Elective Affinities: 1971


[This post is part of my Elective Affinities project. It's accompanied by a YouTube playlist featuring all the albums mentioned or, where that's not possible, a representative track.]

I may as well start in 1971, the year I was born. Jazz was, to all appearances, finished in 1971; most of the acknowledged greats had died young or gone into retirement, having dismantled all the music's certainties over the course of the previous decade. It wasn't clear whether there was anything left to call "jazz" any more.

There were old warhorses doggedly doing the same thing they'd been doing before all that happened, and there were easy listening acts that shifted a lot of units. There were wild experiments, too, but nobody seemed to be able to tell what worked from what didn't. Rock, of course, loomed large. Miles, adopting the instrumentation and some of the structural methods of soul and R&B, must have seemed to some observers to be abandoning the sinking ship.

There were a fair few left from the previous decade who were still pushing things in the realm of acoustic jazz. Pharaoh was doing it; so were Ornette, Don Cherry, Corea to some extent, Braxton, Cecil Taylor. Younger players like Garbarek, Jarrett and the AACM guys were starting to flex their muscles. So jazz wasn't dead at all, even if it looked that way to many at the time: it was, rather, undergoing a radical transformation that left it more or less unrecognisable.

It took a long time for the German avant garde to come to my generation's attention: Julian Cope's book Krautrocksampler was what did it. Suddenly we were all scrambling to hear Amon Duul II, Popul Vu, Ash Ra Tempel, Can and Faust. Cope was right: this music is often brilliant and it was terribly overlooked for too long. In my view it was one of the inheritors of what Miles was really doing: continuing the movement in modal and free jazz of stripping the music back to something simple and open-ended, but grafting it onto the rhythms of rock and soul. Of those, I think Ash Ra Tempel have always been closest to my heart. Popul Vuh don't always please me so much but "In Den Gärten Pharaos" is magnificent.

Rock music was much more exciting in 1971 than it became later. It was often psychedelic, polystylistic, raw, blunt, noisy and sometimes even ritualistic. There are many, many rock records from this period that use methods from avant garde classical composition, especially sampling and electronic noisemaking. "The Inner Mounting Flame" is vintage Mahavishnu, and just makes you want to jam with them.

The Moving Gelatine Plates are a recent discovery; sort of Brainticket meets Soft Machine, and although it's patchy there are bits where they hit on the good stuff. A veil is best drawn over the vocals, but a lot of the instrumental parts share the same art brut simplicity and naivety of some AACM records and, later, Prime Time. It's not as good as that, but I think it hints at something important about the roots of that music: it was already there, in multiple genres at once and being done by lots of people, not just a few visionaries. When "Dancing in your Head" appeared it was a moment of clarification and culmination rather than a radical break.

I discovered Stomu Yamash'ta thanks to my dad having a copy of "Raindog" on vinyl (my dad was a drummer). Later I saw him playing Henze and realised he was a serious classical cat as well. "Raindog" is a great prog record, but "Red Buddha" is way more hardcore: a continuous percussion solo that's both minimal and maximal at the same time, repetitive and chaotic, mesmerising and maddening

Although jazz/rock fusion gets all the attention from jazzers, in some ways the psych/soul thing was even more exciting while it lasted. Everyone knows the Funkadelic records -- rightly so too -- but The Rotary Connection's "Hey Love" was a pretty recent discovery for me. There's something about the blissed-out, churchy, trippy, freaky sounds of this music that I can't resist: it's a hot mess and that's why it's beautiful. Quincy Jones's "Smackwater Jack" and Herbie Mann's "Memphis Underground" have a bit of that too, with the latter considerably spiced up by the mighty Sonny Sharrock on guitar.

The Lifetime album is infused more with this kind of thing than straight-up rock, in my view, and what's why it's good, and why I can forgive the vocals. And although it's one of his jazziest, the Benson record's also deeply steeped in soul rhythms, harmonies and textures. "A Tribute To Jack Johnson" is a game of two halves: the comping on the A side could almost come off an Isaac Hayes track while the B side swings like Bo Diddley. Same goes for the Coryell disks of the time, which can be very Hendrixy in places. Coryell's output is very up and down for me, more down than up, but on "Fairyland" he dishes the goods (Coryell's other 1971 album, "Barefoot Boy", is good too).

Speaking of Hendrixy, "Universal Consciousness" is my second favourite Alice Coltrane album, and is as wild as you can imagine. (Since you asked, my absolute favourite is "Transfiguration" from 1978.) Not Hendrixy at all, on the other hand, is Derek Bailey, who reinvented my instrument and sent me down a rabbit-hole of textural obsessiveness. His solo stuff is always my favourite.

Latin jazz had been a thing from very early on, and that influence continued in the fusion era. It often produced records I can't get along with, but I've always had a soft spot for Gato Barbieri's old-school gutbucket tenor. The West African influence was also strong at this time, and has yielded happy results when its cross-rhythms were imposed on adventurous jazz. Osibisa's first album isn't that, but I did once break a glass while dancing to it at a wedding so there it is on the list.

