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Posts tagged ‘1968’

Fifty Year Friday: The Don Ellis Orchestra “Electric Bath”

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Is it possible that the first truly progressive rock album was not a rock album, but a jazz album?  For those that adamantly insist that the most adventurous and exploratory rock music of 1967 and early 1968 is really not progressive rock but “proto-prog, such prog fundamentalists often require that any music to be considered true progressive rock must display a relatively high level of musicianship and deploy mixed meter or unusual time signatures, 20th century instruments, a wide range of dynamics and instrumental combinations, effects such as tape loops or use of quarter tones, and extended length tracks painting a colorful, sonically rich landscape.  If we buy into such requirements, then perhaps we should consider this modern big-band jazz album recorded in September 1967 and released either in late 1967 or early 1968, to validly qualify as the first progressive rock album.

In terms of quality and excitement, The Don Ellis Orchestra’s “Electric Bath” should please any “Close to the Edge”, “In the Court of the Crimson King”, “Thick as A Brick”, “Selling England By the Pound”,  “Brain Salad Surgery”. or “Power and the Glory” fan.

A progressive rock album has to start with a fervently vigorous or otherwise bigger-than-life immersive track such as King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man”, Genesis’s “Watcher of the Skies”, or the opening to ELP’s Tarkus.  “Indian Lady” is just that with its fanfare opening, a meter of alternating 3 and 2,  and a strong distinct theme running relentlessly forward, swinging ferociously with a indisputably bluesy orientation.  We also have sitar, electric piano, and most notably, Don Ellis on a four-valve quarter-tone enabled trumpet.

The second track, “Alone”, by far the shortest at less than six minutes, is a basically a samba, a musical form from Brazil that became so popular in the mid sixties, but in 5/4 time without any sense of awkwardness, but just the opposite, fully liberated and unconstrained.

Ending the first side is the brilliant “Turkish Bath” with sitar and a exotically distorted reeds sounding not so much like instruments from Turkey, but from an even more exotic location, probably from another planet in some remote solar system. Sitar and quarter-tones contribute to the appropriate balance of spices.

“Open Beauty” open side two of the original LP, and provides appropriate contrast and musical reflection.  Elegantly executed by the band, this composition is haunting, surreal and evocative, with ebbs and flows of intensity until a little over two-thirds of the way in when we get a tape-delay Don Ellis solo  which initially echoes with layered fifths and then more adventurously explores into more expressive and polyphonically combative territory.

The last track, “New Horizons” is the strongest, longest and most remarkably inventive of the album with relentless energy driven by a 17/8 5-5-7 pattern with amazing ensemble and solo trumpet passages.  The work unfolds like a story with contrast and subplots ending with explosive energy winding down into an emphatic, punctuated coda.

This album should appeal to anyone that loves adventurous and well-written, arranged and performed music whether their preference is classical, progressive rock, progressive heavy metal, be-bop or big band jazz.

Track listing [from Wikipedia]

All compositions by Don Ellis except as indicated

  1. “Indian Lady” – 8:06
  2. “Alone” (Hank Levy) – 5:32
  3. “Turkish Bath” (Ron Myers) – 10:16
  4. “Open Beauty” – 8:29
  5. “New Horizons” – 12:20
  6. “Turkish Bath” [Single] (Myers) – 2:52 Bonus track on CD reissue
  7. “Indian Lady” [Single] – 2:58 Bonus track on CD reissue

Personnel

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Fifty Year Friday: David Axelrod, Electric Prunes and Mass in F Minor

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In 1967, the previously unknown, recently formed, L.A. band, The Electric Prunes, grabbed public recognition with the quintessential psychedelic top 40 hit,  Annette Tucker’s and lyricist Nancie Mantz’s “I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night.” Soon the Prunes were guests on TV, miming performances to their big hit, and touring the country.

in 1968, the band’s manager Lenny Poncher, their producer Dave Hassinger, and the Reprise Records  management, determined  that the Electric Prunes would record some type of concept album from material provided by producer/composer/arranger David Axelrod.  Axelrod was given the freedom to compose whatever he thought most appropriate, with the hopes of furthering the Prunes’ name recognition.

The final material composed by Axelrod, a psychedelic setting of the Latin Mass, with sections crafted for appropriate freely-expressive, acid-rock improvisation, ultimately required the band to be augmented by studio musicians.  Also, since the band was as much of a commodity (producer Dave Hassinger owned the rights to the name at that time) as individual members, this particular formation of Electric Prunes would soon be replaced by other musicians.

However, we did get a rather interesting, if less than stellar, concept album — a rock mass, a couple of years after Vince Guaraldi’s Jazz mass (see below) and three years before Leonard’s Bernstein’s mass (originally intended to be a modern setting of a traditional mass, but ultimately realized as a stage work.)


Though uneven, this Electric Prune’s Mass in F Minor is worth listening to.  It uses an abbreviated form of the mass, but still has the major sections. The Kyrie Eleison is later included in the film Easy Rider.  The Credo and Agnus Dei are the most interesting. Though most music historians would not classify this as progressive rock, this is, for 1968,  a musically progressive setting of the mass.  Also, this album should get a nod for being a concept album, including symphonic instruments, and some notable guitar work.  One can check out a lower quality audio version on youtube:

 

 

Fifty Year Friday: Spirit

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Randy California, born Randy Wolfe, was a native Calfornian, born in Los Angeles, but when his step-dad, jazz drummer Ed Cassidy  (the gentleman with the bald head in the left upper portion of their first album cover; a drummer that played gigs with Cannonball Adderly, Gerry Mulligan, Art Pepper, Roland Kirk, and Lee Konitz and was a founding member of  Rising Sons with Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder) had some work lined up in New York City, the family moved to an apartment complex in Queens in 1966.  Randy soon met Jimi Hendrix and then played with Hendrix that very summer  as a member of Jimmy James and the Blue Flames.   It was while they were playing together, that Hendrix started calling Randy Wolfe, “Randy California” and another Randy in the band, Randy Palmer, “Randy Texas.”

