Maximalist vs. Minimalist Aesthetics in 20th Century Rock Music

April 20, 2010

Maximalists – value dynamic showmanship, idiomatic breadth, instrumental eclecticism, heroic virtuosity, harmolodic complexity, compositional grandeur and lavish sonorities. Maximalists essentially view showbiz as a meritocracy of virtuosity; the libertarian capitalism of rock.

Minimalists – value amateurism, sparse arrangements, a paucity of notes and chords, rudimental skill, compositional simplicity, rawness/underproduction and abrasive sonorities. Minimalists generally spurn showmanship, stressing D.I.Y. activism at the localized scene level; the collectivist socialism of rock.

Aesthetic Breakdown

Origins

  • Maximalism – The progression from high foundationalism, which peaked in 1966 with the release of Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys and Revolver by the Beatles. Officially launched with the June 1967 release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by the Beatles.
  • Minimalism – The step beyond low foundationalism, as embodied by the mid-60s garage rock compiled in the Nuggets series. Accidentally spawned by the February 1967 release of The Velvet Underground and Nico, the debut album by the Velvet Underground.

Timeline

  • Maximalism – Rose in the late-60s, triumphed in the early-70s, reached its broadest global latitude during the mid-70s, and slowly decelerated between 1978 and 1983 amidst the reinstatement of foundationalism via disco and dance pop.
  • Minimalism – Had little influence as maximalism ascended, but congealed slowly between 1969 and 1977 from disparate sources, finally emerging as the dominant subterranean aesthetic in the aftermath of punk.

Genres

  • Maximalism – Progressive Rock (Prog), Heavy Metal (early), Brass Rock, 70s Funk, Fusion, 70s Electronic, Pomp Rock/Arena Rock, New Romantic
  • Minimalism – Garage Rock, Proto Punk, Kraut Rock, Punk, Post Punk, Industrial, Pop Metal, alt.rock, Grunge

Performers

  • Maximalists – Led Zeppelin, King Crimson, Yes, Genesis, Emerson Lake & Palmer, The Who (post-1968), Jethro Tull, Chicago, Earth Wind & Fire, Deep Purple, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever, Mike Oldfield, PFM, Tangerine Dream, Magma, Harmonium, Supertramp, Al Stewart, Boz Scaggs, Rupert Holmes, Queen, Electric Light Orchestra, Steve Harley, 10cc, Styx, Kate Bush, The Stranglers, Ultravox, Magazine, Japan, U2, Simple Minds
  • Minimalists – The Stooges, The Shaggs, The New York Dolls, T.Rex, Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers, Neil Young, Graham Parsons, Nick Drake, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Faust, Can, Patti Smith, The Ramones, Pere Ubu, James Chance & the Contortions, The Buzzcocks, Joy Division, The Smiths, Wire, Bauhaus, Gang of Four, AC/DC, Nerdvana, Violent Femmes, Suicide, Throbbing Gristle

Epicenters

  • Maximalism – London, Birmingham, Chicago, Montreal, Rome
  • Minimalism – London, Manchester, Berlin, Cleveland, Seattle

Philosophical Antecedents

  • Maximalism – Classicism, Romanticism, Objectivism
  • Minimalism – Naturalism, Existentialism, Postmodernism

Noted Champions

  • Maximalists – Musicologist, professor, author and composer Ed Macan (born 1961) – “The whole underlying goal of progressive rock – to draw together rock, classical, jazz, folk, and avant-garde styles into a new metastyle that would supersede them all – is inherently optimistic.”
  • Minimalists – Sociologist and critic Lester Bangs (1948-1982) – “The first mistake of art is to assume that it’s serious.”


Secret Understanding: The Idiomatic Breadth Between Maximalism and Minimalism

March 3, 2010

Over the course of a creative cycle spanning the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, the incendiary musical form known as rock underwent a series of categorical reductions. But since most of those categories were devoid of musical concretes, their meanings were all but trivial. For when rock is broken down to its core foundations, there are merely two distinct outgrowths of the music: maximalism and minimalism. This is not to say that those two streams were devoid of any stylistic range; but that the developments were more associative than the factionalists cared to recognize. Therefore, I set out to chart the genesis of maximalism and minimalism in the annals of rock, and examine the variables of idiomatic breadth which the two streams attained.

