1970 Jazz: Blue Note Records, part 1

1970 was an interesting year for Blue Note Records. The following years of that decade were not kind to the label for a number of reasons. Its management ties to the glorious 1960s were gone, with Francis Wolff’s death in 1971 and Duke Pearson’s departure from the label the same year. The number of recording sessions declined steadily each year and the label relied heavily on reissues of its strong catalog from the 1950s and 1960s. But – we are still in 1970 and a number of its stellar artists made great contributions that year. We start this review with a saxophone player, composer and arranger who recorded two albums for Blue Note in 1970.

Wayne Shorter’s last two solo albums before forming Weather Report with Joe Zawinul and Miroslav Vitous featured a similar instrumentation but with different lineups. In a period when many of his peers where moving towards electric instrumentation, Shorter decided to go all acoustic on both albums. The first, Moto Grosso Feio, is named after Mato Grosso, one of the states of Brazil and home to a portion of the Amazon rainforest. The album is unique for having some of the top musicians of the day trying their hands with instruments different than the ones they are known for. Clayton Frohman writes in the sleeve notes: “McLaughlin favored a 12-string acoustic guitar over his electric arsenal. Dave Holland, a superb bassist, also picked up an acoustic guitar. Ron Carter played the cello. There were no keyboard instruments. Chick Corea found himself a set of marimbas. He claimed he wanted to capture the sound of apes and wild animals cavorting through the jungle trees.”

The tapes from the recording session remained buried in Blue Note’s vaults for four years before Blue Note’s house producer between 1963 and 1970, Duke Pearson, remembered the date and suggested that the album be released. It finally saw the light of day in August 1974.

Album credits:

Wayne Shorter — soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone

John McLaughlin — 12-string guitar

Chick Corea — marimba, drums, percussion

Ron Carter — bass, cello

Dave Holland — acoustic guitar, bass

Jack DeJohnette — drums, thumb piano

Miroslav Vitouš — bass (uncredited on album cover but mentioned as part of sessions in liner notes)

Micheline Pelzer (credited as Michelin Prell) — drums, percussion

In August of 1970 Wayne Shorter was back in the studio to record another album for Blue Note. This time he brought with him two acoustic bass players and three percussionists to record another set of moody tunes. Shorter on the bass parts: “I had Ron playing most of the lower bass sounds, and the longer sounds while Cecil played most of the shorter, choppy, faster rhythmic patterns. He was watching were Ron would move, and then he’d just run across whatever Ron would do.”

Odyssey of Iska was recorded a couple of weeks after Shorter played on the track Double Image for Joe Zawinul’s debut solo album. By the time both albums were released, the two formed the group Weather Report with Miroslav Vitous. From the sleeve notes (notice the group name): “As this album was prepared for release, another major event in Wayne’s career was about to take formal shape. He was due to go on his first tour with a new group called Weather Forecast in which he, Joe Zawinul and bassist Miroslav Vitous are the principal figures, along with Al Mouzon, his colleague on this album.” Reviews were not favorable of the album. Many critics who admired Wayne Shorter’s earlier albums on Blue Note such as Juju and Speak No Evil, saw his explorations of colors and subtlety on his solo albums from that period as regression. A DownBeat magazine review from November 1971 reads: “Shorter desires to renounce the notion of the improvising musician as the purveyor of a competitive, flamboyant ego. A noble impulse at first thought, but one that cannot be achieved, I think, by the application of simplicities and restraints that amount to little more than a toning-down of invention. What I hear on this album is a musician trying to disappear. I wish he wouldn’t.” I do not agree with this opinion. If you love Weather Report’s early albums (I do), you are likely to love the two Wayne Shorter albums reviewed here.

The album is named after Shorter’s then-newborn daughter Iska, from his marriage in 1970 to Ana Maria Patricio.

Album credits:

Wayne Shorter – tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone

Gene Bertoncini – guitar

Ron Carter, Cecil McBee – bass

Billy Hart, Alphonse Mouzon – drums

Frank Cuomo – drums, percussion

David Friedman – vibraphone, marimba

We move to another musician fresh from the Miles Davis ensemble, who was also trying to explore acoustic and free forms of expression. While still with that formidable group, Chick Corea and his team mate at Miles Davis’ group, bassist Dave Holland, were exploring different musical avenues. They delved into free rhythmic and textural style associated with avant-garde figures like Cecil Taylor and Sun Ra.

Barry Altschul, Dave Holland, Chick Corea

Corea remembers: “Dave Holland and I began to play together as a duet in my loft. I had brought from Boston the Steinway S that my mother and father bought for me when I was 16 years old.” They added like-minded drummer Barry Altschul who previously played in Paul Bley’s group. Altschul talked about the unique way that trio operated: “I figured out a way to tune the drums where what I would be playing will not interfere with the distinctness of the piano and the bass. We just played and from what we improvised, certain compositions came out of that. Most of the compositions we played did not have changes so we did not have to keep a form. We did play a couple of standard tunes in our way and we did not have to keep the form on that either.”

In April of 1970 the three musicians went into A&R Studios in New York City. This was the legendary Columbia Studio A, purchased in 1967 by A&R Recording Inc., a recording company founded in 1958 by Jack Arnold and Phil Ramone. They recorded the album A Song of Singing, a set of tunes including an interesting take on Wayne Shorter’s composition Nefertiti, originally recorded by the Miles Davis quintet in 1967. Only 24 hours passed after the second session in New York, and Chick Corea and Dave Holland were at a completely different setting, the Fillmore West Auditorium in San Francisco. The Miles Davis Sextet opened for the Grateful Dead for four nights. Recordings from these shows were later released on the album Black Beauty: Miles Davis at Fillmore West.

