Jimi Hendrix and jazz

Jimi Hendrix

Since his death the influence of Jimi Hendrix's music and the general fascination with his celebrity has grown year on year. While rock fans claim Hendrix as one of their own, he was also a major influence on jazz musicians and on subsequent jazz/rock hybrids. But how did Hendrix influence jazz? Keith Shadwick takes a close look at the Hendrix legacy. PLUS Enjoy the Jazzwise 'Jimi Henrix and jazz' playlist, featuring the music mentioned in this feature, on Apple Music:

In December 1970 Jimi Hendrix won Down Beat magazine’s Readers’ Hall of Fame vote. He was not the first to win it posthumously on a wave of sympathy in the year of his death – Eric Dolphy had in 1964, to the unfeigned distaste of the traditionalists, and Wes Montgomery again in 1968 – but he was the first non-jazz musician to do so. Two questions emerge from this rather odd juxtaposition: what was he doing being voted for in a jazz poll where he’d not previously troubled the compilers, and why was there such a concerted outcry afterwards in the letters pages of the magazine as well as from sundry jazz critics?

This goes to the heart of Hendrix's position in popular music. It is only in hindsight that we can look at such a result and say that it is entirely appropriate, given the enormous influence Hendrix and his musical ideas had on the subsequent development of not just jazz-rock and fusion, but all of jazz. For, like other musical titans, he brought to the music a helping of ideas that could be used by everybody. Thinking of Hendrix at the position he was in at his death, and of the musical scene he was central to, there is little overt connection with contemporaneous jazz, apart from the embryonic jazz-rock scenes in NYC and London. After all, Hendrix had built his entire musical vocabulary squarely on the solid foundations of the blues, not on blues and the standard song, which is where post-war jazz usually makes its entrance in a musician's consciousness. The closest jazz approached Hendrix's entry point was with the ubiquitous early-60s organ-guitar-drums trios on the Chitlin circuit. Where Hendrix had mapped out his territory was as the baddest guitarist in rock: countless other rock guitarists of the time have testified to his shattering impact, firstly in the London of late 1966 and later in America via Monterey in summer 1967. In all the fuss generated by his songs, his lyrics, his stage act and his general anti-establishment stance, there was little time for the majority of onlookers to wonder about jazz tie-ins.

But they were there from the first album Hendrix released under his own name, Are You Experienced? Recorded between December 1966 and March 1967, the (14) tracks that made up the initial British release covered a lot of stylistic territory, from the Wilson Pickett/Otis Redding strut of ‘Remember’ to the open-form experimentation of ‘Third Stone From The Sun' that had no previous parallel in all rook music and had its roots in an improvisatory dialogue between Hendrix and Mitch Mitchell that owed most of its conception to the convergence of Mitch’s studies of Elvin Jones and Hendrix's obsession with sound for its own sake. This obsession was long-standing but had most likely been encouraged to take its particular form on this track by Jimi's combination of fantasy films and novels with the sorts of extended improvisations that were common on the New York jazz scene he was living amongst prior to his relocation to London. Being Hendrix, of course he developed it in his own unique way (the instrumental theme sounds like nothing so much as a supercharged Ventures surf melody), instructing bassist Noel Redding to stick to a very basic three-note riff throughout the long improvisatory section – a device that beds the whole performance, unites it and keeps it within what was then defined as a rock ambit, rather than taking the approach Cream was starting to develop where Jack Bruce often took more adventurous bass lines in collective passages with Clapton and Baker than Clapton – always and forever primarily a blues player – was willing to go for.

The majority of Hendrix's improvisations on this track use the guitar not so much as a solo instrument in the jazz tradition of single-note lines or even chorded passages, but as a source of sound. Using and moulding an array of feedback techniques, Hendrix constructs a wild soundscape that bounces off and comes up in between all the other elements on the track, including his distorted spoken word passages. That this is a good trip rather than a nightmare is made clear in the humour the words contain – especially the allusion to surf music. The track concludes in a conflagration of sound that has no precedent in rock but whose violence and shrieks can be heard as a translation of the wild sounds prevalent in New York City avant-garde jazz circles from 1964 to the end of the decade. The leader of that particular young coterie, saxophonist Albert Ayler, was often quoted as saying that 'it's no longer about notes – it’s about sound.' As with Hendrix’s most extreme electric explorations, their music was often performed over simple drones or with the absence of any precise tonality, and the colour and vibrancy of the sounds being created in, say, Albert Ayler’s famous 1965 live recording, Bells, is directly comparable to the conflagration with which Hendrix concludes 'Third Stone From The Sun'. There is a similar melee at the end of 'I Don’t Live Today' where once again Hendrix abandons traditional guitar picking and fretting for manipulation of electric amplified distortion and feedback while the bass continues the song’s main riff pattern and the drums cut loose from keeping any specific metre in spectacular fashion. On the original 1967 LP release the savagery of this passage's attack was mitigated by Hendrix's fading up and down of the music track so as to deliver the occasional laconic spoken line. In the past decade earlier mixes of this track have come to light on the collectors’ circuit where this free-for-all is presented in full and with no vocal overdubs. Its exuberant intensity is overwhelming, its musical invention remains as fresh as the day it was played. The Experience was outstripping everybody else out there in doing what was done on these tracks. What was unique about Hendrix's achievement was that he managed to do this within a popular music format that stood very much at the heart of the rock, blues and R&B tradition of the day. This unique juggling act, as well as the adventurousness of the audiences of the day, allowed Hendrix to quickly build a phenomenal popular support and public profile that was sustained for the rest of his short career.

This was a fantastic position to be in, and one that even the most popular jazz musicians of the day – Miles Davis or John Coltrane – could only dream of. As for the likes of Albert Ayler and those who populated the avant-garde in his wake, their musical stature seemed to be reflected only in inverse proportion by popular acceptance or approval. What is interesting about all this interlinking of music and day-to-day careers is that, while Hendrix quite likely felt the green light for his own casting off of the musical chains through his checking out of the wilder shores of jazz at this time, no-one in the jazz scene quite knew how to deal with what Hendrix was laying down. It would be years before his message was digested and re-interpreted in a coherent way by the jazz firmament. It’s also worth pointing out that the earliest attempts to do so came not from American musicians, but from European ones, who had a much longer history of fusing different forms and genres together. John McLaughlin, for example, was extending the sonic boom long before he left England for New York, Miles Davis and Tony Williams. And after all, Hendrix himself had to leave the US to get a deal that would for the first time allow him to front a band and express himself to appreciative audiences.

Hendrix's popular impact may have eclipsed anything the acoustic jazzers could hope for, but it is arguable that many young people who loved what Hendrix was doing were able to approach other types of experimental music, including all forms of cutting-edge jazz, because of the sounds they had been introduced to by the phenomenal guitarist, just as many who ended up seeking out the newer sounds in jazz from within the jazz scene of the 60s came to them via John Coltrane’s absorbing musical odyssey.

If this was the case, the next set of tunes that appeared on Axis: Bold As Love showed that Hendrix was by no means limited to one contact point with jazz and jazz-based music. In fact, after the fun and games of the put-on Introduction, with its UFOs, radio interview send-ups and allusions to old friends (Hendrix pretending to be Paul Caruso), plus some crazed passages of controlled feedback of searing intensity that unwittingly recall the incendiary shrieks of Pharoah Sanders during his parallel tenure with John Coltrane, the album ushers us straight into the type of funky jazz shuffle that had made a string of genre hits for jazz labels like Blue Note, Argo/Cadet and Verve. 'Up From The Skies’ is an understated, insinuating piece (Mitch Mitchell uses brushes throughout, revisiting the type of drumming that brought him to attention with George Fame, his previous employer) whose main vocal line bears a resemblance to the B section of a Grant Green boogaloo tune, 'The Selma March', recorded in May 1965 and issued on His Majesty King Funk. It’s quite possible that the short melody Green's front-line shares with Hendrix’s opening vocal melody is a case of coincidence, as the line is entirely blues-based and is hardly more than a modified riff. But the guitar treatment from Hendrix, though intensely bluesy and using a wah-wah pedal on obbligato overdubs, shows a subtle awareness of modern jazz guitar techniques, especially those of Wes Montgomery and Kenny Burrell, and what he plays on this track, whether lead or rhythm, adds up to a great deal more than mere pastiche: he has fully absorbed this idiom and made it work for himself.

Jimi Hendrix

The Wes Montgomery and Kenny Burrell connections were to remain in place for the rest of Hendrix's short career, especially those with Montgomery, whose octave-picking style was one Hendrix, with his large hands and long fingers, could emulate with nonchalant ease as and when he required it. Before that was developed, however, there was the little question of ‘If Six Was Nine' on Axis. This piece uses the relatively novel idea at that time of a sequential composition in a loose A-B-A-B form whereby the repeats of A and B are radically redefined. The initial part of the song, in its elements, is related to a simple slow boogie line in the John Lee Hooker tradition, made different by its arrangement, especially the drum part, while the first solo, a wildly lyrical one based on scales with no reference to blues intervals or inflections, finds Mitchell double-timing in jazz fashion, delivering a swaggering beat not far removed from his jazz hero Elvin Jones. When this section recurs the improvisation is even looser and wilder, Mitchell at times delivering a 6/8 beat while Hendrix plays a wooden flute (or recorder, depending on which aural source is correct) in a fashion so manic that again only Albert Ayler’s music can be used as a parallel. Or maybe Sun Ra’s fevered arrangements.