"When Fortune Smiles" is mostly pretty much just a modern jazz album, with electric instruments and McLaughlin's phrasing making it sound fusiony. But the tunes are just the kind of thing Ornette would write for Prime Time a few years later -- repetitive, bone-simple, free of obvious harmonic constraints. The lineup is top-notch and early McLaughlin is always fun because he was so much more adventurous in those days, perhaps because he wasn't yet burdened with the reputation of a virtuoso.

Unlike McLaughlin, who I've listened too since I was a teenager, it's taken me a while to get hip to George Benson. Incidentally, he's almost exactly the same age as McLaughlin, although his recording career got started a few years earlier. His smoother stuff isn't really my bag but he's a truly amazing guitar player. The album "Beyond the Blue Horizon" is one of my favourites. The organ-bass-drums rhythms section boils with energy and Benson dishes out his implausibly perfect phrasing throughout.

Then there were figures like Terry Riley, who nobody knew what to do with in terms of categorisation. I know I should choose one of the two records, but I don't have to so I shan't. I love Terry Riley -- I'll listen to anything he's put out -- but my favourites, perhaps unsurprisingly, are the ones that sound like long, unstructured jams. These "A Rainbow in Curved Air" and "Church of Anthrax" are among the best.

While we're on the uncategorizable: Meredith Monk. Where did she come from? She seems to have emerged without any clear precursors and left no obvious legacy. Nobody has ever been anything like her, and "Key" is vintage Monk, showing off her control of overtones, her incredibly pure voice and spare, exposed compositional style.

Richard Davis's "The Philosophy of the Spiritual" is a lost gem; I'm surprised there aren't more records like it on my list for this year, but I guess they don't come along all that often. It's soaring, melodic free music in the spirit of Albert Ayler, and if I could jam with one band from this list it would probably be this one. Harold Land's "Chroma (Burn)" is a good one in this vein too.

Gary Peacock was probably the first bass player I really listened to. I got to know him from the ECM records that came out in the eighties, which always somehow made the bass stand out in the mix without sucking the woodiness out of it. And I've loved Mal Waldron since I first heard him, I think on the Five Spot records with Dolphy or perhaps duetting with Lacy. So although I came to "First Encounter" much later, I knew it was going to be my jam before I heard a note. The record also features a drummer, Hiroshi Murakami. He has a very modern style that works pretty nicely with Waldron's weird approach to time. Steve Kuhn's "Childhood Is Forever" is a very modern piano trio too, but it's a different world.

Woody Shaw was a monster post-bop trumpet player, and "Blackstone Legacy" is burning. Bennie Maupin does a great job on reeds and George Cables lays down some electric piano, reminding us what year we're in. It's not free but it's not nostalgic either. Joe Henderson is justly revered now while Shaw is sometimes forgotten, and that's a shame. They were cut from similar cloth.

I love Garbarek, but the rule is the earlier the better. "Sart" is pretty spicy. It also features Terje Rypdal, who deserves more recognition. He uses a wah-wah pedal on this one and cranks out the occasional funk riff that sits very oddly with everything else, further cementing my notion that adventurous jazz in 1971 was mostly about appropriating bits of soul music rather than rock.

I got hip to Kenny Burrell very late in life, when I came to appreciate how hard it is to do what he does. "God Bless the Child" is a very odd record, although you can play it at dinner parties without frightening the guests away. The instrumentation is fairly traditional guitar-led group with electric piano and five cellos. Five cellos! What were they thinking? Perhaps just that it was 1971. Freddie Hubbard pops up, and plays beautifully as always. The tunes are easy vehicles for relaxed, sometimes flashy soloing, and the arrangements are often a bit too sugary, but there's a helicopter dropping napalm on the cover.

Because of the cover, I want to put this alongside "Liberation Music Orchestra", though that isn't a record you can play at dinner parties unless you have your very coolest friends over. But what a lineup: Gato Barbieri, Dewey Redman, Don Cherry, Michael Mantler, Roswell Rudd, Sam Brown, Carla Bley, Charlie Haden, Paul Motian AND Andrew Cyrille! The music is soaring and ecstatic. This is what socialism sounds like, folks.

Not dissimilar in effect are "Message To Our Folks" and "The Last Poets". I stumbled on both these records at exactly the right moment, as a twenty-year-old obsessed with Ginsburg and Burroughs. Hearing "Old Time Religion" for the first time is a very strong memory for me. I don't always follow the Chicago school all the way down the rabbit hole but the risks they took were in pursuit of something you can't find any other way, and on this one they catch hold of it. Gil Scott-Heron is the link between The Last Poets and The Rotary Connection, I suppose. Anyway, "Pieces of a Man" is a classic and doesn't need any introduction.

My rule for Chick Corea is: acoustic instruments and small groups. He's an amazing pianist whose legacy has been a bit hamstrung by how badly a lot of those synth sounds and other fusion-centric choices have dated. That, and he's actually pretty spikey when he digs in, which might have hurt his popular appeal. I sort of have another rule that any album with an Ornette cover is probably worth checking out; this one has "Blues Connotation", one of my favourites. "The Song of Singing" ticks all my boxes.