I had a very powerful experience recently. I found my love of jazz again. Here’s the recording that did it: Simon Phillips & Protocol + Ndugu Chancler + Billy Ward: Biplane to Bermuda.
My teens and twenties were an exciting time to be a jazz fan. I fell in love with the first wave of jazz fusion experiments in the 1970s by groups like Weather Report, Return to Forever, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Billy Cobham.
My relationship to older forms of the genre had been ambiguous. I generally liked jazz from before it began to strive for artsiness – primitive forms like Dixieland and swing and the brass-centric music of Preservation Hall. On the other hand, I often found the “art” jazz of the 50s and 60s excessively involuted and unlistenable.
It seemed to me like the fusionists of the ’70s, borrowing from rock and pop-funk and world music, had rediscovered the vigor of early jazz with a wider range of rhythms, textures, tone colors – and a willingness to take chances, push boundaries.
And dear Goddess I loved the results – albums like Return to Forever’s Romantic Warrior, Weather Report’s Heavy Weather, Billy Cobham’s Spectrum, Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, Stanley Clarke’s School Days. Forty years later I still cherish those recordings.
But then in the late ’80s something shifted. The harbinger, though I didn’t know it at the time, was Weather Report’s breakup in ’86. Somehow the magic went away. It seemed to me that jazz lost its sense of adventure. What I could hear out there mostly seemed to retreat into bland elevator music and overly-reverent recreations of historical styles.
The best I could find were the likes of Pat Metheny and Spirogyra – pleasant enough listening, but…wan, almost bloodless. Safe. Too safe. And let us draw a kindly veil over the terrifying blandness of most of the rest of “smooth jazz”.
So I moved sideways into jazz-influenced prog-metal, artists like Derek Sherinian and Planet X and Liquid Tension Experiment. And that was good too; wonderful music, intricate fire.
But I missed jazz as a living genre – I missed polyrhythms and wailing saxes and the uses of silence and things that derivatives of rock could not quite bring themselves to do. Occasionally Pandora would throw up a track that partly brought back the magic, like Bill Frisell’s White Fang or various stuff by Niacin. But these were few and far between.
And then Pandora’s algorithms figured out that I might like Simon Phillips and Protocol. And I did. Took me a while to notice that a lot of the good newer tracks it was rotating in were by the same outfit. I think the track that forced me to sit up and take notice was Manganese.
Then I found the live Biplane to Bermuda, and I listened, and – I mean this – I nearly cried. This was what I’d been missing for a very long time. Not just the style and virtuosity of music – Andy Timmon’s astonishing understated doubling on guitar with Everette Harp’s sax, Phillips’s and Chancler’s polyrhythms – but the sense that this was not a museum piece. These were players still asking questions, still pushing, still taking chances.
This is jazz I can feel passionate about again, jazz that rewards repeated listens and invites me into subtle depths of phrasing, rhythm, and expression.
Damn it’s good to have that back. I don’t think I knew how much I missed it, before.