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The Best Jazz Rock Albums of All Time
Where to Start Your Jazz Rock Listening?
The earliest origins of jazz rock are open for debate. One thing that can not be debated is when the genre became the mainstream. That honor goes to Miles Davis, probably the greatest jazz man in terms of developing new and distinct styles of jazz in its history.
Miles Davis changed music at least 5 times from 1949 to 1975, with cool jazz, modal jazz, orchestrated jazz, post bop jazz, and jazz rock and jazz funk styles. Miles wasn't always the genesis of these styles, but he usually coalesced these new styles where his bands end up producing the definitive music in those new genres.
In Terms of Jazz rock, it Was the Perfect Storm
Miles met and married the 20 years younger Betty Mabry, who in turn turned him on to new styles of music like Sly And the Family Stone, and Jimi Hendrix.
Davis sought out younger band mates to tutor like drummer Tony Williams, who for my money was the greatest drummer who ever lived. Guitarist John McLaughlin, Bassist Dave Holland, and Keyboardists Larry Young, Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul all provided an open minded approach to fusions of many diverse musics.
The Twin Monster Fusion Albums Miles Did '69 and '70
While these are the ones to start with, any of Miles' 70's albums are worth hearing, though many of the live albums might be too dense for virgin ears. released in 1974 might be the best of all for someone just getting into the music, it has something for everyone to savor. Get Up With It
Where to Go After Miles Davis
From there, you could go on to bands like Weather Report, Return to Forever, Caldera, Mahavishnu Orchestra, and violinist Jean Luc Ponty. There are many other artists to discover, but the stuff from the late 60's, through the late 70's tends to be the prime years for the genre.
Today, the most exciting instrumental music is being created by bands like Jaga Jazzist, who combine electronic music, jazz, and progressive rock into a new music form that is big on melody and shimmering colors, but with the power of the best rock music.
Herbie Hancock created music under the name Mwandishi for Warner Brothers and Columbia that expands on the Bitches Brew style, while adding distinct African and funk elements. I highlight 3 of those albums near the end of the article.
Mahavishnu Orchestra: The Inner Mounting Flame
from Mahavishnu Orchestra is where you realize that what you thought was high quality musicianship was a fraud. This instrumental only band made bands like Deep Purple and The Who seem like amateurs. The Inner Mounting Flame
Guitarist John McLaughlin, fresh off his stint with Miles Davis, where he participated on In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. With Jan hammer on keyboards, yes the same guy who did the Miami Vice theme, and super drummer Billy Cobham, they propel this band to Metallic heights not dreamed of. If you are fan of prog-metal like Dream Theater, Mahavishnu will delight you, especially since this record was made in 1971!
McLaughlin becomes a guitar speed demon on this album, one of the first guitar shredders for sure. 'Noonward Race" and "Dance of the Maya" are stand out tracks, as well as the opener "Meeting of the Spirits".
Chicago Transit Authority
You don't find this fantastic double album on too many prog lists, but I will state that this album, as well as Chicago's first 3 albums are very progressive, and I rather like them for sheer entertainment value.
This debut 2 fer was very popular at the time and features Peter Cetera on bass and vocals, and Robert Lamm on Keyboards and vocals.
One of the best guitarist you've never heard of, Terry Kath, who also sings the mega chart hit "Make Me Smile" later on. Kath accidentally shot him self in the head in January of 1978 while reportedly cleaning his gun. Jimi Hendrix when asked what it felt like being the greatest guitarist in the world, answered: "I don't know, you'd have to ask Terry Kath about that! I personally wouldn't put Kath into Hendrix's league, but he certainly was underrated".
What makes Chicago Progressive? well the horn driven rhythms and gritty guitar don't hurt. Chicago Transit Authority is certainly top 40 rock material, but this debut is a little more experimental and rougher around the edges.
Billy Cobham: Spectrum
Spectrum is a classic jazz rock fusion workout, and a drummer's dream of an album, with Cobham being one of the best ever on the skins.
Spectrum may be best known as a one of guitarist Tommy Bolin's last sessions before his premature death in 1976. A lot of strange time signatures all over spectrum, and quite a bit of funk rears its welcome head as well.
As stated, Spectrum is a drums masterpiece, at times Cobham almost sounds like a drum machine with his precision and dexterity.
Jan Hammer is also scattered throughout the album with his tasty synthesizers which also links the band somewhat with Mahavishnu Orchestra.
