Jeff Beck – Jazz/Rock Fusion Era

I trust my blog readers are enjoying this week’s topic of jazz/rock fusion.

Today’s subject is guitar aficionado Jeff Beck. I have been a huge fan of Jeff Beck’s ever since I saw him in 1969 as the headline act at The Fillmore East. He was fronting The Jeff Beck Group in those days, with Rod Stewart on vocals, Ronnie Wood on rhythm guitar and Nicky Hopkins on keyboards. I caught their final Fillmore appearance on July 3rd, 1969 (43 years ago…).

There is no denying the stunning contributions Jeff Beck has contributed to music over the decades. I was quite taken with his jazz/rock fusion era. It was such a game changer for him and the music being produced in the mid-70s.

With Blow by Blow, Beck delivered a fusion masterpiece. The collaboration with Sir George Martin, Max Middleton and Stevie Wonder delivers us a rich set of music legacy.

Asked to describe the music, Jeff Beck said, “It crosses the gap between white rock and Mahavishnu, or jazz-rock. It bridges a lot of gaps, It’s more digestible, the rhythms are easier are easier to understand than Mahavishnu’s. It’s more on the fringe.” (Source: Jeff Beck: The Fusion Years by Jas Obrecht, 2010)

The instrumental song from Blow by Blow,  “Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers” has become Jeff Beck’s signature classic. Every time I hear it, it stops me in my tracks. I understand perfectly why Stevie Wonder gave Jeff Beck this song. He knew it belonged to his magic fingers alone. There are very few song’s in jazz/rock fusion that epitomize the cry of the heart as “Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers”.  I have seen Jeff Beck do this song live twice and each time it was a moving experience.

Jeff Beck followed Blow by Blow with Wired in 1976. He switched it up by adding Jan Hammer on synthesizer and Narada Michael Walden on drums. They had  all jammed together while on tour with the Mahavishnu Orchestra the summer before, which was how the

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nucleus was formed. Wired was a tougher album to assimilate but once digested it stick to your ribs. The Charles Mingus track, “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” grabbed me first. It has become a staple choice in Jeff Beck’s set lists. Jeff Beck and company execute it with total precision.

The third album in the series of Jeff Beck’s jazz/rock fusion era was titled,  Jeff Beck with the Jan Hammer Group Live,  a chronicle of their 100-show tour together. Jan Hammer….

I am not too familiar with this particular recording or the one that follows it, There and Back. I owned and played often Blow by Blow and Wired. Writing this blog post today has helped me to examine and appreciate their live album. Thanks to Spotify I can listen to it in full :).

The fourth album in the Jeff Beck jazz/rock fusion series, There and Back is the most obscure recording to my ears. This album was released in June, 1980. It caps off the five-year investment Jeff Beck made in jazz/rock fusion admirably.

Asked how he worked out the material for the album, Beck said, “I ripped myself apart, and I ripped Tony Hymas apart. I tried to get him to understand where I was at because Tony came in as an emergency player back in’78 when we had a tour of Japan lined up and had a problem with another keyboard player. And Tony picked up so quickly and had such a good ear and his musical training and understanding was so superb, I couldn’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be a good idea to start schooling him in my ways. Sounds insulting to say ‘school him’ when he knows more about music than I do, but that doesn’t mean what I’m doing is not valid. In the first two weeks he had already begun to see what I wanted without me saying anything. So most of the music on There and Back evolved through our playing together. Tony writes everything down. He just scribbles on the backs of pieces of paper. And then when we run through it, I say, ‘Well, here I can’t get along with this framework that I’ve got to solo over. Let’s change that – take this chord out of there and put it somewhere else.’ It’s just custom-building music between us. Of course, if it’s his song to start with, whatever happens to it, it’s still his song. I’ve reached the point where I need to be led somewhere – on a melody level, not so much on the technique or guitar trickery level. The stuff pours out of me when I’ve got the right tune. I can’t help it – it just pours out! But if the tune isn’t right, then I’ve got to push it a bit. If it’s totally wrong, I’ve got to drag it.” (Source: Jeff Beck: The Fusion Years by Jas Obrecht, 2010)

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I want to personally thank Jas Obrecht for his Web column, “Jeff Beck: The Fusion Years“. It kept me grounded and focused on this blog post. He is a very competent music journalist and I learned a great deal from his Jeff Beck piece. Should you want more details than my blog post accomplishes here I urge you to browse over and read Jas’s article.

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The Mahavishnu Orchestra – Jazz Rock/Fusion

The year was 1972. I was moving up from my associate degree at Norwalk Community College to complete my bachelor’s degree at the University of New Haven. It was an exciting time in my life. I enrolled in my junior year classes that fall. Little did I realize that the course I signed up for last-minute, Introduction to Music, would open before me an incredible path of music discovery and direction.

The music teacher started our class by playing sitar in the middle of the room for 30 minutes as he welcomed us to world music and eastern influences. He went on to articulate what he had been taught and experienced as a student himself at Wesleyan University. I was so hooked on what he had to say to us that morning. I decided right then and there that I would minor in music. I took six music classes at UNH, all ably taught by world music professors and alumni of Wesleyan University.

One recording we heard often in my first music class was Mahavishnu Orchestra, The Inner Mounting Flame. The record grew on me as we were permitted uninterrupted, meditative listens during class. I had never heard music so powerfully stated yet so eloquently executed. If it wasn’t for this music class, I may have never discovered jazz rock/fusion at its core from Mahavishnu Orchestra.

Left to right: Jerry Goodman, Jan Hammer, John...
Left to right: Jerry Goodman, Jan Hammer, John McLaughlin, Billy Cobham, Rick Laird (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I listen to The Inner Mounting Flame 41 years later, still intrigued by its rich textures, that machine gun guitar from John McLaughlin and the powerful drumming of Billy Cobham. The layered effect of Jerry Goodman on violin, coupled with the driving bass and sharp tones by Jan Hammer. A once in a lifetime collaboration. My favorite song on this recording is, “You Know, You Know”.

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The Mahavishnu Orchestra followed The Inner Mounting Flame with Birds of FireI didn’t think it was possible for jazz rock/fusion from The Mahavishnu Orchestra to soar any higher. It took off for the stratosphere on Birds of Fire. I did my college term paper (which I so wish I still had somewhere) on Mahavishnu John McLaughlin. He afforded me a wonderful interview from his Jamaica Queens apartment. We recorded it on high-end reel to reel on a Scully Tape system at the WNHU-FM radio station. Alas that has been lost to me too, sigh.

 Thankfully I saw The Mahavishnu Orchestra live at Staples High School in the summer of 1973. They were very skillful in their concert. I can still visualize John McLaughlin arched to the heavens playing the double neck guitar. I can also see Billy Cobham playing behind his massive plexiglass drum kit.