First we need to define the traits which embody minimalism and maximalism within the context of rock. Minimalism in rock is an eschewal of musicality, marked by skeletal, abrasive and atonal sonic scars of the rawest nature. Skeletal traits are bore through a paucity of instrumentation and compositional breadth; rudimental songs played by tiny combos. Abrasiveness stems from tunnel frequency, in which traits like bludgeoning volume and fogbound murk are employed to lock listeners into a single state of mind. Atonality is symptomatic of carpus inertia, in which the player’s lack of tactility obliterates the fundaments of musicality for un-centered and often shapeless noises.

Maximalism in rock is an embrace of musicality, embodied through expressions of complexity, eclecticism and grandeur at the highest level. Complexity is achieved when musicians maximize the elements of composition and musicality, exploring variant song structures to the utmost extent, with full regard to melody, harmony, rhythm, sonority, lyrics, meter and counterpoint. Eclecticism is mastered when musicians achieve a synthesis of styles with adept instrumental latitude, fusing various idiomatic impulses in the spirit of creation. Grandeur is reached through presentational dynamism, in which performers transcend themselves through theatrical showmanship, elaborate stagecraft and heroic virtuosity; frozen through time in lavish, state of the art productions.

Background: From Static to Flexible Foundationalism

Rock n’ roll coalesced during the mid-1950s, as touring blues and country players throughout the eastern and southern regions of the United States fed from the musical breadth of the cross-cultural landscape; mutually radiating this explosive new form. The music swiftly caught hold because of its accessibility to upstart musicians, who could easily adopt to this raw idiom and cut cheap records with their own lean combo’s; free from the constricts of formal training and costly orchestration which had been the requisites of pre-rock pop. But rock n’ roll rescinded after a few short years due to its stylistic limitations, with performers having exhausted the twelve-bar blues structure inherent to this primarily rhythmic form. Likewise, the American public shifted upstream, for rock n’ roll started to sound uniform once the racy novelty of its chief performers had worn off. In retrospect, rock n’ roll of the 1950s could be viewed as the makeshift form of budding musicians who ultimately aspired to attain mastery of their formative idioms: country, bluegrass and blues.

Rock didn’t die entirely, however, for its torch soon passed overseas. By the dawn of the 1960s, rock itself had become a formative idiom for the young musicians of England, who stripped the music to its unfettered core, dressed it with the flexible strum of folk, and applied the melodic idiosyncrasies of their own music hall tradition, thereupon fusing a new and revitalized form of rock which, owing to its locale of origin, became known to the world as Merseybeat. Given the broadened musicality now embedded into rock, the music could only progress from this point forward. The static nature of 1950s rock had rendered the music a passing fad; the expansive richness of 1960s rock transformed the music into an art form of global vitality and cross-generational sustenance.

The rock generation’s march to the maximalist summit commenced in 1964, spearheaded by the worldwide outbreak of Beatlemania and the attendant British Invasion. Buoyed by the notion that rock could now comprise a multitude of shapes, thousands of new musicians arose during the second half of the 1960s to expand upon this vast creative template. Over the ensuing lustrum, dynamic strides were made in developing the musicological tenets of melody, harmony, sonority, meter and compositional syntax within the framework of rock, with each successive year comprising an epoch unto itself. Read the rest of this entry »

Shifting Imagery: The Ominous Forecasts of Cool

May 10, 2011

Today’s popular culture is addled with hastily shifting imagery across all media, which has fostered vast quantities of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) in younger people. Though MTV has bore most of the blame, the recent trend towards quick-cutting in modern film and video can be traced back twenty years prior to the downfall of that once-musical network. In Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969), hasty sequencing is employed throughout, though not to pander to an ADD mentality.

Medium Cool casts the fictionalized shenanigans of TV cameraman John Cassellis (Robert Forster) into the very real events surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Viewers have long debated the spontaneity and candidness of the scenes in which Cassellis is plunged into the true-life firestorms of racial tension and rioting; the end results resembling not so much a suspense thriller as a reality TV docudrama. Wexler was striving to capture the blunt effects of real-time social malaise on celluloid, and he succeeded at the expense of cinematic symmetry.

Upon its initial release, columnist Roger Ebert stated that the power of Medium Cool is in the character’s refusal to “[stop] at B on their way from A to C.” He insisted that audiences had become so familiar with the conventions of storytelling that they had overcome their need for slow and linear plotlines. From a few telling snapshots in time, audiences could now piece stories together through situational citations. Ebert further pointed to Steve McQueen’s Bullitt as an example of modern cinema dispensing with finer detail in order to “[move] at our speed.”

