The Joyful Noise

By John F. Szwed

Jazz, June 1967

For a brief period between March and April, the Mothers of Invention held forth at the Garrick Theatre in Greenwich Village. From a stage cluttered with two sets of drums, flutes, gongs, tympani, electric guitars, organs, saxophones, there issued forth a music of startling range and infinite variety. Most of all, they gave off a sense of joy of creation, a positiveness in the act of music. Like many musicians who work today in the idiom of rock ‘n’ roll, they show an excitement that once characterized the performance of jazz.

The Mothers are precise, skilled musicians, and with seven pieces they have managed to transcend the rock framework: they may open with a slice of thirties vocal-vintage – something reminiscent of Skinnay Ennis or Kenny Baker. They stroll into Carl Perkins rockabilly or the Flamingos’ do-wah material. Sometimes they are a little more “now”, drawing from the Supremes with a thumping falsetto. All of this is a put-on, to be sure, but it is pleasant put-on, the kind that revels in human creativity however it may be found. Leader Frank Zappa is an outlandish figure, as indeed are they all, and they beg and strain your credulity. But sooner or later, the joking stops, and they start to swing. The reed man works from the Coltrane persuasion and skims up and down on the buzzing rhythms that emanate from an electrical rhythm section. The organ is often used as a drone, East Indian fashion, not just as a surrogate piano for comping; the electric bass skittles over long runs typical of better rock bassists; and two drummers rumble under it all with a carpet of rhythm.

Zappa’s guitar at first sounds of the rock сlісhé: some bent notes, a few high whines, riffs. But if this is all you hear, the point is missed. Within the frame of the familiar, he has a fluttering, flying style not unlike that of Django Reinhardt. He plays on and on, and he lays line on top of line until the shifting rhythm carries everything to a new level. It is all reminiscent of some of the best of the big bands in full force. Somehow, you think, the big bands have come back....

The size of the group should not deceive – electricity eliminates the need for size in bands. Volume and a variety of electrical tonal variations produce the “bigness” of the past. Even some of the “bigger” bands heard today (James Brown’s, Otis Redding’s) carry only a few brass and reeds; the weight is on electricity and rhythm. What makes it most clear that we have here a dance band movement is that the musicians themselves think in these terms. Jann Wenner, in a recent Sunday Ramparts tells us that the electrical bands of San Francisco and Los Angeles – that work the Avalon and Fillmore ballrooms – are critical of “recording bands”, those whose stage appearances suffer from their dependence on studio engineering boosts and aids. Even the sacrosanct Beatles and Beach Boys come in for knocks from the likes of the Buffalo Springfield, the Doors, Moby Grape, and the Quicksilver Messenger Service. The West Coast, home of the abortive jazz movement of the 1950’s, may yet be the source of a major musical movement.

Sooner or later, all listeners to modern American folk music, i.e., jazz, popular, etc. all forms rooted in white and Negro folk music, will have to come to terms with developments loosely subsumed under “rock”. So far, most of the significant contributions in this genre have been in terms of new “sounds”, and a new “feel” to popular music. On the other hand, they have created a strong, sensible song tradition: new words, new ideas, new phrasing. But a serious listening audience has not developed with them. The popular d.j. does not make it easy. Most of the Beatles’ best songs were not played on the air. Ditto for dozens of other groups. But the music is there, to be found, discovered, and almost every record by the new electrical bands is fresh, sometimes startling. Remember? The way jazz used to be?

But are they playing anything? The follower of jazz and classical music is bound to be disappointed at most of the instrumental substance coming out of rock. Village Voice critic Michael Zwerin called attention to this problem recently when he discussed the “jam session” held by the Jefferson Airplane at the Cafe au Go Go. “Their pulse was simple-minded and pounding, the electric bass patterns utterly uninteresting. The guitarists simply played E, A, and В chords, and only one voicing of each ... the whole thing was stupid – loud.” Yet he hastens to argue that rock is all the while becoming more and more sophisticated, more complex and persuasive. Singling out a new group, Jeremy and the Satyrs (formerly the Jeremy Steig Quintet), he points in the tentative direction in which things may move. This group in live performance ranges from Chuck Berry to Miles Davis and the Hindemith Flute Sonata, all of this driven by electric guitars, bass, and flute.