This music hit rock musicians and fans hard at the time, ushering in a new and exciting era of improvisatory experimentalism. The fact that only Hendrix had the talent and imagination to make such ideas cohere and excite was going to take a little while to sink in. On the jazz side of the culture, however, the sounds Hendrix was making were shaking up a lot of people. Rock had been feeding into mainstream jazz since the advent in America of The Beatles, when everyone in the universe began doing cover versions, from Count Basie to Ella Fitzgerald and beyond. Younger players and arrangers used this new music in more imaginative ways and looked further afield, so that by 1965-66 songs by Bob Dylan and other cutting-edge rock performers were beginning to turn up regularly on jazz records, from Roger Kellaway and Oliver Nelson to Gary McFarland, Gary Burton and beyond. That same year Burton formed a pianoless quartet with Seattle guitarist Larry Coryell, by then a young veteran (along with Charles Lloyd and Gabor Szabo, of Chico Hamilton's genre-crossing bands) providing a sensibility that straddled both rock and jazz in his playing and approach. By 1967 Burton's quartet was regularly employing a 4/4 rock beat for its tunes, while other bands, such as Mike Nock’s Fourth Way, were beginning to develop ideas taken from a rock context and applied to electrified jazz ideas. Some people – Clark Terry, Sonny Stitt, Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane included – began to investigate the short-lived Varitone device that debuted in 1966 and could take a horn's signal and convert it into electrically generated octaves or other intervals, running parallel to the player's improvisations.

Hendrix's advent threw down the gauntlet, not just to these bands and others like them, young but capable of winning popularity polls as Charles Lloyd (along with band members Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette) and Burton showed during 1967, but to the people in bands like that of Miles Davis and Cannonball Adderley. Miles later in life talked a lot about the influence of James Brown on his thinking as he moved from the ascetic purity of his last great acoustic quintet to the earthier and more formally uncluttered music-making of his first electric period, from Filles de Kilimanjaro through to Bitches Brew, but it is Hendrix who supplies the bridge between the two. The evidence? Listen to 'Little Miss Lover' on Axis. The funky guitar-bass riff that underpins the rhythm and the harmony of the verse has strong Brown funk overtones, but its re-casting as a slightly loopy, lopsided rock riff balancing in and around Mitch Mitchell's subtle patterns, where he goes for odd rhythmic stresses rather than the obvious ones, makes it a pattern with endless possibilities when put in a more open-ended musical environment. Play this track then think of Miles soloing over it. It fits.

With 1968 Hendrix moved into his most ambitious period of creativity in the studio (performing live, he was still for the most part sticking to a tight song list and power-packed short sets with the Jimi Hendrix Experience that featured his explosive guitar playing but kept it within a clearly defined structure. A quick reference to the many recordings for the BBC or some of the concert performances from 1967-68 affirms this). In the stu­dio, with the waning of singles-oriented Chas Chandler's influence, Hendrix quickly expanded his horizons. The greatest and most perfect expressions of those new explorations are to be found on the four sides of the vinyl release of Electric Ladyland, but a more tellingly naked documentation of Hendrix’s Insatiable urge to explore can be heard on tracks that didn't make the cut. The instrumental tune 'Cherokee Mist' was first tried out in early 1968 and repeatedly returned to until the end of his life (it was included as a title scheduled to be part of the studio album that lay unfinished at his death). A 1970 version has been officially released but it bears little resemblance to the raw, extreme May 1968 debut studio attempt where Hendrix, with just Mitch Mitchell in attendance, creates a stark yet wistful Hollywood-type-lndian theme, then drowns it in the most screaming, intense feedback. Like 'Third Stone' it is a sound-picture, but it is one of his first sound-pictures painting a cruel and tragic internal landscape, such as would later be brought to perfection in 'Star Spangled Banner’ and ‘Machine Gun’. It is Hendrix’s lament for a people to which he felt blood-attachment and in its own way it is his ‘Alabama', five years after Coltrane's magnificent lament for the victims of the 1963 Birmingham Alabama church bombing.

Jimi Hendrix

That same day in Record Plant, Hendrix tried something entirely different, and again it lay unreleased, this time until the late 1990s. ‘South Saturn Delta' is a curious hybrid of TV-show theme drama, blues and jazzy funk. Hendrix's guitar overdubs feature Montgomery-style octave passages as well as Steve Cropper-type scratchy funk, but the most unusual feature of the track is an overdubbed brass section of two trumpets and two saxes, arranged by Larry Fallon. In the second half of this four-minute piece Hendrix swaps phrases with an unidentified sax player (somewhat lost in the late 90s mix) who has something of King Curtis’ staccato style about him. The basic rhythm track of this piece is unco-ordinated and it is easy to see why it was shelved at the time, but it shows Hendrix trying to find a bridge to a wholly instrumental approach via some of the basic techniques of jazz. Considering the later talk of his wanting to make a record with Gil Evans, this blueprint is a fascinating foretaste. Hendrix during 1968 was a determined jammer and sitter-in with anyone who interested or excited him, and that year saw him playing with Roland Kirk and his group at Ronnie Scott’s, while Frank Zappa was another beneficiary of Hendrix’s impulse decisions to join in onstage. His studio jams (the most successful of which, 'Voodoo Child’ with Steve Winwood on organ, was a highlight of Electric Ladyland) were a direct reflection of his desire to capture in the studio the electricity of such impromptu live events.

Another instrumental that was also eventually rejected for Electric Ladyland was ‘Tax Free’, written by Hansson & Carlsson. Cut in the same January 1968 week as 'All Along The Watchtower’, it is the only track of this instrumental trio that was completed and given a final mix (this time in May that year). It is a tightly arranged track with no less than four guitar lines running through its series of rhythmic and harmonic segues. It again looks to the models of Wes Montgomery and Kenny Burrell in terms of the treatment of the melody and arrangement. This time, though, Hendrix is taking on the organ accompaniment role (there is one guitar track that so closely imitates an organ being played through a Leslie speaker that it takes a minute of close listening to establish that in fact it is a guitar). The expanded palette of sounds also suggest he was trying to re-create the type of orchestral accompaniment Oliver Nelson and other arrangers were regularly creating as suitable vehicle for their star soloists. Jimi’s guitar leads in every part of this performance sparkle in a superbly realised and uncluttered arrangement. It was perhaps this relative success that encouraged him to attempt ’South Saturn Delta’, with real horns, later that spring.

In the event, Electric Ladyland, an album originally planned by Hendrix as a three-LP set but later trimmed to two by management pressure, dropped all the instrumental tracks he'd been tinkering with as well as the Dylanesque ‘My Friend'. A glance at the track rundown of the eventual album will confirm that Ladyland hit the streets with no entirely instrumental track on it, although parts of the jam that contributed ’Rainy Day, Dream Away' and 'Still Raining, Still Dreaming’ came pretty close. That June session seems to have been a culmination of the thinking behind the earlier string of jazz-laced sessions that included 'South Saturn Delta’. This time Hendrix captured a jam (with organist Mike Finnegan, saxophonist Freddie Smith and drummer Buddy Miles) that contained a relaxed shuffle feel, an insinuating bluesy vocal line and some spirited solo joshing between saxist Smith and himself on guitar. The funk backbeat of Miles aside, the opening bars could almost be from a Stanley Turrentine-Jimmy Smith jam of the early or mid-60s. so soulful is the atmosphere before Jimi lets rip.

This particular jam was important because it reached out past where anyone else had got to in terms of blending the latest rock sounds and trends with the jazz-funk approach. Previous bands and artists had applied horns and organ to more traditional forms of blues and funk – Paul Butterfield and the whole Stax brigade, for example – while jazz players developing this stylistic vein were still very wary about turning up the volume on the guitarist's amp or even featuring the guitar beyond a strictly accompanist's role, even when groove merchant organists such as Jack McDuff were involved. To find such supercharged playing in a jazz context in 1967-68 it was still necessary to turn to the New York avant-garde, at this point adjusting to the devastating loss of its mentor John Coltrane and looking for alternatives. Sonny Sharrock, playing with both Herbie Mann and Pharoah Sanders, was at that time cutting up rough in ways that diverge from what Hendrix was up to. Sharrock was recording in bands during this period that were exploiting the benefits of riffs and ostinato patterns as the backbone of improvised performances. Such things were not new to jazz or other types of music, having been around for centuries, but they were rare in conventional modern jazz at this time, obsessed as it was with post-bop running of harmonic changes. Only the chitlin end of the jazz scene – and the funk-jazz merchants like Eddie Harris, Horace Silver and Cannonball Adderley – were using these patterns in creative and fresh ways, but none of these bands used guitarists prominently. Mann did, however, often in the bass lines or percussion section, and sometimes in other backing instruments as well. Mann's best-selling Memphis Underground, recorded in Memphis in August 1968, was an example of how jazz musicians could use the most exciting elements of the new music around them in an instrumental setting with very strong jazz underpinning. Mann has been quoted as saying that his thinking on Memphis Underground was influenced by hearing The Byrds play 'Eight Miles High’ live and sensing their shortcomings as rock soloists over such a great groove. He used Memphis musicians for a groove on which to graft jazz solos. The two guitar soloists on that date were Sonny Sharrock and Larry Coryell. Both men, but most especially Coryell, show a heavy awareness of what Hendrix was doing at that time. Mann, in letting Sharrock loose like he does, for example, on 'Hold On, I’m Comin”, clearly knows the Hendrix precedent.