His assessment is fair enough, for when taken as isolated works, both movies stand as gripping examples of outré filmmaking. But when viewed as the new tradition of storytelling in an age where audiences have lost their patience for detail, Ebert’s forecasts ring ominous. A parallel could be drawn between the precedents Ebert outlined and a similar development which occurred earlier during the 20th century in the realm of literature. Much like cinema of the 1930s and 40s had been lavish and story driven, novels and short stories of the 19th century had been broad and colorful in their literary scope. One might think of Charlie Chaplin as a cinematic Washington Irving.

But then emerged the icons of the Lost Generation, who spurned literary whimsy to forge a minimalist brand of storytelling. The brash narrative to An Alcoholic Case by F. Scott Fitzgerald forecast the modern TV medical drama in much the same way that Medium Cool presaged COPS. Which is where this viewer draws the line, for while wreckage can make for a useful cautionary tale, it’s not something I want to see made into an art form.

Indestructible: Riding on the Roller Coaster of Great Escape Scenarios

April 24, 2011

Everyone knows how the female heart is sent aflutter in the presence of a rough guy; that ruggedly handsome dominant man of impeccable coolness. Rarely acknowledged, however, is the attraction which women harbor for dark, edgy and distant men. You see the archetype whenever you open the pages of any women’s lifestyle magazine, which constantly feature layouts in which some lusty, lovelorn female clutches the arm of an expressionless, disinterested suitor. Such phenomenon is faintly portrayed in other realms of popular culture, and for cinematic accuracy in intersexual dynamics, one must look to the 1950s.

In Robert Aldrich’s 1955 film noire crime thriller Kiss Me Deadly, Ralph Meeker stars as Mike Hammer, a stoic and indestructible private investigator who simultaneously forecasts the bravado of James Bond and sexual aloofness of the cosmopolitan man. The night and day exploits of Hammer unfurl like a roller coaster of great escapes, with Hammer emerging unscathed and unfazed from each incident. With nonchalance and ease, Hammer thwarts an endless series of would-be assailants and assassins, most of who try to blindside him whilst missing the core principle of their target: Hammer is a man without fear.

Early along in this saga, a criminal thug pulls a switchblade from behind Hammer in the dead of night. Hammer seems to have traced this episode in advance, and so without looking over his shoulder he sprays the thug with popcorn and, promptly turning, lands an effortless knockdown. A comedic innuendo hovers over this incident that reoccurs in subsequent attempts on Hammer, in which menacing antics backfire and the assailant winds up scared instead of the target. Popcorn would be but one bag of curve balls.

Shortly down the line, Hammer musters an intuition that, if only more common, could be the lifesaver of many lesser heroes. Knowing that the thugs are all out for him, he figures that their next trick will be in the form of a car bomb, and so he rushes outside to halt his trusty, foreign sidekick from fatally setting ignition. True to his sixth sense, Hammer knows exactly what is hidden underneath the front hood, and he can point his sidekick to the explosives without even looking himself. When one thinks of how clichéd the whole car bomb twist has become throughout all the explosion-brimmed action thrillers of today, this knowing foresight on the part of Hammer makes him a god amongst heroes.

Hammer’s most Houdini-esque moment happens a few scenes later, after he momentarily falls captive to a trio of thugs. The thugs think they have him under a vice, but shotguns and bed ropes are no match for Hammer. Thus before they even drill him, our hero has untied himself, yet plays along for fun. Minutes later, the second of the thugs falls in shock amidst discovering that the man he stabbed on the bed was actually his first accomplice, not Hammer. As turning tables dawn on the last of three, fear and panic grip his homely face. Our hero has vanished.

Read the rest of this entry »

Twisting the Armband: The Politics of Othering

April 12, 2011

Over the last three decades, academic leftists throughout the Anglosphere have attempted to rewrite their cultural past through a prism of shaming, in which Western history up to the mid-20th century is condemned as a lengthy dark age marked by sexism, racism and imperialism. In Australia, the term black armband theory has been used to identify the guilt-ridden cultural revisionism that’s currently espoused by that nation’s liberal elites; a syndrome largely reflected in modern American liberalism.

Outside academia, the chief engineer behind American black armband syndrome has been Hollywood, which has constantly used the cinematic medium to cast all the wonderful outcomes of capitalism and complementarity in a condescending light. Ill-documented chapters in American history have made for a sitting duck in these ideological exploits, for the voiceless past has no defense against a partisan present. Amongst those crowding this revisionary pulpit is feminist filmmaker Maggie Greenwald, who disemboweled the Western in her 1993 flick, The Ballad of Little Jo.