Randy Wolfe took the “Randy California” name back west, forming Red Roosters with his step-dad, a band that eventually evolved into “Spirits Rebellious” and then just Spirit. Randy was sixteen years old. Besides Randy and Ed, Spirit included composer, keyboard player and lead vocalist, Jay Ferguson, Mark Andes on bass and backing vocals, (who later played with Ferguson in Jo Jo Gunne in the early 1970s, Firefall in the late 1970’s and Heart in the 1980s.) and John Locke (who later joined Nazareth in the 1980’s) also on keyboards. Randy was still sixteen when Spirit’s first album, “Spirit”, was released on January 22, 1968.

None of the songs on Spirit’s debut album are typical pop songs, most having more of an jazz or a psychedelic or progressive rock ethos, with a prevailing ABA form with the B section being a instrumental, partly improvisational section providing contrast to the more traditional song-like A section. The last track, “Elijah”, due to its extended length, stretches out the ABA concept to a rondo-like form (ABACADAEA) with improvised passages between the recurring theme.

All the tracks on the album are notable, with 9 of the 11  songs written or co-written by Ferguson.  “Elijah” was written by John Locke;  Randy California wrote one of the tracks, “Taurus”, a well-written, nicely arranged instrumental following the Andes/Ferguson song, “Mechanical World”, the only track with single status on the album.

“Taurus” opens up with a orchestral introduction that floats into a soft, relaxing two-part theme which is played twice (this not being one of the tracks with ABA form on the album.)  The striking part of the first half of the theme is its similarity to Zeppelin’s
“Stairway to Heaven.”  The casual listener may very well consider that Zeppelin borrowed Taurus for that beautiful guitar intro in “Stairway”, particularly if  that listener is aware that Zeppelin opened for Spirit in several 1968 concerts, that Zeppelin included material from the first track of the same Spirit album, “Fresh Garbage” in a medley they performed live, that Page is on record as stating that he had owned several Spirit albums, and that there are over a dozen noteworthy cases of  Jimmy Page and Robert Plant “borrowing without credit” material from other artists.

So similar is the connection between “Taurus” and “Stairway” that ultimately in 2014, the estate of Randy California brought a copyright infringement suit against Led Zeppelin. Randy California had drowned in the Pacific Ocean in 1997, at the age of only 45, when swimming into the ocean to save his twelve-year old son from a rip current.  Though giving up his life in the effort, Randy managed to push his son to safety.  Now seventeen years after his death, lawyers for his estate planned to get a co-writing credit for Randy on “Stairway to Heaven.”

Unfortunately, the judge would not allow the jury to hear side-by-side comparisons of “Taurus” and “Stairway to Heaven.” Instead, he only allowed the performance of the two songs on keyboard by a hired musician using as the source the registered sheet music  from the Library of Congress, music that differed from the final version on the recordings. Also ruled inadmissible were expert witnesses that were lined up to talk about sixteen instances of Jimmy Page’s past use of uncredited material, the judge ruling that any past plagiarism, alleged or actual, was not relevant to this particular case in question.  Adding to this was the odd approach and personality of the prosecuting attorney for the California estate, who quickly exasperated the judge and who scored important points for the defense when questioning Page about his being influenced by the Disney/Mary Poppins song ” Chim Chim Cher-ee”.

The jury ruled in favor of the defense, and certainly there are notable differences in the two passages: the “Stairway” melody goes to A at the end of the first chord and then on to B of the next chord while “Taurus”, less remarkably, descends to A and then G#.  If they jury had heard actual recordings, its seems almost certain they would have ruled otherwise.

Personally, I am glad to have both songs as part of our musical legacy and understand how easy it is to come up with the descending chromatic chord progression used in these two songs — something anyone could accidentally discover in the course of composing by hitting sequentially descending notes for their bass line.  I am also sympathetic to how common it is to put together a song based on something one had heard a long time ago and unintentionally brought into their composing process as so clearly happened with George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” — just an unintended revisiting of “She’s So Fine.”  In the case with “Taurus”, it seems Jimmy Page had heard that song several times, forgotten about it, started to play with the chord progressions and went in the direction of a recreation of something close to what his subconscious mind was already familiar with.  In my view, a living Randy California wasn’t particularly interested in who got credit, but his descendants, perhaps needing or wanting money, had a greater interest in assignment of authorship.

You can check out the video below for a good explanation of how these two songs are similar (and differ) in their sharing of the passage in question. If you have any thoughts on this Spirit album, or thoughts on the similarities of “Taurus” and “Stairway to Heaven” please don’t hesitate comment.  Also what are some of your favorite albums from 1968?  I know one of mine is still a few months away from being fifty years old, and plan to discuss that if I even if I have lost all my remaining, exceedingly patient readers by then.

 

Click her for track listing [from Wikipedia]

 

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