Jimi Hendrix

Coincidentally, that May Hendrix had used a flute soloist on one of his most ambitious recordings, ‘1983 (A Merman I Should Be)'. Although its basic form included a melody line and vocals against a steady, if slow, beat, Hendrix had extended sections in free time, using washes of sound years before ECM, New Age and synthesisers made such ideas commonplace, but interweaving quicksilver lines of improvisation from both his own guitar and from the flute of Traffic's Chris Wood. Wood was no technician and his contributions tend to be basic, but his presence helps spread the music far from the shores of mainstream rock. This track ate up a whole side of the original vinyl LP and was a major statement of intent from the guitarist, whose usage on this track of intervals and scales found in Indian music may have been very much something of that period, but they were still of surpassing melodic beauty. Listening to the distilled purity of the melody found all through ’1983’, one is bound to be drawn to a parallel with Miles Davis' first foray into the embryonic jazz-rock fusion area, In A Silent Way. The tune was penned and recorded by Joe Zawinul, then still a key member of Cannonball Adderley’s quintet, but it was Davis's studio reading of it in February 1969, with John McLaughlin on guitar, that was so influential.

In September 1968, the month after Hendrix had finalised the last items for Electric Ladyland such as 'Long Hot Summer Night’, 'House Burning Down' and ‘Come On Part 1' and delivered the completed masters, Miles recorded 'Mademoiselle Mabry’ (based partly on 'The Wind Cries Mary’) and ‘Felon Brun’, his first two tracks with Chick Corea on electric piano. Though still couched in the stylistic terms of the great Shorter-Hancock-Carter-Williams quintet, these two pieces hinted at a shift in his focus towards more open-ended music that had a steady metric flow dominated by the type of beat found in rock and soul. ‘In A Silent Way’, recorded just a couple of months after Electric Ladyland's initial release, shows how closely Miles was following Hendrix’s career on records. It is worth pondering whether Miles could have made such a quick and decisive step towards rock techniques, in both music and production, without ‘1983’ having preceded it. Certainly John McLaughlin, the guitarist Miles chose to play a key role in proceedings and newly arrived in New York to play with Tony Williams' new band, LifeTime, was about the nearest thing in jazz to Hendrix at that time. He was not a guitarist hung up on trying to negotiate the crosstown traffic of the bebop changes Miles had left far behind a decade previously.

It is ironic that, as the fires of electricity-fed jazz fusion were being lit partly through his trailblazing example, Hendrix for the first time in his latter-day career experienced a slow-down in creative and performing output. That October he attempted a revisiting of the types of studio-inspired instrumental sound-pictures that had produced such groundbreaking pieces in the previous 12 months as ’EXP’, 'Cherokee Mist’ and large parts of ‘1983’. ‘The New Rising Sun’ suggests an expansion of the beautiful, haunting theme tune for Electric Ladyland, only this time much-extended (it’s over three minutes long) and entirely instrumental, with long introductions and codas that are entirely without rhythmic underpinning. Although very beautiful in places it sounds incomplete and very much like another introductory piece, possibly to the next album that was at one time tentatively titled by Hendrix The First Rays of the New Rising Sun. But it is retrospective rather than forward-looking, and as such is something of a first for the guitarist. The downturn in productivity continued as he stuttered through a largely unproductive 12 months in 1969. Based in New York for the most part when he was not touring with a now-disintegrating Experience (Noel Redding was to play his last gig with Hendrix in June) and also having to deal with the consequences of a drug bust in Toronto in late spring, Hendrix largely dried up in terms of new material and seemed to be casting about for directions as the crowd around him changed.

Working in New York in the early part of the year he was alternating between trying out ideas with the Experience that were retreads of earlier achievements and having jams with the musicians he was meeting on the New York scene. Some of these players came and went quickly while others made a more telling impact. That Hendrix was looking for new blood to re-enthuse him is obvious when you look at who he played with in February/March 1969: Buddy Miles, Jim McCarty, Larry Young, John McLaughlin, Dave Holland plus the horn sec­tion from the Buddy Miles Express. During April/May Paul Caruso, Steven Stills and Johnny Winter were some of the many musicians, others remaining nameless (including a harmon-muted trumpeter thought by many for some years was Miles Davis but who remains unidentified to this day), who shared studio time with the guitarist, mostly running through hours of tape on jams but occasionally achieving something more structured. Saxophonist Sam Rivers remembers being pulled in to play on a Hendrix session, but can today recall no precise details.

Of all these encounters, the most celebrated (partially because it’s the one virtually nobody apart from those involved and their close associates has ever heard) is the session with John McLaughlin. This is probably a case of hindsight rather than realism, especially when the words of those who actually took part are considered. McLaughlin has consistently stated that the session he shared with Hendrix was an unstructured jam, that McLaughlin himself was on acoustic guitar, and that the music was inconsequential. The fact that the jam ever happened was much more important for the history of the music than the quality of the music recorded, partly due to what McLaughlin himself was about to achieve, whether with Miles Davis and Tony Williams' LifeTime or under his own name. The implications are immense and everybody always enjoys ‘what if' speculation. Dealing with the actual hard evidence of cross-fertilisation is interesting, for at around the same time as the jam happened, McLaughlin was recording his album Devotion for Douglas Records, with Buddy Miles and Larry Young providing backing. Although the McLaughlin compositions are very much in his own image, their spiky themes, diminished scales and intricate time signatures glancing back to Extrapolation and forwards to Mahavishnu, the improvisations, with the uncluttered drumming of Buddy Miles and spare bass playing of Billy Rich, show the impact of Hendrix.

On the title track McLaughlin double-tracks two solos in Hendrix fashion across a two-chord vamp, achieving a fine and heady musical effervescence of the type Hendrix had managed himself effortlessly in the past, but at that time was struggling to replicate in the studio. On the bluesy 'Dragon Song’ McLaughlin plays so far inside the Hendrix bag of tricks as to make the listener wonder whether this was a tribute of sorts: with Miles knocking out a rocksolid backbeat and McLaughlin heavy on the wah-wah, this is deep Hendrix voodoo territory.

McLaughlin’s contemporary outings with LifeTime were in the company of organist Young, drummer/leader Tony Williams and, later, Jack Bruce. The mix was explosive but the settled and consistently inventive music McLaughlin managed on Devotion suggests that the balance was better struck in his studio band. Hendrix and Mitch Mitchell are on record as claiming that they would have welcomed the opportunity to expand the Experience into a quartet with an organist, the most popular candidate consistently being Steve Winwood. LifeTime had that line-up, and the wildfire excitement of their music shows that Hendrix was sound in his instincts. That LifeTime as a trio never had a singer worthy of the description, and Jack Bruce wasn't around long enough after joining to get a permanent job fronting the band with his voice, means that the analogy is inexact, but the impressive diversity and impact of LifeTime’s aural assault makes one wish that Young could have been in on the Band of Gypsys project at year’s end.

By the time Hendrix and McLaughlin met in a New York studio he was bogged down in the studio, unable to formulate coherent new ideas for the Experience. Just days after their jam Hendrix tried another instrumental, ‘Midnight’, with Redding and Mitchell that though disciplined and eventful, broke no new ground for him and stayed unreleased until after his death. Within a month Hendrix also appeared in the same studios with Larry Young. McLaughlin’s colleague in LifeTime and on Devotion. One of the resulting jams, later given the arbitrary title ‘Young/Hendrix', was released on the posthumous vinyl album Nine to The Universe and showed Young entirely at home with Hendrix and Buddy Miles. Hendrix is intent on taking it easy and enjoying the contribution of his colleagues rather than trying for anything spectacular, easing his way into the combination.