Greenwald’s flick takes biographical liberties over the life of Josephine Monaghan, a decorated 19th century frontiersman of whom a bizarre tidbit was revealed upon his obituary: the dude was a she. This germ of transgenderism sets the innuendo upon which Greenwald spins her black armband revisionism of life in the Old West. Jo has been expelled from her East Coast gentry for having bore a child out of wedlock, and so she travels westbound into the land where dignity is measured in beard length, thus prompting her to masquerade as a man. Flanking Jo at every turn is the behavior malaise that’s typically alleged of bygone, male-centric townships: belligerence, rakishness and vulgarity.

As with most feminist agitators, Greenwald’s insights into the male psyche are grotesquely misinformed. Her vision of man as savage rings all the more disorienting when coupled with the rosy veneers which she initially heaps upon the evil sex. The peddler Jo encounters at the outset of the story seems like a spirited, avuncular gentleman; that is until he announces her sale to the bandits. Likewise, Percy the stable-keeper comes off as a stoic man of modest intent; unlucky in love and perhaps rendered a eunuch. But then comes the gruesome incident between Percy and the goddess who serves as the unlikely whore in this story, and we’re left with nothing but disgust and hatred for the man. This schizophrenia which Greenwald depicts through men like Percy has confused some liberal viewers into praising her as a multi-dimensional character maker. To me it embodies the unsubtle  misandry behind the conception of this film; a jaundiced worldview in which bipolar disorder is endemic of men.

Redemption to the evil sex is served, consequently, by the token non-white character in this flick, Tinman, a Chinese emigrant whom Jo rescues from yet another round of backwoods banditry. The political innuendo of Tinman’s arrival is twofold. Since he’s the only non-female victim in this story, women and minorities are assigned comparative plights within Greenwald’s worldview. And since he’s the only non-female object of desire in this story, masculine sex appeal is now defined at the exclusion of white men within this worldview. It’s the politics of othering.

Implausible story threads and political innuendos aside, The Ballad of Little Jo is a genre film, and as such might adequately suffice with fans of the Western genre. For enlightened viewers of the 21st century, however, this film will appear dated and inflammatory, filmed as it was within the quagmire of third wave feminism during the 1990s. Liberals, meanwhile, will continue casting icons of otherness into their jaundiced rewrites of history. Personally, I’ll stick to true life heroines of the Old West, such as the one enshrined in singer/songwriter Andy Pratt’s 1971 classic, “Avenging Annie”:

Well, they call me Avenging Annie,
I’m avenger of womanhood,
I spend my whole life telling lies,
I’ll lead you on and mess you over good.

Living Well: Gunning through the Sahara

March 14, 2011

The horrors of combat are made more palatable to civilian audiences when the role of Sergeant is played not by some stereotypical tough guy, but by the affable likes of Humphrey Bogart, the most distinguished leading man of 1940s cinema. In Zoltán Korda’s Sahara (1943), Bogey employs his calm, laidback personae to the character of Sergeant Joe Gunn, who helms a crew of assorted allies stalled mid-desert in pursuit of water.

Sahara conveys the wartime principle of self sacrifice, in which the will of the individual is surrendered to the greater good of the group. Most of these men will die, yet each death is met with the overarching purpose of forestalling and depleting the enemy; a fate that each man has bravely accepted. After the fearless Sudanese Sergeant Tambul crosses enemy lines to snuff the crew’s scheming Nazi-captive, he runs back brazenly through the storm of fire; not because he thinks he’ll survive, but merely to get within viewing range of Gunn to deliver a triumphant thumbs up.

The militaristic notion of numbers – in which human loss is treated as collateral damage in the ultimate goal of victory – is a foreign concept to most civilian viewers. Sahara eases the blow by steering clear of large scale combat scenes, focusing instead on the minute concerns of getting from one desert well to the next. The suspense to Sahara is delivered in a manner so dry that the anti-climax – in which Gunn and his last remaining ally stand like sacrificial lambs before an onslaught of German soldiers; only to see the Germans slump before the well, famished and fightless – rings comedic.