It’s an old refrain, but worth repeating: what we need is fewer labels, less “bagging” of products, and more listening. It’s all music, man, and a product of the human imagination. An openness to human creativity is prior to criticism of any sort. Listen....

THE DOORS (Electra EKS-74007). The Doors, a West Coast quartet, lean heavily on the organ, as opposed to the guitar, for their “sound”. They are not a startling band, but their songs are thoughtful and pleasant. They are willing to play at a variety of tempos and are apart of a reflective trend in some of the newer rock groups. (She’s a) Twentieth Century Fox is a lot of fun, as is Soul Kitchen. Although, like other groups, they work mainly within their own compositions, they also take turns at such diverse material as Willie Dixon’s Back Door Man and Kurt Weill’s Alabama-Song.

THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO (Verve V-5008). Andy Warhol’s group has already gained something of a reputation, but one would think not so much for their music as for their sponsor. Here, at least, they sound rather tedious despite their ventures into electric viola, et. al. Their forte is the loud whine – something like a musical motorcycle. Perhaps with flashing lights, mixed media, and a “psychedelic” setting...but as they stand, something is lost in the translation.

THE FREE SPIRITS (ABC-593.). The Spirits have been widely touted as a link between jazz and rock, and with good reason: they see themselves as primarily influenced by jazzmen and they achieve a hurtling, forcefulness that would be instantly recognized by followers of jazz. Guitarist Larry Coryell, who writes all of their material, seems capable-of playing in any genre with equal ease, and he and the rhythm section lay down one of the most ferocious beats imaginable. Much the same can be said of saxophonist Jim Pepper; he moves from r ’n b to “free” playing with incredible taste. Overall, they are very exciting. But I cannot be so positive over their singing or the lyrics. themselves. They sing too much for my taste, and they reach too far for their own vocal capabilities – admirable, but too much for an entire LP. The lyrics are quite busy, difficult to hear. This is paradoxical, for the tasteful accompaniments given every song make everything they play sound promising. A group with great potential though.

THE BLUES PROJECT. Projections (Verve F T-3008). The popular Blues Project is another group leaning heavily towards jazz, at least in their rhythm conception. As is their practice, they here follow a Chicago groove (Muddy Waters’ Two Trains Running), folk-rock ballads, and jazz-influenced showpieces (Flute Thing). In some ways they are the most formal of the rock bands, as in the charming Steve’s Song, a sort of early Baroque ballad with flute, lute-like guitar and rat-a-tat drum. At their best they are controlled and sparing; at their worst, their over-"exuberance is boring and destructive. Al Kooper, a superb organist, will occasionally turn to rips and tears at the organ to induce excitement, but the effect is tedious. The same can be said for Danny Kalb’s excesses on guitar. It is as if these young men had watched Chicago blues musicians at work and interpreted their physical flashiness in musical terms. In person this can be fun; but listening to such recordings for more than one time is tiring.

RICHIE HAVENSMixed Bag (Verve FT-3006). Richie Havens sings to his own accompaniment of a guitar tuned to an open E-chord tuning, a limiting factor, but one that he uses interestingly. Havens is backed here by a variety. of electric and acoustical instruments. He is at his best, it appears, when he sings others songs: Jessie Fuller’s San Francisco Bay Blues, Bob Dylan’s just Like a Woman, and the Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby (one of the few recordings that seriously challenge the Beatles with one of their own tunes). All of these are warm and spirited. But Havens’ own songs bring out the worst in his voice and guitar and leave the listener wearied.