During this period of socialising and jamming in New York, Hendrix met up with Miles Davis and Tony Williams, though neither man made it down to the Record Plant jams. A little later things were put on a more formal basis when they agreed to record with Hendrix and both Columbia and Reprise came to an arrangement about the upcoming session. It came to nothing, however, because Davis and Williams put the bite on Hendrix’s management for up-front cash payments. Though no-one knew it then, the chance was gone forever. As Miles Davis led the sessions which would produce Bitches Brew (on which he made the connection with Hendrix explicit by titling one track 'Miles Runs the Voodoo Down’) and push the jazz-rock fusion on a giant pace, Hendrix spent most of his summer 1969 break in upstate New York loosely working up ideas with some new and old musician friends. This Gypsy Sons & Rainbows aggregation (as it became known by the time of the Woodstock Festival) drew on many of the musicians living around the Woodstock area and allowed for a cross-pollination of sorts. Drummer Barry Altschul, for example, was one of the day-guests and took advantage of his visit to introduce the type of metre-free time-keeping he'd perfected while in Paul Bley's group. It is entirely possible that this encounter led to Hendrix undertaking his a capella reading of ’The Star Spangled Banner’ at the Festival. These summer 1969 jams led directly to the flawed show at Woodstock and the dispersal of most of the musicians soon afterwards (although some, like ex-Coltrane and Miles percussionist Juma Sultan and bassist Billy Cox, would continue to be involved in Hendrix’s music-making plans), but the lessons weren’t wasted. Hendrix that autumn formed his Band of Gypsys with Cox and new pal Buddy Miles. If ever there was a jamming band it was this one: the miles of studio tapes recording their incessant jams while trying to put a stage act together testifies to it.

Band of Gypsys didn’t last very long – a matter of months – but during its short existence Hendrix took the opportunity to play in public material that took him away from his Experience image and allowed him to move away from a live format that had become formulaic. With a rhythm team behind him solely focusing on keeping as tight a grip on the constant in-the-pocket beat as possible, Hendrix was freed up to play as his muse took him. As the New Year's Eve Concert at Fillmore East testifies, this could lead into passages of little activity and the occasional concentration on stage antics, but it could also allow Hendrix to build up a colossal creative head of steam.

Hendrix had for three years been demonstrating his awesome guitar prowess in live circumstances, but to a large extent this had been done on set pieces and in short bursts, with ‘Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)’ and a slow blues, most often ‘Red House’, the only extended demonstrations. With his Band of Gypsys Hendrix found a way of matching his contemporaries in terms of extended performance, as Cream, Grateful Dead and the cutting-edge jazz performers had been doing live for a considerable time. Of course when Hendrix did it, he moved everything on past what had been achieved before, because at the Fillmore he unveiled 'Machine Gun’, a 12-minute fusion of arrangement and improvisation that today sounds just as shattering as it did when first released in 1970. With his solo on this number, Hendrix laid down the path for guitar for the subsequent decade: all Miles Davis’ later attempts to assimilate guitars into his working band have their roots here (it is rumoured that he was at the concert where this performance was recorded) while players such as Mike Stern and John Scofield would take the intensity and texture of this music and apply it to their own methodologies, emerging in the 1980s with mature styles that embraced jazz, rock and fusion with equal inventiveness and passion.

Hendrix’s last year, 1970, held as much frustration for him as it did musical fulfilment: the Band of Gypsys collapsed from both internal and external pressures early in the year and the replacement trio – Hendrix, Billy Cox and Mitch Mitchell – went back out on the road in April. In the spring and summer Hendrix methodically worked on finishing material for his long-delayed follow-up studio album to Electric Ladyland, but there is little in those recordings to suggest he was actively pursuing an experimental or radical new direction. He returned to the song format offered on Are You Experienced? and Axis: Bold As Love and concentrated on polishing such new tunes as ‘Freedom’, 'Dolly Dagger’, 'Night Bird Flying’ and ‘Izabella’ to his usual levels of perfection. Only in his incredible attention to musical detail and love of texture on every level of performance can there be found a hint of the other avenues then being pursued, for during these months he and his management had entered into talks with arranger/composer Gil Evans in the hope of pulling off a studio collaboration. Evans had based his reputation in jazz on his ability to extract exquisite and unique voicings and textures from rearrangements of a huge range of materials and his work with Miles Davis was world-famous. In turning to him Hendrix might have been looking for a way out of his old dilemma: aspiring to operate in many areas of music with equal aplomb but not having the formal training to do so. The Evans project seems to have been taken seriously by all parties, including his record company, who commissioned a preliminary record sleeve design prior to Hendrix’s death, but it is open to question as to whether it would ever have eventuated. Evans was a notoriously slow  worker and a perfectionist, and having two such people on the one project would have been asking for trouble. Evans had been approached before by a suitable rock performer and turned the commission down – Laura Nyro had asked him to arrange New York Tendaberry in 1969. He later made his own album of Hendrix covers in 1975 that quite frankly was the feeblest of all his studio work by some distance. Yet, if you have been lucky enough to hear Hendrix's heart-breakingly beautiful slow reading of 'Hey Baby’ from the 1970 L.A. Forum bootleg releases, just begging for a sympathetic Evans scoring, it will give you pause to wonder what might have been. After that, well – who knows? We can speculate infinitely. Meanwhile, the music that Hendrix did actually get around to leaving to us remains plenty for the music world – jazz included – to be getting on with.

Ten Essential Larry Young Albums

Larry Young

Jack McDuff among others dubbed ‘the Coltrane of the Hammond organ’ – and he remains one of the all-time heavyweight players of this majestic instrument – expanding its language from his roots in Bartók and the blues, to McCoy Tyner, Trane and blazing jazz-rock. Adept at straddling any genre, he was part of Miles’ Bitches Brew sessions, Tony Williams’ Lifetime and even some one-off sessions with Jimi Hendrix. This is Kevin Le Gendre’s personal guide to the best Larry Young albums. You can also listen to Jazzwise's Larry Young - Hammond Hero playlist via Apple Music:


Larry Young Groove StreetGroove Street 

Prestige, 1962
Solid early session from the organist that shows his command of the soulful grits’n’gravy vocabulary as patented by the likes of ‘Brother’ Jack McDuff and Jimmy McGriff.


Larry YoungInto Somethin’

Blue Note, 1964
One of the great Blue Note sleeves – the artist looking statesman-like against the backdrop of the modernist curves of the Paris ORTF studios – announced a futurism reflected in glorious music that broaches adventurous territory. Saxophonist Sam Rivers excels.


Larry Young UnityUnity

Blue Note, 1965
Arguably the jewel in the organist’s crown: an immensely influential album that showed Young adopting a more modal Coltrane-esque approach in places and forming a formidable sparring partnership with the wizard trumpeter Woody Shaw.


Larry Young In The BeginningIn the Beginning, with Woody Shaw

Muse, 1965
Not released until 1983, this little known Shaw album sees Young return the complement for the Unity session by appearing on several tracks. Most interestingly he plays piano rather than organ and sounds superb.


Larry Young Heaven on EarthHeaven On Earth

Blue Note, 1968
Another consolidation of his growing originality sees Young unveil more excellent compositions backed by stellar accompanists that include saxophonist Byard Lancaster and a young guitarist and former Jack McDuff sideman called George Benson.


Larry Young MothershipMothership

Blue Note, 1969
Although not issued until 1980, this is another fine set of originals that features a very different horn star to Woody Shaw: Lee Morgan.



Larry YoungLawrence of Newark

Perception, 1973
From the sleeve in which Young is dressed as an Arab prince to the use of layers of dense percussion this is the organist, also known as Khalid Yasin, at his most non-western. Full of heady, hazy ambiences and spacious, spaced-out sounds the session is a post-Lifetime classic.


Larry Young FuelFuel

Arista, 1975
One of the key ‘rare groove’ albums that became highly sought-after in the 1990s. Hearing the go-to track ‘Turn Off The Lights’ in a packed club where dancers cut loose to the poundingly funky beat, while their heads were turned by the avant-garde synth stylings, was just mind-blowing.


Larry Young SpaceballSpaceball

Arista, 1976
A touch more rocky than its predecessor but Young is still on a serious funk kick that chimes well with a Headhunters-defined world.



Larry YoungDouble Exposure, with Joe Chambers

Muse, 1978
Drummer Chambers had been a Young sideman in the 1960s and this is an inspired reunion of the two men. Here Chambers reveals himself to be a skilled multi-instrumentalist and several keyboard duets on the album are brilliant.



Ten Essential Sun Ra Albums

Sun Ra

Sun Ra was one of the most inventive and controversial musicians of the 20th century. Here are 10 key recordings plucked by Edwin Pouncey from Ra’s enormous discography that continues to yield up new discoveries and lost musical treasures to this day. You can also listen to our Sun Ra – Cosmic Creations playlist on Apple Music:

Sun RaJazz In Silhouette

El Saturn LP (1959) Phoenix Jazz CD
Recorded at El Saturn Studio, Chicago, this album is generally considered to be one of Sun Ra’s best works from his period there. Since hailed as an overlooked masterpiece, Jazz In Silhouette perfectly encapsulates how the Arkestra would remain faithful to the jazz tradition of Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson, but also be looking toward the future of the music they had studied and mastered under Ra’s precise tutelage. Replete with its distinctive cover art, depicting semi-naked space sirens levitating over a lunar landscape, here was jazz that looked and sounded alien (yet somehow strangely familiar) to a late 1950s audience – but stranger sounds were yet to come.


Sun RaCosmic Tones For Mental Therapy

El Saturn LP (1963) Evidence CD
By now Sun Ra’s music was entering realms of new discovery that few jazz aficionados could comfortably take on board. Beyond even the wildest freeform excesses of John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy, Cosmic Tones For Mental Therapy was psychedelic jazz music before the term had entered the media slipstream. Armed with such exotic instruments as sky tone drums and astro space organ – together with a space echo treatment through which most of the music was channelled – Ra and his Arkestra explore the outer limits of cosmic improvisation and return with an album that (as its Freudian title suggests) invites the listener to discover their musical inner id.