Modern day viewers, nonetheless, have waged varying forms of criticism towards Sahara. Some collegiate feminists have extrapolated that Sahara is a sexist film, simply because it contains no female cast members. But considering how this film deals with a male-centric scenario (combat) which stems from a male-centric concept (warfare) – the consequence of dispute between differing parties in the ultimate construct of male ingenuity (civilization) – one could sensibly conclude that a film like Sahara calls for an all-male cast. Others have criticized Sahara for its inaccurate depiction of a racially integrated military, citing how the US military was actually segregated up until 1948. When one considers the role that war films play in shaping popular sentiment, however, this portrayal of integrated teamwork could be viewed as Hollywood’s ultimate public service statement.

Internal Divide: Torn at the Gulf between Love and Lechery

March 10, 2011

On his Oz Conservative blogspot, Melbourne-based traditionalist educator Mark Richardson has conceptualized that the “culture of relationships is formed from three inputs: marriage, romantic love [romance] and sex” (1) – inputs that have traded authority over the past two centuries. The influence of marriage, with its emphasis on etiquette and courtship, predominated until the late-Victorian era, at which point society yielded to the emotional impulses of romantic love, marked by chivalry and the pedestalization of womankind. Pedestalization stemmed from the 20th century gentleman’s romantic idealization of femininity, which in turn handed the moral guardianship of society over to women, who were thus deemed the ‘fairer sex’. Alas, romantic love succumbed to the torrents of third wave feminism in the 1990s, whereupon a cruder generation of women spurned pedestalization as the construct of an oppressive patriarchy; thus plummeting society into a culture dominated by sex, which has ‘liberated’ women to pursue their baser, hypergamous instincts. Within this new intersexual paradigm, gallant and cultured men have typically been rejected in favor of those who exhibit rawer features of testosterone, such as muscles, thuggish looks and recklessness (1).

Retrospectively, the inversion of women’s standards over the past century can be foretold in one classic tale of dichotomy, written at the dawn of the age of romance: Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In Paramount’s definitive 1931 adaptation, Fredric March enacts the title-sake dual role, in which Dr. Henry Jekyll embodies the cultured, romantic gentleman, and Mr. Hyde caricaturizes the vile, lecherous lowlife. In the body of March, Dr. Jekyll cuts a tall and slim figure of androgynous comeliness; the type of man who would have been much desired by women in the age of romance. Contrastingly, figments of Hyde have surfaced in some modern day celebrities (2), yet this film of old vulgarized his rakishness with such condemnation; it stands as a testament to the moral standards which upheld our culture during the age of romance.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde illustrates the protective nature of society towards women in the pre-hypergamous world. Interventions into female distress scenarios are a common occurrence in this film, most notably when Dr. Jekyll comes to the aid of a young woman named Ivy; lifting her from a sidewalk scurry and up to the safety of her room. Exhibiting loose ends, the inebriated Ivy tries to tempt Dr. Jekyll into staying, but true to his gentlemanly virtues, he declines. Sparing women of their own lesser tendencies is but one measure of chivalry from the doctor; saving women from the claws of his own fate is another. As his transformations spin out of control, Dr. Jekyll swallows the inevitable and breaks his engagement to Muriel, a woman of upstanding pedigree. Dr. Jekyll holds a romanticized view of womankind, and thus strives to protect the women in his life from the forces of evil, including that which overtakes him in the end. Read the rest of this entry »

Beyond Evil: The Dark Art of Disingenuity

March 1, 2011

Have you ever felt cheated, jilted or swindled by a ploy so evasive that it left you virtually blindsided? Where the enemy cajoled you in a manner so cunning that you practically signed away on your very own dignity? In these times of reflection – where people look back with bewilderment upon the 2008 elections – new questions have arisen over the spread of misleading, nuanced vocabulary in our culture. How long has this sort of thing been going on?

As far back as 1952, concerns over stealth coercion were brought to the big screen in Vincente Minnelli’s MGM melodrama The Bad and the Beautiful, in which Kirk Douglas stars as Jonathan Shields, the scheming son of a late filmmaking pariah. Opening onto a present-day summons of Shields’ core associates from the past eighteen years, we learn that he has indeed been a man of inexplicable guile. His dossier reads like a textbook in the dark art of disingenuity: where negatives are flipped into positives via circular logic; where wrongdoing is portrayed as benevolence by means of inappropriate analogy; and where guilt is transferred onto the aggrieved through use of shifty, phony high-grounds.

