In the late 1960s, rock music’s commercial value to the record companies far exceeded that of their jazz and classical products. This led to many dismal outcomes, including two particularly appalling trends. One was to try to commercialize and update jazz, with the record companies convincing (and in many cases failing to convince) reluctant jazz musicians to include rock tunes in their albums, often resulting in half-hearted attempts that included some token improvisation between the initial statement of one or more verses and the chorus and their return. The other was to try to elevate rock music, or provide a more palatable version of it to older consumers, by saccharine orchestral or quasi-big band arrangements. The cultural impact and commercial success of such attempts were thankfully very limited.
At the same time, a diverse range of rock groups were incorporating jazz elements into their music, and, musicians with varying degrees of jazz experience or jazz exposure were being included in some bands. Soon Miles Davis and John McLaughlin would make jazz fusion history and reap wide commercial recognition and compensation. But prior to that, the talented and innovative vibraphonist Gary Burton, looking to make the move away from straight-ahead jazz and appeal to younger audiences drew upon his own love of popular music and started to blend jazz and rock elements in a series of four notable albums in 1967 and 1968.
Gary Burton worked with Stan Getz from 1964-1966, during the period of Getz’s continuing ascendancy into fame from his successful merging of samba, bossa nova and jazz — Getz achieving significant recognition and acclaim from the 1963 Getz/Gilbert album that included the incredibly commercially popular “Girl From Ipanema.” Perhaps Burton learned invaluable lessons of the breadth and flexibility of jazz, and that when it honestly and sincerely embraced and fully incorporated other elements, how it could extend its capabilities and capacity to appeal and captivate to a wide range of listeners. Or perhaps Burton just followed his instinct of embracing the music he loved and creating music that, most of all, appealed to himself.
During this period that Gary was working with Stan Getz, the first historically significant jazz-rock group, The Free Spirits, formed in 1965. Playing in New York as opening acts or at very small venues, their music ranged from rock and roll to psychedelic rock, similar to other rock bands — with the exception of the jazz background of four of their five members. For the most part, the jazz element present was similar to the jazz element in contemporaneous rhythm and blues. The songs on their 1967 Out of Sight and Sound album are appealing and accessible, with solid, often frenetic and dynamic drumming from Bob Moses, soulful, bluesy saxophone from Jim Pepper (no relation to Art Pepper), and catchy compositions and expressive guitar work from Larry Coryell. Additional band members were rhythm guitarist Columbus “Chip” Baker and bassist and vocalist Chris Hills.
After the Out of Sight and Sound album, Larry Coryell, and then later, Bob Moses, joined up with Gary Burton. Just as Larry Coryell significantly influenced the sound of the Free Spirits towards a contemporary rock sound, Larry Coryell would have a significant impact on the sound of the four Gary Burton albums he was a part of.
The first of these four important Gary Burton quartet albums, Duster, recorded in April 1967, and sometimes referred to as the very first fusion recording, includes guitarist Larry Coryell, talented bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Roy Haynes. Larry Coryell had further sharpened his skills as can be heard on this indisputable example of early jazz fusion, “One, Two, 1-2-3-4” available on Youtube here.
The second album, Lofty Fake Anagram, with Bob Moses now on drums, was recorded in August 1967, and is a little more mellow, with continuing impressive interplay between Burton and Coryell and impressive bass work from Steve Swallow.
The third album, recorded a month earlier in July 1967 and released in 1968, is the dramatic concept album, Genuine Tong Funeral, written by composer and pianist Carla Bley and subtitled “A Dark Opera without Words.” Focused on the topic of death and mourning, this mixture of third-stream and avant-garde composition covers a wide range of emotion and even includes passages of irony or dry humor reminiscent of Kurt Weill. Besides some amazing, prodigious vibraphone work by Gary Burton, using his usual four mallets and to fine effect, there is some outstanding, pushing-the-envelope soprano sax from Steve Lacy, some nicely-miked acoustic bass work from Steve Swallow, and some welcome tuba passages performed by Howard Johnson. The album’s last track, with a chaotic free jazz section breaking from the confines of the suite’s structural boundaries, perhaps indicating some level of relief or release from grief is followed by a return of the “Survivors” theme, providing an appropriate and proper closure to the suite.