Sun RaThe Magic City

El Saturn LP (1965) Evidence CD
Made up of four multi-dimensional sounding pieces of music, The Magic City is partly Sun Ra’s reflection on the city of Birmingham, Alabama where he was born and raised. Few, however, could have foreseen the dramatic musical change that Ra had in mind when composing this music, a senses altering series of sonic experiments that took his music to another level of creativity. Alongside the epic title track – and the shorter sound poems ‘Abstract Eye’ and ‘Abstract ‘I”’ – the centrepiece here is ‘The Shadow World’, a frantic fusion of jazz and avant-garde classical music that still sounds totally unique.


Sun RaStrange Strings

El Saturn LP (1966) Atavistic CD
Further experimentation in the studio produced this astonishing project. After asking the Arkestra to lay down their horns, Ra then handed the players various stringed instruments, none of which they knew how to play. Instead of the expected cacophony, however, a wonderful and totally unexpected new music was discovered. Such was the musical excellence of the Arkestra that they could naturally cross over into unknown musical territory. Strange Strings is a renowned Ra classic that has since been extended by the release of the Roaratorio label’s Other Strange Worlds, an album made up of newly discovered recordings from the Strange Strings session.


Sun RaAtlantis

El Saturn LP (1969) Evidence CD
In his liner notes to this record Sun Ra warns his listeners that: “The past is dead, and those who are following the past are doomed to die and be like the past.” Ra had no room for passengers as he set the controls for his latest space jazz adventure, and as the epic title track clearly demonstrates he also had no intention of altering his course. Featuring Ra playing a Hohner Clavinet (or Solar Sound Instrument as he called it) the mood here is thick with inventive twists and turns that are swept along by a tsunami of dislocated rhythm, textures and un-caged jazz motifs.


Sun RaConcert For The Comet Kohoutek

ESP-Disk LP (1973)
Performed at New York City’s Town Hall on December 22nd 1973, this live recording for the passing by of the comet Kohoutek over Planet Earth is a wild and varied celebration that is often overlooked. Taking off with a roaring version of ‘Astro Black’, the Arkestra slide into a lengthy work out on ‘Discipline 27: Part 1’, complete with a slithery Moog solo from Mister Ra. ‘Unknown Kohoutek’ is the real brain burner of the set, however, with the Arkestra playing solemnly over their leader’s involved and complex flourishes of electronic organ tinkering and synthesizer slash. Occasionally sounding like the soundtrack to some grindhouse sci-fi movie, this is Ra music at its most passionate and unpredictable.


Sun RaSome Blues But Not The Kind That’s Blue

El Saturn LP (1977) Atavistic CD
Apart from two extraordinary Ra abstractions, this set from 1977 is mostly made up of standards featuring the tenor playing of John Gilmore and Ra on piano. The rest of the group make contributions, but it is mostly Ra and Gilmore who are to the fore, especially on a masterful rendition of John Coltrane’s ‘My Favorite Things’ that closely mirrors the dynamic joy and energy of the original quartet’s recording. Also worthy of mention are the two takes of ‘I’ll Get By’ with Ra on piano, bass player Ronnie Boykins and Gilmore’s breathy tenor on one, while trumpet player Akh Tal Ebah appears on the second with Ra leading on electronic organ.


Sun RaDisco 3000

El Saturn LP (1978) Art Yard 2CD set
Recorded live at the Teatro Ciak in Milan, Italy on 23 February 1978, this recording sees Sun Ra and his Arkestra at the height of their free flowing powers. Mixing electronic music with hard blown jazz eruptions from band members John Gilmore and Marshall Allen, the set hits new peaks of uninhibited creativity. The 26-minute long title track is a solid electronic space groove, littered with drum machine openings and shot through with masterful horn eruptions. Elsewhere Gilmore and drummer Luqman Ali burn brightly on the more conventional ‘Third Planet’. Art Yard’s extended two-disc version of this classic is the one to hunt down if you feel tempted.


Sun RaThe Singles

Evidence (1996) CD
As well as recording and releasing albums, Ra’s El Saturn label also produced limited quantities of 7-inch singles in an attempt to break through into the mainstream. With originals now commanding premium prices, this 2CD set is a cheaper alternative that showcases an almost unknown side of Sun Ra and his Arkestra’s music. As well as playing their more trademark cosmic jazz the group also embark on a set of doo-wop ditties, adopting such names as The Cosmic Rays (with lead singer Calvin Barron) and The Nu Sounds. The result is a strange Arkestrated R&B that sounds both ancient and futuristic. Worth getting also for Ra’s cash-in Batman tribute ‘I’m Gonna Unmask The Batman’ and a shimmering version of Jerry Lee Lewis’ ‘Great Balls Of Fire’.


Sun RaIn The Orbit Of Ra

Strut/Art Yard CD/2-LP (2014)
Presented by current Arkestra bandleader Marshall Allen, this chart-entering collection of prime Sun Ra compositions spans almost his entire career and acts as the ideal introduction to the man and his mystical musical universe. High points include the Moog infected ‘Astro Black’ (originally released on ABC/Impulse!), the Egyptian groove moving through ‘Ancient Aiethiopa’ and a powerfully performed ‘Rocket Number Nine Take Off For Planet Venus’. There are other compilations out there (Evidence’s Sun Ra Came Down To Earth and Blast First’s excellent Out There A Minute for example) but here Ra’s music, poetry and philosophy sounds not so much remixed or re-mastered but reborn for a new generation to discover.

This article originally appeared in the Dec 2014 / Jan 2015 issue of Jazzwise. To find out more about subscribing to Jazzwise, visit: www.jazzwisemagazine.com/subscribe

Listen to the Sun Ra – Cosmic Creations playlist on Apple Music

Gregory Porter – street life

Gregory Porter

Singing sensation Gregory Porter has come a long way since the UK release of his debut album, Water, in 2011 and his first ever worldwide front cover in Jazzwise in March 2012. Now one of the hottest tickets in jazz, the vocalist has exchanged intimate clubs for concert halls, signed to Blue Note with platinum-selling success and bagged a Grammy, all without ever losing sight of the salience of his message. With the release of his lastest long-player, Take Me To The Alley, the gregarious singer speaks to Kevin Le Gendre about how he’s come to terms with this upsurge in his fortunes by staying true to his roots and how the deep inequalities that continue to divide society affect him and his music. You can also listen to Jazzwise's Gregory Porter Influences – Jazz, Soul, Gospel and Grit playlist on Apple Music

Located in the part of central London immortalised by the Bohemian literary set beloved of BBC drama writers, The Bloomsbury is a grand hotel whose strikingly ornamental lobby alone would make a film crew swoon. The uniformed doormen could be the leaders of a male grooming campaign while the well heeled, largely middle-aged clientele look as if they are used to the sight of the inordinately long chaise longues and chandeliers bright enough to illuminate designer labels at a distance.

A Travelodge is within walking distance. It is more than a world away.

This is a very different setting to that of my first encounter with Gregory Porter. Five years ago, when the 44 year-old American singer ghosted in to Britain for his debut gig at the Pizza Express, he slept in the spare room of the west London flat of his manager’s friend.

There was no waiter to serve him cocktails. There were no slabs of Italian marble decorating the bathroom. There were expenses spared. “Yeah, I didn’t even have a hotel back then,” Porter chuckles. “Man, that place was cold. That’s one thing I do remember. But yeah, that was another time.” Indeed the Californian-born, Brooklyn-based singer was then an unknown quantity, with his auspicious debut Water yet to break in the UK.

Since then he has become one of the biggest new names in jazz, and, perhaps more importantly, the artist who may now be on the radar of listeners outside of the music, a scenario given credence by the huge audience Porter reached through his collaboration with electronic dance act Disclosure. Their 2015 summer anthem ‘Holding On’ took Porter literally and figuratively to the lucrative Ibiza club crowd.

That commercial juggernaut outstripped other vehicles on Porter’s road to success that were nonetheless noteworthy. His gospel-infused baritone was majestic on 2012’s Be Good, where he invigorated a classic acoustic soul jazz template with social commentary as well as affairs of the heart, and the momentum garnered by international tours saw him upgrade from Motéma records to Blue Note (now owned by Universal) as he outgrew the Pizza Express to headline at the Royal
Albert Hall.

Porter orders a gin and tonic in the elegantly lit bar of The Bloomsbury, and we settle to discuss Take Me To The Alley, the successor to 2013’s platinum-certified Liquid Spirit, a record that has come to embody his substantial change of circumstances. Has this upturn in fortunes brought additional pressure from either himself or his record label?

“No, not for me,” he says sipping his drink. “And I don’t mean to be flippant about the whole thing, but I can only be me. And in this entertainment environment people can change their likes just like that, and another big voice from America or elsewhere can soon replace me. Ultimately, music saves me, and even if Liquid Spirit had sold modestly, say 10,000, I’d still be doing this and I think this new record would have turned out the same way,” Porter asserts. “It sold a million and a half and that still doesn’t move me one way or another. I’m concerned about the integrity of me over the art, over jazz, soul, gospel or whatever genre they wanna put me in. I still consider myself a jazz singer, but beyond genre, tempo or anything I’m thinking what is it I want to sing? Whether it’s brilliant or stupid I want it to be me.”