Calling forth this meeting is middleweight film exec Harry Pebbel, to whom Shields had once deliberately lost $6,351 in a poker game. The intent was to finagle a seat in Pebbel’s unit as a means of payoff, whereby Shields would earn his industry foothold. Shields pried upon the malleability of Pebbel with smiling shrewdness, fearlessly stating:

You don’t run this studio, Harry… you are an executive producer… of B-pictures, it’s true… you have four producers in your unit; why not five?

Pebbel caved according to plan, expressing his desperation for scripts and – conflating job vigor with gambling fear – his urgent need for Shields to produce stories with the same “sweat” that he’d broken over that poker money. Basically, the circular logic ploy had conned Pebbel into thinking that his grounds for a ‘contract’ were actually grounds for a… contract. When brazenness gets you ahead this easily, who cares about ethics?

Next we’re given the history between Shields and his primary stepping-stone, Fred Amiel. An aspiring director, Amiel worked the studio trade with Shields whilst developing a film project, which Shields then pitched to the studios. Shields betrayed Amiel in the process of signing a deal, however, for Hollywood green-lighting required an established director; a detail which Shields ran right past Amiel whilst listing all the features of the deal. As Amiel grew enraged, Shields twisted the state of demotion into an act of inclusion, telling Amiel that his “name will be on the screen, assistant to the producer.” Unmoved, Amiel asserted that his picture, his “idea”, had been stolen; words which Shields spun into a verbal irony: “without me, it would have stayed an idea.” It was becoming apparent that no one could possibly level with Shields; the man was a seething vortex of spin.

To the burned and swindled souls left in Shields’ path, the heartbroken and jilted could be added in the person of Georgia Lorrison, a floundering actress whom Shields mentored. Though sensing her attraction, he kept stoic whilst guiding her with a mixture of nonchalance, tough love and chivalry. But when a studio exec phoned Shields with talk of replacing Lorrison for an upcoming role, Shields passionately kissed her in the hope that it would summon her acting vigor. Later, following her star-making premiere, she paid an impromptu visit to his home, only to find him messing with her understudy. Now in all fairness, Shields had rarely reciprocated any of Lorrison’s romantic interest. But the way in which he spun her heartbreak into another phony high-ground for himself was just beyond evil:

You couldn’t enjoy what I made possible for you… NO, you’d rather have THIS! Well congratulations, you’ve got it… all laid out for you so you can wallow in pity for yourself! Maybe I like to be cheap once in a while, maybe everyone does!

(Kudos to Douglas for his frightening performance in that scene; he conjured Shields’ misanthropy with such psychotic intensity; you’d think both actor and character were possessed.)

The last tale to be told was that of Professor Jim Bartlow, author of a bestselling book which Shields wanted to turn into a movie. Though disinterested, Bartlow caved at the urging of his wife, Rosemary, who was ironically deemed a distraction by Shields once the couple had settled into Tinseltown. Covertly, Shields urged a studio Casanova by the name of Gaucho to keep Rosemary occupied; and the two perished en-route upon an illicit tryst. Unaware of Shields complicities, the widowed Bartlow grew ever fond of his Hollywood benefactor, extending an invite to his writing cabin for inspiration. Carelessly, Shields rambled on about Sebastion – a character in Bartlow’s book – with comparisons to Gaucho; slipping into an ad-lib over how he “begged him not to take that plane.” Upon the sudden, violent end to their partnership, Shields heaped an endless, cold-blooded torrent of indignation upon Bartlow’s late wife:

Whether you like it or not, you’re better off. She was a fool! She got in your way! She interfered with your work! She wasted your time! You’re better off without her!

Malignance aside, this rant was but one more affectation from Shields; a circular ploy to turn love into hatred, much like he had turned debt into deed long beforehand.

For Amiel, Lorrison and Bartlow, the film ends on a somewhat happier note, as their older and wiser selves decline to revisit the world of their bête noire. In parting, however, they overhear Pebbel getting lured into further shenanigans with Shields, as if the blue pill had never worn off on the lowly B-exec. Which is why The Bad and the Beautiful – a film of study if not entertainment – should serve as a cautionary tale to anyone who’s recurrently fallen prey to the gambits of a master manipulator.

