With these two LPs, released within a week of each other, the Sgt. Pepper era of jazz recording is upon us. Certainly Miles Davis, who at one time employed Hancock and Weather Report's Wayne Shorter and Josef Zawinul, hinted at things to come with albums like Bitches Brew. But Miles' albums are still basically records of live events, whereas Hancock and Weather Report are now using such studio techniques as multiple overdubs, phasing, and artful tape splices, not as conveniences but as integral facets of form and presentation. Add generous helpings of mellotron and Moog, of voices and processed sound, and you have a new animal.
Both Hancock and the Weather Report people have approached this new music cautiously, making sure of firm footing with each step. The progression is evident in their previous albums, and what was once a puzzling avoidance of the new freedoms opened up by Coleman, Coltrane, Ayler and Sun Ra can now be seen as a preference for self-contained development. There isn't a single tune on either of these new albums that follows the head arrangement-solos in sequence-reprise format standardized during the bop years, nor is there a tune that sticks to the same rhythm throughout. But neither is there the open-ended collective freedom which Sun Ra and Coltrane were promulgating while Hancock, Shorter and Zawinul were still making jazz albums by the book.
There is freedom, though, in the sense of improvisations that develop independent of chordal or rhythmic structures, and of interpenetrating washes of sound color that blend without set tempo. But these improvisations are all related to a compositional discipline that may develop thematic material over a long stretch of ensemble parts, solos, collective interaction, changes in tempo and direction. Even the pieces that have no single recognizable theme are organized, if only in terms of a progression of moods, instrumental combinations, and dynamics.
So much for similarities: the albums are quite different from one another. Crossings has three compositions, one by Hancock and two by saxophonist Bennie Maupin, that develop gradually in space and time. Hancock's "The Sleeping Giant" is the best. It features several distinct themes: a funky, popping section built on a rock-solid bass line, an out-of-tempo lyrical theme that changes only slightly each time it reappears, and an ascending, exploding motif. The sections frame solos by Hancock (a gem, one of the best he's recorded), trombonist Julian Priester (a swooping, very free statement over space sounds from the Moog), and Maupin, whose soprano here evidences an enviable control of harmonics. The various overdubs, fades and splices contribute to a unity that emerges only gradually, after several hearings, as the patterns of re-emerging ideas and lines come clear out of the piece's hypnotic flow. The Maupin tunes, "Quasar" and "Water Torture," are much freer and less unified, but they make up a side that's even more hypnotic than "Sleeping Giant." Voices, Moog and mellotron blend with some Ellington-like horn voicings and excellent, expressive Eddie Henderson trumpet until the sounds seem to float off into space.
I Sing The Body Electric is a beautiful, near-perfect LP, especially welcome after Weather Report's noodling, at least half-dismal debut album. Again, what at first sounded like lack of involvement and direction seems in retrospect to have been a deliberate progression toward a style that is now organically alive. The second side of Body Electric, recorded live in Tokyo, is the key: what we have here is a group that has reorganized the role of the traditional rhythm section in an unusual way. Joe Zawinul uses his electronic keyboards like a hornplayer; he rarely plays chords or fills, choosing instead to engage in a dialogue of equals with saxophonist Shorter. Miroslav Vitous uses his bass as a third voice in this ongoing conversation, which often leaves drummer Eric Gravatt to handle the rhythmic chores, a job he performs with style and grace.
The improvisations grow naturally out of the various themes by Shorter, Zawinul, and Vitous, much like those of the Ornette Coleman quartet; in fact, Ornette's description of his music as a fabric in which "no one player has the leadanyone can come out with it at any time" serves just as well as a description of what Weather Report is into as a performing unit. The difference lies mostly in Weather Report's often strident, partially electronic textures, and in its driving, more rock-oriented beat.
The studio side of Weather Report is equally strong. Zawinul's "Unknown Soldier" is classic, with brilliant writing for voices, flute, English horn, and piccolo trumpet. Like Hancock, Zawinul employs multiple themes, contrasting tempos, climaxes, pauses, repeats, and solos that contribute to the overall structure and flow.
Each musician plays beautifully throughout, but Shorter is a special treat. He didn't come out much on the first Weather Report LP, but here he is taking care of business and then some. His soprano, which is as far from Coltrane's work as one can imagine and which carries on a slightly earlier modern soprano tradition initiated by Steve Lacy, is clear and refined, and there are a couple of spots for his equally distilled, but more gutsy tenor. Weather Report may be playing for each other, as some detractors have suggested, but they seem to have become their own most demanding audience. Now that they've got their shit together, they're one of the most exciting groups in contemporary music. (RS 112)
(Posted: Jul 6, 1972)
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