Speaking in measured tones, his voice deeply resonant without the aid of a microphone, Porter does not come across as disingenuous. Materially, there has been a change since that first interview. He still has his trademark ‘wraparound’ cap, but the baggy fleece and jeans have been swapped for a well-cut grey suit and smart white shirt. There is a decided lack of pretense in his overall manner. When we relocate to the lobby because of the disruption caused by a saxophonist warming up for a dinnertime set, Porter doesn’t show dissent at the disturbance and coolly strides to our new surroundings.


“I still consider myself a jazz singer, but beyond genre, tempo or anything I’m thinking what is it I want to sing? Whether it’s brilliant or stupid I want it to be me”


Take Me To The Alley is for the most part a downtempo offering where love songs take pride of place. While ‘Fan The Flames’ is a rousing resistance anthem that chimes loosely with Water’s signature piece ‘1960 What?’ there are revealing personal tales on which Porter lays bare both past and present preoccupations, such as the Kardashian-era social media excesses of ‘In Fashion’ – “This type of obsession was frowned upon where you drove past people’s houses 15 times a day to find out what they’re wearing. It’s acceptable now, you check on somebody a hundred times a day” – and several examinations of relationships, notably the sharply poignant ‘Consequence Of Love.’

However, the piece that is arguably the most interesting for its choice of personnel is the title track, a fine duet with the singer Alicia Olatuja, wife of the excellent New York-based British bassist Michael, last seen on these shores with Joe Lovano. Olatuja’s voice blends gorgeously with Porter’s, but all technical considerations aside, it is a left-field move. Given his status, a more high-profile guest, certainly from the Universal stable such as Melody Gardot or Lizz Wright, could have been expected.

“I really wanted someone who was gonna be sensitive to my tone and phrasing and somebody who is their own musician. She was like ‘I get you’, so after meeting we just started to harmonise in the next 10 minutes and the tone matched,” says Porter, also bigging up his horn and rhythm section before pausing to tell the waiter he can’t take a call at the moment from Heather Taylor, his UK artist representative, who worked tirelessly to promote him in the days of spare rooms and anonymity.

“I was at the Bill Withers tribute at Carnegie Hall [In October 2015] so there were a lot of big voices in town then. And that performance happened to take place right in the middle of my recording, so it had my attention divided. But, yeah we just said with Alicia, she came to mind and, well, that’s the voice that’s right after all. It’s just the right voice for the song and I don’t think I really need a ‘name’ to carry the song.”

Porter was of course once in Olatuja’s position, namely a very talented independent artist seeking greater exposure. Happy as he is to discuss his commercial rise, my enquiry about his own artistic growth strikes a louder chord. Above all the question of when the former American football player, whose whole engagement with music was decisively shaped by his preacher mother during his formative years in Bakersfield, California prior to work in off-Broadway theatre in the late 1990s, really started to uncover what he felt was his authentic voice.

“I was in a jam session in San Diego just after college, around 1995, and friends of mine came down from Bakersfield. They were in a doo-wop group together. I wasn’t, but I knew the stuff that they did and I knew that they could harmonise very quickly. So we stood out literally on the street corner and just worked something out [he sings a slow groove].

“On top of that I did a lyric. Yeah, it was a profound moment for me because I had been at the jam sessions trying to be the best Eddie Jefferson, trying to fit in with the bebop cats, trying to do the songs that they did, and the point at which all the instruments dropped out and they let me and my friends do our thing… people were like ‘I never heard you like that before’, because I was singing the way my mother taught me to sing. So I thought why don’t I use that thing that my mother gave me, that way that we did it in our house? Let me put that into the way that I approach jazz, and I think that was when I really found my voice. When we sang in church and we sang a ballad it wasn’t… [he scats] it was heartfelt… [he sings ‘Amazing Grace’]. Tone was so important. It wasn’t flashy and showy, you know that thing that happens in the movies in terms of what the black church is, it’s not always like that. It can be and it is like that, but not always.

“The other part of it is in prayer, it’s singing in prayer. So once I brought that style into my singing, well I found out at this jam session it was cool. We dig it. Before that I was ‘skee ska be ya…’ [he scats hard]. I didn’t care whether anybody understood what I was doing. But Eddie Jefferson did it already and there ain’t nobody who can do it better. He did it already; the question is what contribution can I make to this art that’s really mine? A little country gospel blues, sure.”

That one of the oldest forms of black music has affected audiences as it has through Porter’s ascension is testament to the richness of the African-American church tradition that birthed him in the first place. While the intersection of faith, politics and art is epitomised by the relationship between such historic figures as Dr Martin Luther King Jnr, Mahalia Jackson and the Staples singers during the civil rights era, the subject of religion and the betterment of society is still very much close to Porter’s heart. With little prompting he goes on to state that the wider context of Take Me To The Alley was precisely the visit of the current leader of the Catholic church, Pope Francis, to America in autumn 2015, which coincided with the Bill Withers tribute he mentioned, and more pertinently how that connected with his own past.

“Yeah, the Pope was in town and the idea of the song hadn’t yet come to fruition. But being in traffic and hearing the actions of the Pope, he was washing the feet of the prisoners and feeding the hungry and doing quite humble things, it brought me back to the memory – it was already there – of what my mother used to do. She would bring homeless people to our house, give them our clothes, feed the homeless our Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners and we would eat the leftovers after them! It was outrageous at the time. Now it’s a golden thing.

“But I think about it now and I’m glad that she made me a part of that. She was teaching me something. That’s the message. It’s my mother. And I saw the action in the Pope but I don’t wanna give him all the credit, because there’s my mother too and that’s how she rolled. If she got a new car she would pick up homeless people in her new car, urine-soaked homeless people. That’s real; she kept it so real it was scary.”

We are briefly interrupted by a young woman with what sounds like an Eastern European accent who recognises Porter and thanks him for ‘all his music’, a heartfelt, emphatic reminder that his concerts in Russia and the Baltic states have been instrumental in the expansion of his worldwide fanbase. After graciously accepting the compliment, which, interestingly, is not accompanied by the mandatory selfie request, Porter eagerly returns to the theme of music with a message.

“I like to discuss an alternative way to think instead of slamming the door on people. If somebody does something a certain way and you meet their argument with kindness then they might see the extreme nature of their position,” he says authoritatively. “So yeah, the song ‘Fan The Flames’ says ‘Stand up on your seat/With your dirty feet/Raise your fist in the air/Be sweet.’ It’s a homage to non-violent protest, because there are new protests going on, but I think that the most effective way was Dr King and non-violence. There are other protests that did have an effect but for me, when I look at the strength of those teenagers, those kids that pushed the civil rights movement, I think it’s amazing.

“I was looking at the Black Lives Matter campaign from London, Germany and Paris, and I was sad in a way, proud about the protest but sometimes, and it could be the media as well, two or three people will say something stupid that seasons the entire movement. So that’s who I’m talking to. I’m saying ‘stand up on your seat’. I’m with you. Have an uprising! Your feet are dirty because you’ve been walking through the bullshit politicians have been giving you. Raise your fist in the air. You’re mad! But be sweet. The point I’m trying to get across is you don’t have enough guns to fight with the military or the police.”

But the deaths of Amadou Diallo, Michael Brown, Errol Garner and Walter Scott have brought into chilling focus the endemic problem of police brutality visited upon blacks in America, a theme that has also been broached by jazz artists as disparate as Terence Blanchard, Marcus Miller and Robert Glasper. You understand the anger, then?

“Without question, it breaks my heart,” Porter laments. “Those lives are real. Young black lives are so disconnected from the mainstream. People don’t care if they learn well, if they’re nutrition is right, or their health is right, they’re so disconnected. People can manouevre throughout the city to their job, their home, their community and not touch those people. They would rather not think about it. After you lock those kids up for 10 years where are they gonna go? All of them can’t disappear, all of them can’t die in jail? So yeah that’s what I’m talking about. And I don’t say everything that I wanna say. I could, but sometimes everything I wanna say is done through voting, and how I live my personal life and how I can contribute. And I think about more than race, because believe me there’s a whole lot of other issues going on.”

This article originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of Jazzwise. To find out more about our various subscription options, visit: www.jazzwisemagazine.com/subscribe

Listen to the Gregory Porter Influences – Jazz, Soul, Gospel and Grit playlist on Apple Music.


Miles Davis and John Coltrane – Yin and Yang

Miles Davis and John Coltrane (Dan Hunstein, courtesy of Sony Music)

How did John Coltrane and Miles Davis get on? The odd couple, with contrasting personalities on and off the bandstand. But together the music they produced was peerless, says Ashley Kahn

Ice and fire they were: a two-horned paradox. Offstage, one was quiet, pensive, self-critical to a fault, practising obsessively. The other was cocksure, demanding; running with friends rather than running scales. But on the bandstand and on record, they reversed roles. John Coltrane, with saxophone in hand, became the unbridled one: long-winded, garrulous. When Miles Davis raised his trumpet, he played the sensitive introvert, blowing brief, hushed tones, exuding vulnerability.