Lenny White: Venusian Summer
Drummer Lenny White cut his teeth on Andrew Hill's Passing Ships, unfortunately the album was not released until 1995.
Lenny is perhaps best known as the drummer for Chick Corea's Return to Forever. Venusian Summer is an album that is firmly in the prog realm.
Surprisingly enough there are some serious Tangerine Dream overtones on this album, Lenny must have been into them.
Al Di Meola also drops by to add his guitar on the killer "Prince of the Sea". some of Lenny's later albums are more R&B in nature, Venusian Summer is serious 70's jazz rock.
Return to Forever: Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy
Jazz pianist Chick Corea came to the mass public conscious on Miles Davis' In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew.
Chick, shortly after leaving Miles in 1970, went on to form Return to Forever. In 1973 guitarist Bill Connors teamed up with Stanley Clarke on bass, Lenny White on drums, and Chick on Electric Piano and Synthesizer.
Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy is a whole new style, this music is really rock jazz and not jazz rock. Which is a real change for the virtuoso jazz musicians, focusing on a hard rock vibe.
Miles Davis: Bitches Brew
1970's Bitches Brew, the album that gets the credit for spawning the jazz rock movement. Though many others joined the two before this, even Davis' own In a Silent Way from the year before moved in this direction.
But unlike Bitches Brew, that album was subtle and ethereal. Bitches Brew is very avant-garde in nature, still plenty of rockish grooves, but a whole lot more to digest being a double album.
Miles plays some of his most out side trumpet on this album in my opinion. The title track for proof of that.
Miles Runs the Voodoo Down and Spanish key are 2 lengthy funkier tracks that are the pinnacle of the session. You must have open ears for this music, and it may take a dozen listens to absorb its meaning.
For more in depth analysis on Bitches Brew the music and critical reaction of it, you can check that out here.
John Abercrombie: Timeless
Timeless is one of my favorite jazz rock fusion albums.
A trio recording, that sounds much bigger than you might expect. Jan Hammer on Hammond organ, piano, and synthesizers, Jack Dejohnette on drums, and the leader John Abercrombie on guitar.
The music touches on many of the fusion albums released at the time. Abercrombie is an economical player with plenty of space employed in his own style.
the highlight of the album is undoubtedly the title track. with a droning slow build up to a typical fusion feel with synth-work to die for.
The album on a whole is a fusion instrumental classic that fans of jazz rock, or any guitar fan will enjoy, as well as fans of improvised instrumental music.
Of special interest are two ballads "Love Song" and "Remembering," both feature Jan Hammer on acoustic piano, which are both rare and well worth hearing.
Miles Davis: In a Silent Way
In a Silent Way was the calm before the storm for Miles Davis and his jazz rock music.
In a Silent Way is quite simply one of the most breathtakingly beautiful pieces of music ever recorded in any genre. In a Silent Way is also notable for producer Teo Macero's use of Tape splices and edits, which were very groundbreaking then.
The sheer beauty of the title track composed by Pianist/Keyboardist Joe Zawinul of Weather Report fame.
In a Silent Way is a study in minimalism: One thing that has always struck me about the album, is its subtlety, the quietness of music. It rocks, don't get me wrong, but the tastefulness of the electronic instruments are awe-inspiring. It makes it even more amazing how over the top and none tasteful (not a negative) Bitches Brew was, which was the next album.
In a Silent Way should be in every jazz and rock collection, and really should be listened to as a companion to Bitches Brew, Sort of a yin and yang, or good and evil contrast.
I would even go so far as to say, In a Silent Way is Jazz Rock's Kind of Blue. Play them back to back sometime, you might agree.
Santana on a progressive rock review page? you bet they are! Santana was one of the most important of the prog bands, they brought an authentic Latin influence into the music.
Caravanserai was Santana's 4th album, and it has a completely different sound than the previous albums.
Those albums had a real Saturday night party feel, Caravanserai has a real world music vibe with African elements apart of the mix.
The more I hear this album, the more I am inclined to believe that it is possibly the best Santana album, it's certainly their most underrated.
Herbie Hancock's Mwandishi Band: Funky Jazz Rock Fusion at its Best
Herbie Hancock is a legend, no real scoop in that statement, huh? The Pianist has been a part of all the ground breaking developments in Jazz for better than 50 years.