Birdfingers: The Soaring Heights of Coryell

February 26, 2011

The Eleventh House Introducing The Eleventh House With Larry Coryell. Vanguard VSD 79342. 1974
The Eleventh House
Level One. Arista AL 4052. 1975
Larry
Coryell Planet End. Vanguard VSD 23022. 1975

The mid-1970s found lightning fretman Larry Coryell soaring at the jazz/rock nexus. With an eclectic cast of veterans – including brass/rock trumpeter Randy Brecker (Blood Sweat & Tears; Dreams) and drumming extraordinaire Alphonse Mouzon (Weather Report) – Coryell aimed for the utmost in idiomatic latitude on Introducing The Eleventh House.

At the ignition of Mouzon, “Birdfingers” sends guitar/trumpet winds aflurry, with the hollow-bodied scales of Coryell running miles along the mountainous chordal arch of the tune. Velocities snowball on “Yin”, a six-minute race between the nimble blaze of Coryell and the cyber-emissions of keyboardist Mike Mandel’s ARP Odyssey. Syncopation serves up contrast in “Adam Smasher”, where funky basslines form the ground on which Brecker shines; at least until Coryell muscles his way to the fore. Brecker redoubles with his stately riff to “Right On Y’All”, a brass/rock parade which Mandel engulfs with intergalactic aplomb.

The crew drops a heavier load onto Level One, with the symphonic strides of the opening theme landing at a new musical crossroads. “Nyctaphobia” is their most frenzied racer yet, with Coryell, Mandel and Mouzon slinging neck-in-neck to the finish line. Lightning yields to thunder on “That’s the Joint”, where Coryell sets flame to the thickening slabs of newly-recruited bassman John Lee. (Could this be the dawn of metallic jazz?) Coryell grinds to a 4/4 foothold for the flanged-out funk of “Some Greasy Stuff”, replete with runs through Mandel’s sound library. Ambitions climax with “Suite: Entrance/Repose/Exit”, a lavish display of guitar/piano filigree spun through a modulated windmill; alternately becalmed and billowing.

Concurrently, Coryell kept his solo side alight with Planet End, a stripped engagement with numerous jazz/rock players. From the thunder of “Cover Girl” to the flash of “Rocks”, much of this album suggests a rockier twist to the Eleventh House sound. By contrast, the double-bass extensions of both “Tyrone” and the title-track serve as upright jazz, with the walking notes of Miroslav Vitouš setting ground for some light, legato fretwork from our star.

Decked in surreal cover art, these defining works of Coryell play like singular sonic excursions – a most spellbinding ride for the aurally adventurous.

Ray Russell: From Dragon to Cradle

February 19, 2011

Ray RussellDragon Hill. CBS Realm 52663, 1969
Ray
RussellRites and Rituals. Columbia 494436 2; 1971

English six-string journeyman Ray Russell arched the dawning 1970s with a pair of albums which bridged the gulf between rock and jazz. Augmented by a cast including saxman Lyn Dobson (Locomotive, Keef Hartley Band) and veteran trumpeter Harry Beckett, Russell unleashed his licks across five frenzied cuts on Dragon Hill.


Misty keys and chordal shards open the mammoth “Dragon Hill”, which ultimately veers between freeform guitar/piano solos and structural bebop/blues sketches; replete with the high-end, atonal strumming which becomes Russell’s signature. He turns to more fluid licks on “Something in the Sky”, a jitterbug swept into the brassy winds of Beckett and Dobson. Bassist Ron Mathewson funkifies “Can I Have My Paperback Back” for the interplay of Russell and pianist Roy Fry, who trades his Steinway for Rhodes on this number. Alternately, Russell takes a powder for most of “We Lie Naked in Winter Snow”, a candlelight exchange between Mathewson and Fry. The full-cast is summoned for “Mandala”, in which the lightning lines of Russell are squared by a brass theme of such aplomb it would smite Chicago or Colosseum.

That latter brass/rock congregate – whose core members had played with Russell under the tutelage of Graham Bond – paved ground which lured Russell on his next outing, Rites and Rituals. The low-end strum which opens “Sarana” is swiftly raised by the layering of trombone, trumpet and sax; an assemblage soon knocked aside by Russell’s newly-manicured wall-of-distortion. Furthermore, “Sarana” echoes the amplified strides of John McLaughlin – another Bond alumnus spanning the jazz/rock divide – with Russell torching thirteen minutes of freeform; lassoed fleetingly at brass/rock intervals. Matching lengths but not ideas, the title-piece meanders amidst muffled bleats and coy noodling; the solid tune at 9:10 being all too brief. Contrastingly front-loaded is the gargantuan “Abyss”, whose dissonance runs dry by the halfway mark. Redemption is served in the final number, “Cradle Hill”, where the clashing currents of guitar, trombone and cello careen through a heady five-minute run.