Their names now command reverence, and rarely induce less than eulogy. The music they created together during an almost five-year union still resonates, entrances, influences and sells, sells, sells. Miles’ 1959 classic album Kind of Blue marking the apex of their collaborative years – stands as the most popular jazz album of all time, loved by a vast, non-partisan spectrum of music consumers. Their absence has only succeeded – like Sinatra, like Presley, like a rarefied few – in intensifying their recognition and elevating their legend. 

September, 1955: the trumpeter was desperate. He was preparing for his first national tour arranged by a high-powered booking agent. Columbia Records – the most prestigious and financially generous record company around – was looking over his shoulder, checking on him. 'If you can get and keep a group together, I will record that group,’ George Avakian, Columbia’s top jazz man, had promised. To Miles, an alumnus of Charlie Parker’s groundbreaking bebop quintet, ’group’ meant a rhythm trio plus two horn players, but he still had only one: himself.

Miles Davis and John Coltrane (Dan Hunstein, courtesy of Sony Music)For the up-and-coming trumpeter, the preceding summer had been filled with promise. He was clean and strong, six months after kicking a narcotics habit he described as a ‘four year horror show’. His popular comeback had been hailed when, unannounced, he had walked on to the Newport Jazz Festival stage in July and wowed a coterie of America's top critics with a low, laconic solo on 'Round About Midnight'. And Davis had the foundation of his dream quintet firmly in place: Texas-born Red Garland on piano, young Paul Chambers from Detroit on bass and the explosive (and his former junk-partner) Philly Joe Jones on drums.

But Sonny Rollins had disappeared. Miles’ chosen tenorman from Harlem – blessed with a free-flowing horn-style and dexterous sense of rhythm – had long been threatening to leave town. Rollins, it later turned out, checked himself into a barred-window facility in Kentucky to kick his own drug addiction. Davis – with time running out – shifted his recruiting drive into top gear.

A number of possibilities topped the list: Julian 'Cannonball' Adderley, the new alto sensation from Tampa was one. Sun Ra’s accomplished tenorman John Gilmore was another. But the former had to return to Florida to complete a teaching contract, and the latter simply 'didn’t fit in', as Miles remembered.

Meanwhile in Philadelphia, John Coltrane, a tenor player not on Davis' short list but with a respectable – albeit local – reputation, was playing in organist Jimmy Smith’s combo. Philly Joe made Miles aware of his availability.

Coltrane was not unknown to Davis. As early as 1946, he had been impressed by an acetate of an impromptu bebop session recorded during the saxophonist's tour of duty in the navy. Coltrane’s subsequent tenure in Dizzy Gillespie’s big band brought the two in contact. In his autobiography, Davis recalled with glee a memorable match-up he orchestrated in 1952.

'I used Sonny Rollins and Coltrane on tenors at a gig I had at the Audobon Ballroom... Sonny was awesome that night, scared the shit out of Trane.’

When Coltrane arrived in New York to audition with the group, Miles was not expecting much. But the saxophonist surprised him. ‘I could hear how Trane had gotten a whole lot better than he was on that night Sonny set his ears and ass on fire,’ Davis recalled.

What Miles heard was a sound that, though still developing, was singular and unheard. Almost all tenor players at that point blew under the spell of one of two, massively influential pioneers: the brash, highly rhythmic Coleman Hawkins or the breathy, understated Lester Young. Even the much-heralded, innovative playing of Dexter Gordon – an early stylistic model for Coltrane – vacillated between those two stylistic poles.

Miles Davis and John Coltrane (Dan Hunstein, courtesy of Sony Music)

But Coltrane was searching for something original, and that search was part of his sound. He repeated phrases as if he was wringing every possibility out of note combinations. He was determined never to play predictable melodic lines; instead, unusual flourishes and rhythmic fanfares cut through the structure of the tune. Many writers would puzzle over – some actively denounce – this new, 'exposed' style. They were familiar with polish, not process. Was he practising or performing? Was that harsh rasp intentional, or just a loose mouthpiece? Why were his solos so long?

Miles could not have cared less about the critics (though he later responded when Coltrane admitted difficulty ending his extended improvisations: 'Try taking the saxophone out of your mouth’). As Davis proved time and again through his career, he had an uncanny ability to detect greatness in the bud. 'People have creative periods, periods where they (snaps fingers three times), like that, you know?’ Miles humbly informed Ben Sidran in 1986. 'I recognise it in other people.'

Miles recognised it at that first rehearsal, but kept his excitement hidden. Coltrane, unaware of his reaction and used to a sideman role, requested direction. Davis responded curtly and discourteously, unnerved that a self-professed jazz player required spoken instruction. ‘My silence and evil looks probably turned him off,’ he admitted later.

Meeting an unexpectedly cold draft, Coltrane packed his horn and returned home disgruntled, ready to rejoin Jimmy Smith. But there was method behind Miles’ muteness, as the pianist Bill Evans whose nine-month term with Miles would overlap Coltrane’s shift – understood.

It was a lesson in nuance Coltrane later exploited with great consequence in his own groups. But at that point, whether or not the saxophonist was hip or original enough was suddenly less important than Miles' immediate need. Trane was the only one who knew all the tunes,’ Miles later wrote. ‘I couldn’t risk have nobody who didn’t know the tunes.' He instructed Philly Joe to call back Coltrane.

At first glance, it reads like a recipe for discontent: a sullen, guarded, complex personality – extremely so in Davis’ case hiring another who was just as intense, but in a sincere and humble way. And beyond differences in temperament, their backgrounds predicted discord.

Miles Davis and John Coltrane (Dan Hunstein, courtesy of Sony Music)

Coltrane was the scion of a middle-class, religious family – both his grandfathers were ministers – and came from a small country hamlet in central North Carolina. A series of deaths left him the sole male figure in his family at the age of 13, causing him hardship both financial and emotional. Turning inward, he relied on music for solace and spiritual strength; outwardly he remained quiet and serious, with an air of innocence about him. His professional career evolved slowly; 10 years of journeyman gigs in a variety of bands – blues, R&B and jazz – preceded his joining Davis.

Miles Dewey Davis III was born to and raised in privilege. Miles II, a college-educated dentist and landowner, bankrolled his son's musical education and errant, drug-filled years. Headstrong and fortunate, the young trumpeter made it into Charlie Parker’s groundbreaking bebop quintet by the ripe age of 19, benefiting and making the most of the association at a rapid rate. By 1947, he was recording under his own name and topping jazz critic polls.

But to the two intrepid jazz men, it was the music that mattered above all else, set them on parallel paths and ultimately brought them together. Both Coltrane and Davis were charter members of a determined jazz brotherhood who saw themselves as serious artists rather than entertainers, and their music as deserving the same respect and regard as other high-brow forms of culture. Both matured from the big band era of the 1940s, fell under the spell of bebop, and spearheaded jazz through its small-group heyday of the 50s and well into the 60s. Both were junkies who traded heroin for harmony, going cold turkey for the sake of their music.

Had their respective natures not yin-yanged so effectively, perhaps the Coltrane/Davis union never would have survived as long as it did. Given the nature of their characters and careers, it’s hard to imagine the two together in any other fashion than a complementary, master/pupil relationship. Predictably, as their music developed, and as Coltrane's confidence grew, so the bonds of that union were tested and retested. Like so many fertile musical unions, they loved and respected, suffered and fought with each other.


Coltrane solemnly and ceaselessly studied music exercise books; Miles would write out chord sequences on matchbooks, ruminating for hours on one musical puzzle


Most importantly, both were musical explorers, driven by a gnawing hunger to learn, to change and to hone their craft. Coltrane solemnly and ceaselessly studied music exercise books; Miles would write out chord sequences on matchbooks, ruminating for hours on one musical puzzle. As they eventually grew comfortable in the close proximity of the road, Davis opened up and shared his passion. ‘We used to talk a lot about music at rehearsals and on the way to gigs I'd say, "Trane, here are some chords but don’t play them like they are all the time, you know? Start in the middle sometimes and don’t forget you can play them up in thirds. So that means you got 18, 19 different things to play in two bars." He would sit there, eyes wide open, soaking up everything.’

Free from the more limited musical challenges of big bands, earning and learning in the greenhouse that was Davis' group, Coltrane blossomed. His self-education was pushed into high gear nightly, propelled by an ace rhythm section. When not onstage, Coltrane could be heard constantly rehearsing alone: backstage, in the club’s kitchen, in his hotel room.

'As much as I liked Trane we didn’t hang out much once we left the bandstand because we had different styles... he didn't hang out much,' Miles stated, shaking his head, and marvelling at his sideman's total focus. He was just into playing, was all the way into the music,’ Davis recalled. 'If a woman was standing right in front of him naked, he wouldn't even have seen her. That’s how much concentration he had when he played.’ To the chagrin of many writers and fans, Davis began leaving the bandstand while still in performance to better hear, and not distract from, his sideman's solos.