Track listing [from Wikipedia]
- All compositions by Carla Bley
- “The Opening / Interlude : Shovels / The Survivors / Grave Train” – 6:37
- “Death Rolls” – 1:36
- “Morning (Part 1)” – 1:43
- “Interlude : Lament / Intermission Music” – 4:28
- “Silent Spring” – 7:58
- “Fanfare / Mother of the Dead Man” – 2:51
- “Some Dirge” – 7:47
- “Morning (Part 2)” – 1:17
- “The New Funeral March” – 2:40
- “The New National Anthem / The Survivors” – 6:34
- Recorded in New York City in July 1967.
The fourth of these four Burton/Coryell albums, recorded live at Carnegie Hall on February 23, 1968, is simply titled “Gary Burton Quartet in Concert.” Of particularly note is the amazing contrapuntal duet between Burton and Coryell in the recording of “Lines” and the overall excellence of the group’s performance of “Walter L.” The album ends with an avant garde treatment of “One, Two, 1-2-3-4”, notably different than the original performance on Duster.
- All compositions by Gary Burton except where indicated
- “Blue Comedy” (Mike Gibbs) – 9:02
- “The Sunset Bell” – 5:17
- “Lines” (Larry Coryell) – 3:06
- “Walter L.” – 6:36
- “Wrong Is Right” (Coryell) – 6:14
- “Dreams” – 5:49
- “I Want You” (Bob Dylan) – 3:06
- “One, Two, 1–2–3–4” (Burton, Coryell) – 10:45
In early 1968, former Stan Kenton big band saxophonist, Steve Marcus, New Zealand born jazz keyboardist, Mick Nock, and three former members of The Free Spirits, guitarist Larry Coryell, bassist Chris Hills, and drummer Bob Moses, recorded two jazz-rock albums, produced by jazz flutist Herbie Mann under Steve Marcus’s name.
The first album, Tomorrow Never Knows, appropriates five well known rock tunes and either imposes jazz commentary on them (“Mellow Yellow”) or develops and transforms them (“Tomorrow Never Knows”). Added at the end, as a sixth tune, is Gary Burton’s “Half a Heart.” This is one of those albums that may sound initially bizarre, with the band still wrestling to establish an overall sound and approach, but becomes more sensible and coherent after repeated listenings.
- “Eight Miles High” () – 4:44
- “Mellow Yellow” ( – 4:50
- “Listen People” () – 2:25
- “Rain” () – 7:02
- “Tomorrow Never Knows” () – 11:07
- “Half A Heart” (– 5:21
The second album, though, Count’s Rock Band, (“Count” referring to Steve Marcus’s nickname and not that of William James Basie) is more organic, polished, and finely finished. There are only two rock covers here, “Scarborough Fair” which is a straightforward rendition, based on Simon and Garfunkel’s version, arranged exquisitely with single focus, not straying a single step outside of its intended character, and Mick Jagger and Keith Richard’s Backstreet Girl; this modest tune is placed in an finely-crafted French cabaret-like setting with accordion accompaniment, followed by an spellbinding jazzy middle section that evolves from straight-ahead, highly accessible jazz to wildly aggressive free jazz, followed by the return of the calm and tender original section. The album also includes two compositions by bassist Chris Hills, which both work convincingly as final, unified outcomes of blending blues, rock and jazz.
If none of these musicians had ever recorded a note, jazz and rock would inevitably come together, just like twins separated in later years through pursuing different careers and interests, but meeting again in their more mature years. In the case of rock, though, it’s relation to other music is more complex than simple siblinghood. The young rock and roll looked very much, and acted very much like a young, somewhat clueless child of blues and jazz (and the baby sibling of the more capable rhythm and blues) but as rock and roll matured into rock, it developed its own identity, eventually accepting not only the best of what it’s parents could offer, but exploring all other available musical influences, examining and absorbing recorded and written music of all accessible areas of the globe and all accessible time periods.
- “Theresa’s Blues” () – 12;19
- “Scarborough Fair (Traditional, )” – 2:39
- “Drum Solo” – 3:55
- “Ooh Baby” () – 12:14
- “C’est Ca” ( – 0:19
- “Back Street Girl” ( – 5:46
- “Piano Solo” – 0:51