-CD Wazoo, documents Zappa’s 20-piece juggernaut on its only tour, at a Boston gig in September 1972. Fortunately, for fans and posterity, the maestro taped everything.
Friends (Caroline, 1975)
In December 1972, a quartet of jazz-rock journeymen boasting associations with Jack DeJohnette, Chico Hamilton and the New York horn-rock band Dreams cut four tracks of high-energy fusion at the studios of Columbia University’s WKCR. The frenetic results—featuring guitarist John Abercrombie, playing with an outright ferocity rare in his canon—were released the next year on the independent Oblivion label. Two years later, on the back of Abercrombie’s ascent at ECM, Friends surfaced in Britain, licensed by a budget subsidiary of Virgin Records, the British art-rock powerhouse, which ensured the album’s prog cachet when it appeared Stateside as an import. Virgin soon threw itself into punk rock; Friends got its second wind just in time.
Lost at Sea (Snow Star, 1975)
The 1975 debut by this Atlanta guitarist was another Virgin rescue mission, picked up by that label after the BBC DJ John Peel got a copy of Phillips’ homemade release and played it on his program. A self-taught teenage guitarist when he co-founded the eccentric Hampton Grease Band in the late ’60s (imagine Zappa’s Mothers with the Allmans’ twin guitars), Phillips was truly adrift by the mid-’70s, reeling from the end of that group and stunned by his father’s suicide. Lost at Sea was Phillips’ response, binding compact, elegiac composing with the rush of escape and rebirth in his spearing solos and rippled-tremolo distortion. Phillips has released nearly 20 albums on a variety of labels, surely making him the only jazz-rock guitarist to share record companies with both Black Flag and Henry Cow.
Odyssey (ECM, 1975)
Of the more than 100 albums in this Norwegian guitarist’s discography—nearly 30 alone as a leader—Rypdal’s fourth for ECM was his first masterpiece, a double LP made with his working band at the time. It is still a perfect gateway into the breadth of his composing and improvising in rock, jazz and orchestral music. “Midnite” is 17 minutes of electric-Miles hypnosis in 9/4, Rypdal soloing with equal assurance on soprano saxophone and in peals of crying Fender. In “Better Off Without You,” he pushes the music like a second drummer, in circular, insistent arpeggios behind Sveinung Hovensjø’s fuzz-bass spotlight. And “Rolling Stone” is a full vinyl side of Arctic-treble reverie in jazz-funk time—Rypdal’s signature jam and, at 23 minutes, a bona fide prog-rock epic.
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