January, 1956: During the group's first visit to Los Angeles, tenorman Stan Getz begged to sit in. Miles consented, sat at a table and watched as his new protege blew one of the prime purveyors of the California-based, 'Cool' jazz school off the bandstand.

'It destroyed West Coast jazz overnight,’ one witness reported. 'There were a few of us who got an immediate positive reaction to Trane.’

As the sound of the entire quintet was a sizzling, ear-grabbing study in contrasts – sophisticated yet funky, swinging hard but with a laid-back, lyrical ease – so Miles soon realised that he had found not just a great sideman in Coltrane, but the perfect counterpoint to his own subdued trumpet. 'After we started playing together for a while,' he later revealed, using his favourite term of endearment, 'I knew that this guy was a bad motherfucker who was just the voice I needed on tenor to set off my voice.'

'Trane’s Blues' – an overlooked gem composed by Coltrane from the quintet’s second recording session for Prestige Records in May of 1956 – is a telling example of their side-by-side effect. Serene and poised, Miles phrases his solo like an off-hand chat, playing off the light swing of the tune, pausing, allowing space to breathe in between the notes. A slight drum roll introduces Coltrane. More assertive in tone, he answers Davis, building a rougher, more urgent reply, but still finding loose, melodic lines that lead him to longer statements.

Their contrasting approach was even more pronounced during performances, and less balanced. Often, Coltrane would take three, four, even five times as much time for his improvisations. Their own words revealed the reason: Miles listened for 'what can be cut out'; for Coltrane, ‘it took that long to get it all in.’

Solo lengths notwithstanding, the quintet coalesced and clicked, its success and popularity growing at a swift rate. Unfortunately, as it toured coast-to-coast, the group – and particularly Coltrane – carried a pernicious problem that was growing just as rapidly: the burden of drug addiction.

As Miles remembered in his autobiography, Coltrane’s habit began to get the better of him, to the point of threatening his future with the group. Davis reported his star saxophonist showing up to gigs in rumpled clothing, picking his nose distractedly and nodding out onstage, drinking heavily at the bar when he could not score. Miles initially resisted judgment, knowing only too well the suffering Coltrane was experiencing. 'I just tell them if they work for me to regulate their habit,’ Miles shrugged. 'You can't talk a man out of a habit until he really wants to stop.'


Exasperated, the diminutive trumpeter slapped his taller sideman in the head, and slugged him in the stomach


October, 1956: Miles could take it no longer. In a now legendary pique at New York’s Cafe Bohemia, Davis berated Coltrane for his slovenly appearance and tardiness. The saxophonist was too much in a stupor to respond with anything but silence. Exasperated, the diminutive trumpeter slapped his taller sideman in the head, and slugged him in the stomach. Coltrane still offered no resistance. A non-plussed Thelonious Monk witnessed the one-sided argument, stepped in and urged the saxophonist to quit and join his band.

A man with higher self-regard might have struck back or at least walked away for good, but Coltrane was an extremely humble, non-violent man. And with a young family and a growing habit to support, he desperately needed the pay. Despite the assault on body and pride, he intermittently returned to Miles over the next few months. But Davis’ blow up was only followed by further disappointment; in April, 1957, he ran out of patience and fired both Coltrane and Jones for ‘their junkie shit.’

It was a wake up call for Coltrane, hitting him harder than any well-aimed punch. Leaning on friends and family for support – and relying on a burgeoning spirituality influenced by his church-based roots and his wife Juanita’s embracing of Islam (by then calling herself Naima) – he returned home to Philadelphia, and put the needle and bottle forever behind him. Fittingly, upon his return to New York – clean and revitalised – he entered the studio and recorded his debut as a leader: First Trane.

December 1957: Miles, back from a tour of France, had a vision. After getting through most of the year without Coltrane, after a series of replacements that included Sonny Rollins, the trumpeter had eventually lured Cannonball Adderiey into the band. But Miles had not forgotten his former tenor player; ‘I had this idea in my head of expanding the group from a quintet to a sextet, with Trane and Cannonball on saxophones...'

Much had changed in Miles' group. Tired of a scene that felt littered with musical cliches and formulas left over from the heyday of bebop, Davis was pursuing a path that became known as modal jazz. His compositions began to rely on scales rather than established chord patterns, as both tempo and harmonic movement of the music downshifted. With few or no chordal patterns available on which to hang his notes, Miles forced his soloists to rely on their own innate sense of melody to improvise and express.

Meanwhile, Coltrane had enjoyed a six-month residency playing with Thelonious Monk in Manhattan's East Village, honing the scale-skipping flurries that defined his ‘sheets of sound’ style. What began as a faltering attempt to grasp Monk’s idiosyncratic approach to chord structure and rhythm, became a crash course in harmonic flexibility. Much like his ongoing dialogue with Miles, Coltrane reported: ‘I would talk to Monk about musical problems, and he would sit at the piano and show me the answers just by playing them.’

Coltrane's intrepid spirit had led him to probe the very nature of his saxophone, ostensibly a single-note instrument. He learned to adjust his mouth on the reed and – with Monk’s tutoring – use unorthodox fingering, finding a way to actually voice two or three notes at once and play chords through his horn.

When Coltrane resumed with Miles that final week of the year, the result was a creative pressure cooker wherein the tenorman's blues roots and recent rule-bending experiments dovetailed perfectly with the challenge of an expanded lineup and a new modal form of music.

From 1958-59, whenever Coltrane and Miles performed and the tapes were rolling, the full promise of their collaborative magic was finally fulfilled. What had been great jazz from Davis' 1955-7 quintet, now broke through to a category of timelessness as recorded by the trumpeter’s sextet in 1958 and 1959. Even their impromptu live recordings merit focused listening. But the two masterful studio albums from this period – Milestones and Kind of Blue – are list-topping must-haves for any jazz enthusiast, any student of 20th century music, any music lover. Anyone with ears.

It’s no coincidence that Coltrane recorded his own chord-based masterpiece – Giant Steps – only two weeks after Kind of Blue. The same maturity and self-assurance powers his work on both. But the former album is significant as his declaration of creative independence, acknowledging Coltrane’s arrival as a fully matured, triple threat: soloist, bandleader and composer. His musical vision was leading him in a direction away from Miles, and there was only room for one leader in the trumpeter’s band. The bonds of their bossman/hired hand relationship were straining.

Miles keenly sensed Coltrane drifting away, just as he felt how frustrating it would inevitably be to find a replacement of equal talent. As Davis confessed, he tried to both expedite and defer their parting.

'It was hard for [Coltrane] to bring up that he wanted to leave... but he did bring it up finally and we made a compromise: I turned him on to [my manager] Harold Lovett... to handle his financial affairs. And then Harold got him a recording contract [and] set up a publishing company for Trane... To keep Trane in the band longer, I asked Jack Whittemore, my agent, to get bookings for Trane's group whenever we weren't playing, and he did.’

March, 1960: Coltrane grumbled his way through a month-long tour of Europe, his last with Miles, his mind more on his own music. Though scheduled to appear as headliner at the Five Spot for most of the month, he had cancelled the appearance, agreeing to accompany Davis, his one blue suit and two white shirts testament to his reluctant, last-minute decision. If his irritable attitude did not make it clear that his time as a mere band member was finally up, a tape from the group's Paris performance certainly does.

Miles offered a familiar song list meant to satisfy fans both new and diehard. When Coltrane stepped to the microphone, a breathless flurry cascaded forth. As Davis left the stage, he played on and on, pushing the saxophone like a racehorse, leaping between registers, finding sounds that tested ears attuned to the more mellow solos on Kind of Blue.

For the first time, most Parisians were witnessing the raw, boundless intensity that was Coltrane’s trademark for the rest of his career; the tentative, experimental breeze Miles had felt in 1955 was becoming a full-force gale.

On the tape, each tune comes across like three different bands, depending on the soloist: Miles, Coltrane or the pianist Wynton Kelly. But during the saxophonist’s solos, one can hear the crowd growing restless: whistling and arguments erupt in the audience.

French propensity to vocally express dissatisfaction notwithstanding, Coltrane had outgrown his role with Miles and the music he was playing. The trumpeter's modal experiments launched the saxophonist out of the band in a totally different musical direction.

When the group landed back in New York in early April 1960, save for a few impromptu night club jams and one more studio session, the Coltrane-Davis coalition reached its coda.

How the two looked back on their time together can be divined in how each continued to look upon the other. Years after Coltrane evolved into a bandleader of renown and many disciples, Alice Coltrane recalls he still reverently called Davis 'The Teacher'. Miles was typically more oblique. When speaking with jazz critic Ralph J. Gleason in the late 60s, the journalist noted that Davis' music had become complex enough to demand five tenor players. Gleason recorded his response: 'He shot those eyes at me and growled, "I had five tenor players once." I knew what he meant.'

This article originally appeared in the December 2001 issue of Jazzwise. Photos by Dan Hunstein, courtesy of Sony Music


Feature Miles Davis – Kind of Blue

Feature John Coltrane – Giant Steps

Feature The 100 Jazz Albums that Shook the World

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