Erratic or not, these records displayed Russell’s skill with such authority that his employ was now secure across a vast spectrum of British musical talent.

Hubbard: Red as a Fox

February 12, 2011

Freddie HubbardRed Clay. CTI 6001, 1970
Freddie
HubbardStraight Life. CTI 6007, 1970

Trumpeter Freddie Hubbard kicked off the 1970s with two of the earliest electrified jazz recordings from outside the stable of Miles. On Red Clay, he’s backed by the nimble chops of Joe Henderson (woodwinds), Herbie Hancock (keyboards), Ron Carter (bass) and Lenny White (drums) for a tuneful collection boasting four originals, plus an instrumental adaptation of “Cold Turkey” by John Lennon.

Amongst the album’s highlights is the title-excursion “Red Clay”, marked by a memorable bass ostinato which drives the heady trade-offs between Hubbard, Henderson and Hancock. Gusty winds ensnarl “The Intrepid Fox”, where fleeting melodies are ransacked across great length by that hyperactive trio of soloists. A nightcap is served in the dusky Rhodes glimmer of “Suite Sioux”, which frames a truce between sax and trumpet – like harmony at last call.

The crimson-themed cover art of Red Clay is continued on the follow-up, Straight Life, despite a shift in musical concept. The focus here is on jam-based, conga-strewn improve, of which the mangled sax and glowing keys of “Mr. Clean” emerge most gloriously from this three-track set. The tingling Rhodes of Hancock are the saving grace to the sprawling title-piece, yet even he seems impassive here, as if his energies were now on reserve for his own, superior efforts. The allure of Red Clay was it’s melding of tunefulness and intrepidness, a balance sorely lacking this second time around.

Amplified instruments demand knowledge of their unique sonic character. Following the initial guidance of Hancock, the challenge now for Hubbard was to forge an electrified strategy – to stay the course of this new frontier in jazz.

The Intrepid Triad of Hancock

February 5, 2011

Herbie Hancock Mwandishi. Warner Bros; 1971
Herbie
Hancock Crossings. Warner Bros; 1972
Herbie
Hancock Sextant. Columbia; 1973

On his opening triad of albums from the 1970s, renaissance jazzman Herbie Hancock mined the dark sonic corridors which he’d first unveiled with Miles Davis on the latter’s 1969 landmark, In a Silent Way. With an arsenal of keyboards, Hancock enlisted the crew of Buster Williams (bass), Billy Hart (drums), Julian Priester (trombone), and the ambidextrous duo of Eddie Henderson and Bennie Maupin on an assortment of brass and woodwinds. Each platter is split between three lengthy sketches in the sidelong/divided format.

Mwandishi is launched by the rhythmic flurry of “Ostinato (Suite for Angela)”, in which Hancock bubbles around one sinister bass figure alternately manned by Williams, Priester and Maupin. “You’ll Know When You Get There” serves as a quiet release from the preceding tension, with the ambidextrous pair lacing flute and flugelhorn across the sedative breeze of Hancock’s Fender Rhodes. Overside, the mammoth “Wandering Spirit Song” drifts slowly into a cyclone, whereupon brass, drums and synthesizers collide like sharks against steamships for a most harrowing climax.

The sidelong action tops Crossings with the aptly-titled “Sleeping Giant”, whose quieter moments are mere respite to the percussive storms raging throughout. More enriching are the night-sky illuminations of “Quasar”, which drifts aglow in the Moog work of newly-enlisted synthesist Patrick Gleason. Rounding this set is “Water Torture”, an alarming misnomer for Hancock’s timely trip to the icy land of the Mellotron.

Hancock’s experiments in rhythm and sonority peaked with Sextant, a dizzying set which verged on freeform. “Rain Dance” shows the keyboard team besting their cosmic chemistry, with the ARP spurts of Gleason fizzing through the bubbly waters of Hancock. Pianos and Mellotron enmesh with the synthesizers on “Hidden Shadows”, a dark and frosty landscape beset by the hail of percussion. The endless bass-and-cymbal frame of “Hornets” gives pensive precision to the nimble swarm throughout; the woodwinds squeeze for time, but Hancock steamrolls with the smoke of the Rhodes and the fiery sizzle of the Hohner D-6 clavinet.

The evolution of Hancock across these last three albums drew the all-elusive future into the present tense of jazz.