Remember the first time you heard something really different from your go-to style of music, something really “out there” in the universe? Not just a song in passing but something that made you want to explore this different genre.
For me, it was jazz. Not just any kind of jazz but a guitar-oriented style and seemed to unleash the power of the instrument. It was frequently called jazz-fusion, whatever that term really means. It was the absence of vocals, songs that had a different structure and sought to take the listener on ride, sailing through the clouds or thundering across the rapids.
There was a lot of this blending of styles in the mid 1970s mixing rock, funk, blues, R&B, folk, classical and even gospel. The pallet of music colors was changing, becoming more adventurous and defying convention.
If you’ve read my blogs, I’m a fan of progressive rock, which was a blender of rock, folk, classical and other forms. Often called art-rock because of the backgrounds of many of the musicians who ventured into this longer-form of music. Prog-Rock was adventurous and incorporated layered keyboards, especially the Mellotron along with instruments from folk and classical. Prog-Rock opened the door to experimentation.
Carlos Santana was one of the first to delve into a more free form of rock-jazz in the early 1970s. Jeff Beck moved into jazz by reinventing some rock standards and going head-first into some classics. Beck does things his own way and never completely abandoned his blues roots by keeping a rock sensibility in his style of jazz-fusion. You were never sure of where Beck would land with his music from album to album.
Santana emerged from jazz back into his Latin-rock, but kept a toe in the jazz groove through the late 1970s. He was a huge star and big commercial act who turned his style on a dime going a different direction, much to his record company’s displeasure. They could imagine the truckloads of unsold albums being returned.
Beck was able to keep his sound commercial, enjoying some of his greatest success during that period with former Beatle producer George Martin at the helm.
There were many jazz artists like Grover Washington, Jr., Billy Cobham, chick Corea, Jean-Luc Ponty, Stanley Clarke, Ramsey Lewis, Michael Franks, Miles Davis, Quincy Jones, Mahavishnu Orchestra and Herbie Hancock who drew some of the same fans as rockers. Groups like Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears infused horns and jazzy arrangements carved out success on the charts, at least in early part of the decade.
I had friends who ventured into jazz like Grover Washington, Junior, and then Weather Report and John Klemmer, who had a smooth jazz song, “Touch,” played on mainstream rock stations and became a cross-over hit. Then a couple of new actors drifted into my sphere. Spyro Gyra and Pat Metheny, new forces in the musical universe. When you are raised on the meat and potatoes of classic rock, veering too far afield is unnatural. Any my preference for guitar-driven music loosened up a bit as John Klemmer and Spyro Gyra were more keyboard-saxophone oriented jazz. Change happens.
Spyro Gyra had a funky, rock vibe with a thumping bass line and soaring saxophone. Morning Dance in 1979 became a popular album, number 27 on the Billboard Top Album chart. Throughout the 1980s, Spyro Gyra scores some of the top jazz albums as they settled into a smooth jazz groove.
I moved on from Spyro Gyra, as they changed members and I found other influences, but Morning Dance, Catching the Sun and Carnival helped me appreciate jazz-hybrids and eventually New Age.
I don’t know precisely how I discovered Pat Metheny, it might have been his album American Garage (1979) that received some radio airplay. The virtuosity of his guitar playing was tough to miss. For the next two decades I followed him and attended concerts.
American Garage sounded like pop album, it reached number 53 on the album pop chart. Metheny had recorded a number of solo albums including New Chautauqua which was truly a solo effort with his distinctive guitar style. American Garage followed as his second Pat Metheny Group effort, with a fuller, brighter sound. Every album was a big step forward in sound and style. The next effort, As Falls Wichita, So Fall Wichita Falls, was a collaboration with keyboard player Lyle Mays, which sounded like a mini symphony, yet another progression. Metheny’s musical development was like the dinosaurs’ exponential learning in Jurassic Park. It was hard to keep up with him. His biggest mainstream success was in the 1980s, as the platinum albums and Grammy Awards stacked up, but he moved on to greater challenges.
Moving into an experimental direction, alternating that with more traditional jazz excursions, Metheny moved way beyond my more conventional musical tastes.