A month later, in May of 1970, the trio was playing at the Village Vanguard jazz club in New York. In the audience was one Anthony Braxton, who came to listen to drummer Roy Haynes, whose group shared the bill that night. Barry Atlschul picks up the story: “We were playing at the Village Vanguard and Braxton was in the audience and had his horn and asked to sit in. He came up and played and we experienced Braxton. Chick and Braxton started talking. Braxton is a very accomplished chess player, and Chick was also into chess. They started to play chess together. Then Chick suggested that we bring Braxton into the group, making it a cooperative band and call it Circle.”

Chick Corea

Anthony Braxton’s background in the free-thinking esthetics of Chicago’s AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) was a perfect fit for the trio at that time. He was back in New York after a stay in Europe, where he recorded a number of albums with alumni of AACM.

Barry Altschul, Dave Holland

Dave Holland continues: “He came over to talk to us and so we got together a few days later and did a few gigs. We did a concert in Baltimore… the music was so strong… we did a lot of playing in the loft that Chick had and the first music we played was very experimental. We really just opened that up, we just broke down all the barriers and said OK, we’ll just play with any sounds that we can find. We used things from the kitchen, and bellows and shouting and singing and whistling, we did all kinds of things, just to find out how far we could take it. And then it started to get more defined. We started to try and get a bit more precision into the music.”

Anthony Braxton

The Circle quartet recorded a number of sessions in August of 1970. They were released only later in the 1970s on two collections of Chick Corea Blue Note sessions titled Circling In and Circulus. Stanley Crouch writes in the sleeve notes for Circling In: “The music of Circle is generally influenced by the European Avant Garde. It is a music based on surprise, wide dynamic variations and tonal color and will give the listener a side of Corea’s thinking that can no longer be heard since he has chosen a much less demanding form to work out of following the disbanding of this group.” Chick Corea spoke of Anthony Braxton’s critical contribution to the group: “Anthony brought a 4th dimension to the band and a compositional/improvisational approach that gave us more material to work with along with the compositions that Dave and I were bringing in.”

Shortly after the August session Chick Corea and Dave Holland played with the Miles Davis group at the now-legendary Isle of Wight music festival. They left the group soon after and focused on live performances with the Circle quartet. Chick Corea summarized that experience: “With our band Circle in 1970, we took the experimental concept even further. In that group—Anthony Braxton, Dave, Barry Altschul and me—we played whole concerts where the music was improvised from beginning to end. There was no song form—we did away with it. We went into space where we made up the music as we went along. That was incredibly invigorating and fun.”

Chick Corea – piano, celeste, vibes, percussion

Anthony Braxton – alto saxophone, soprano saxophone, flute, clarinet, contrabass clarinet, percussion

Dave Holland – bass, cello, guitar

Barry Altschul – drums, percussion

We stay with another piano player who was searching for new sounds, albeit of a different kind. Andrew Hill had a fantastic run of albums on Blue Note Records since his debut on the label with the album Black Fire in 1964. In 1969 he started augmenting his jazz combos with a choir and a string quartet. Hill followed the footsteps of other jazz artists earlier in the decade, including Donald Byrd and Max Roach, who added similar vocal textures to their music. In 1970 Hill recorded a number of sessions with Blue Note. None of them was released at the time, and they surfaced later on compilations and CD releases years later. The 1970 sessions also proved to be Andrew Hill’s last for Blue Note.

The very last session Andrew Hill led for Blue Note took place in March of 1970, continuing his collaboration with the Larry Marshall choir, a seven-voice vocal ensemble made of three men and four women. He said about this format: “I’ve always been interested in the use of voices. I wrote a jazz opera a while back. It was never performed, but there’s a good chance that the Koussevitzky Foundation may produce it this year.”

A 2001 CD reissue of the original choir recording, Lift Every Voice, included the tunes from the March 1970 session.

Andrew Hill – piano

Lee Morgan – trumpet

Bennie Maupin – alto flute, bass clarinet, tenor saxophone

Ron Carter – bass

Ben Riley – drums

Benjamin Franklin Carter, Milt Grayson, Hugh Harnell, Ron Steward, Lillian Williams – vocals

Lawrence Marshall – vocals, conductor

The last artist in this review also released his debut as a solo artist in 1964 and recorded his last session with Blue in 1970. After contributing a trio track with Ron Carter and Louis Hayes at the end of 1969 to the compilation album ‘Jazz Wave, Ltd. On Tour’, flutist Jeremy Steig recorded his sole album for Blue Note in February 1970. Wayfaring Stranger features Steig’s long-time collaborator bassist Eddie Gomez. The two have known each other many years and have been collaborating on various albums, including one led by pianist Bill Evans. Steig talked about his relationship with Gomez: “I went to high school with Eddie Gomez. It was a music high school (Music & Art High School) and we used to go into a room full of basses in between periods and play jazz duo. When the teachers caught us, we were reprimanded for playing jazz and would get ‘N’ on our report card (meaning Not satisfactory).”

Eddie Gomez reciprocates as he writes in the album’s sleeve notes about their friendship and appreciation of each other’s talents: “This recording is particularly noteworthy for several reasons. Not only is Jeremy in outstanding form, but there are also moments in which the interplay between the rhythm section and flute is breathtakingly beautiful. Throughout the album there is a real feeling of respect, love and sympathy for each other’s musical feeling.”

The title track from the album is a well-known American folk and gospel song from the early 19th century. Many notable singers have performed it over the years, and it is interesting to hear a jazzy instrumental take on it here.

Jeremy Steig – flute

Eddie Gómez − bass

Sam Brown − guitar

Don Alias – drums, percussion

Categories: A Year in Music

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