First on his own for Blue Note, then as part of the second great quintet of Miles Davis, and while a part of that legendary group, he released some of the all time classics of jazz for that very same Blue Note label, Maiden Voyage and Empyrean Isles to name a few.
Then When Miles had his restless spirit get the better of him, Herbie participated in the landmark jazz rock albums, In a Silent way and Bitches Brew.
By the end of 1969 Herbie needed to get his own experimental band together, that band, Mwandishi Created some of the most fully realized experimental jazz rock of the last 40 years. You can learn a whole lot more via the Bob Gluck Mwandishi band book that's pictured to the left.
Three experimental albums under the Mwandishi name:
Only 3 albums spread across two labels for this band: Mwandishi and Crossings for Warner Brothers, and Sextant for Columbia.
Mwandishi, a Swahili name that Herbie adopted; along with the other members of the band, Bassist Mchezaji / Buster Williams, Drummer Jabali / Billy Hart, trumpeter Mganga / Eddie Henderson, saxophonist Mwile / Bennie Maupin, and Saxophonist Ndugu / Leon Chancler.
This Mwandishi band was Smokin' Hot, laying down some of the wildest electro funky space jazz ever recorded. The music is not as funky in a commercial sense, like the Headhunters bands were. The music was Wide open Like Bitches Brew, and could be as ethereal as In a Silent Way.
In some spots this music is quite open to free jazz, just a bubbling cauldron of music that still sounds modern and contemporary today; if you like challenging music and have open ears, please do yourself a favor and judge for yourself .
Mwandishi was recorded almost entirely at Rudy Van Gelder studios in Englewood New Jersey. Recorded in December of 1969.
The 21 minute Wondering Spirit Song, a Julian Priester composition, and the center piece of the album is roller coaster ride of a tune.
It ebbs and flows, building up tension and then releasing it, the track reminds me of Miles Davis's In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. Some very avant-garde leanings also on this track.
Ostinato, a 15/8 rhythm, and the most overtly funky track on the album, and "You'll Know When you Get There", an ethereal Hancock composition that shows off the ballad voicing of Herbie to a tee.
Crossings is the album where Dr. Patrick Gleeson is brought on board with his Moog Synthesizer. Herbie initially just wanted Gleason to set up the Moog for him to play.
Herbie was extremely impressed with Gleason, so Herbie directed Gleason to do the overdubs, and he joined the band as member.
The 25 minute "Sleeping giant" is the centerpiece of this album. "Sleeping Giant" points toward the Headhunters Band, with it's monster funk grooves.
Herbie's Fender Rhodes piano is all over the map on this track, "Sleeping Giant" is my favorite Mwandishi Band track. "Quasar" and "Water Torture", are full of Gleason's wild effects.
These two tracks are the most free and experimental of anything they did in my opinion. I dare say this track is as good as anything Miles Did in the 70's, and Eddie Henderson on trumpet does his bet Miles' fusion style playing of his career.
Sextant was Herbie's first recording for Columbia Records, a very similar album to Crossings, all be it, more in line with the track "Sleeping Giant". With a definite look toward the funk commercialism to come, but do not mistake the commercialism for watered down elevator muzak in the vein of Kenny G. This is some complex and a wholly original music.
This time Gleason uses an Arp synthesizer instead of the Moog. Hornets is the epic this time, with a real African element, a brutal vibe, then a beautiful vibe, all most at the same time.
A real dark modal track, reaches for the future but also reaches back to miles, like In a Silent Way. This albums seems a bit uneven to me. It's still great, but it feels like a transition album, as it turns out, it was.
The band was stripped down to a quartet. Herbie was only one album away from commercial super stardom with Headhunters.
Al Di Meola: Elegant Gypsy
Al Di' is a guitar God if there ever was one. Shredder extraordinaire, and a sensitive acoustic player who debuted into the mainstream on Chick Corea's Return to Forever album Where Have I Known You Before at age 20.
Di Meola's solo albums are all worth having, in my opinion his best is Elegant Gypsy from 1977. It displays all the best of Al's fast playing and melodic sensibilities. While the album is clearly a rock first and jazz second album, Al also fuses elements of Latin and Flamenco music into the sound, with break neck guitar runs and acoustic clean styles that meld seamlessly.
Al has a real knack for creating an ominous vibe within his music too: "Flight Over Rio" has this mood that I find irresistible, along with Jan Hammer's synth work Al creates a fusion jazz masterwork.