Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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When You Consider Your Condition . . .

It was just a press party, a stopover where I could scarf up some dinner and talk shop with my rock critic friends, although it was at the Village Vanguard, which is still a jazz club and only a jazz club, to publicize the Argentine saxophonist Gato Barbieri. A soul freak named Aaron Fuchs came over with a friend, who offered me a joint. What do you really think of free jazz, Aaron wanted to know. Well, I said, ignoring his old-fashioned locution. I like it, and then made the usual emendation--I don't so much like it as admire it. I think it's important. My companion gave me a significant look, which inspired me to wonder out loud whether I wasn't living in the past, back with that wonderful terminology of free and new thing. Maybe it wasn't important. In 1961, I listened to Ornette Coleman because what he was doing spoke to my condition. In 1971, I don't listen to Ornette Coleman, and maybe the reason is that he no longer speaks to my condition. The question then becomes: which is righteous, Ornette Coleman or my condition?

Aaron and I spoke of soul singer Al Green, and Aaron mentioned that he'd been listening to a lot of pre-doowah '50s groups like the Flamingoes. Do the Flamingoes speak to my condition? Aaron challenged me to name current albums that got me off. Van Morrison and Three Dog Night have really been making me feel happy, I answered. We argued about Three Dog Night for a while. Aaron's friend put in that he'd been getting off on David Bowie and Humble Pie. Aaron described this chicano rock album he had, on some San Antonio label, the first cut was a polka, and whenever he played that he felt happy. Do chicano rock bands that play polkas speak to my condition? To be honest, they do, but that doesn't necessarily make me feel happy.

Aaron and friend returned to their table to scarf up their hamburgers. The dope had taken hold, and my companion and I agreed that the conversation had been very far out. Not only was there someone in the Village Vanguard who got off on David Bowie and Humble Pie, but there were people in the Village Vanguard he could talk to about it. We rapped on as the musicians set up. I didn't want them to play, I felt like talking, but it was inexorable, the drummer was testing his heads, the bassman was tuning, there was the piano, the congas, the man with the horn. The music began with the bassman beating out a slow, steady rhythm, the percussionists moved in, the pianist was chording, and then Barbieri was blowing over the polyrhythms and my companion and I exchanged significant looks. It really sounded good. No doubt it was the dope and our anticipation, but that didn't matter. I was glad I was stoned and had I expected nothing, glad I was feeling receptive and uncritical. I hadn't enjoyed live jazz so much in perhaps six years. Oh yes, Miles Davis was wonderful, Tony Williams too, I'd written about both of them, yet both retained that important artistic aura. Barbieri sounded a little corny, but I was enjoying myself. Enjoyment always pertains to my condition.

I had been thinking of writing about jazz again, mostly because Larry Coryell had suddenly come up with two good albums. At intermittent moments--in performance with Gary Burton, almost five years ago now; during occasional choruses with something called Don Sebeskey and the Jazz-Rock Syndrome and with his own fabled jazz-rock innovators, the Free Spirits; on Steve Marcus's "Tomorrow Never Knows"--Coryell had always seemed to me the best guitarist ever, combining the electric strength of the great rock guitarists with a jazzman's facility, but his solo albums on Vanguard were unsatisfying. Out of some misplaced fannish respect, I said nice things about them and forgot them. Listening again, I am reminded of the mood of the orchestrated jazz of Stan Kenton. Coryell's music is a lot hipper and freer, of course, but it was created a lot later, and it does seem to be that like Kenton he was trying to formalize a certain jarring energy he perceived in his music. In Coryell's case, the result was almost a kind of aleatory composition. It failed.

Tony Williams did it better, and when I felt in the mood to be jarred by a guitar, it was my habit to turn to John McLaughlin, the equally extraordinary guitarist who played on both of Williams' first two lps for Polydor. Those records didn't succeed totally, either, but their moments of failure were not uninteresting. At its best, Turn It Over was a self-regulating cacophony in which four equal forces--Williams on drums, McLaughlin on guitar, Khalid Yasin on organ, Jack Bruce on bass--competed furiously without destroying each other. This music would seem to permit a sports analogy but doesn't mostly because patterns of competition and cooperation in sports are too simplistic--the Marx Brothers in a movie by Fritz Lang is more like it. Now Williams's third lp is out, and it is called Ego, which is a portent. I suppose the title would be salutory if anybody much cared about the public stance of Tony Williams, because it emphasizes that despite the stupid pieties, ego-tripping and good music are just about inextricable. Unfortunately, ego-tripping and bad music are also just about inextricable. Both McLaughlin and Bruce are absent from Ego. They are replaced by Ted Dunbar, who simply doesn't have McLaughlin's chops or forcefulness, and Ron Carter, a jazz bassist with none of Bruce's competitive experience--he is probably a superor technician, but he is accustomed to playing supportively in an intimate atmosphere rather than outblasting Clapton and Baker in front of 20,000 screaming jeebies. As a result, Yasin dominates the sound of Ego and Williams dominates its spirit. Yasin (who used to call himself Larry Young, by the way) is still one of the few organists I can listen to with pleasure, and Williams will always be an incredible drummer, but the old dynamism is gone--what was once an exciting experiment is now a boring one. Williams is doing all the composing, permitting himself a lot of solo space, and singing just well enough to qualify as a major annoyance instead of an amateur curiosity.

McLaughlin, meanwhile, has changed his name and his billing to Mahavishnu John McLaughlin. His second solo lp, Devotion, has almost nothing to do with the high-charged cerebral power that used to be his forte. It is one of those attempts at fusing musical modes--Occidental and Oriental, jazz and rock and traditional--and it actually works, even though it is more similar in mood to the Miles Davis of "Shhh/Peaceful" than perhaps suits McLaughlin's spiritual ambitions. My judgment: a masterpiece, but a minor one. When I'm in one of my rarefied Maha moods, which is rare enough, I'm more likely to turn to McLaughlin than to George Harrison, that's for sure. But as a man of smog and pavement, I'm more likely to gravitate toward either of this year's records by Coryell.

The secret of Coryell's sudden success, I think, is that he's stopped trying to conceive records. He just wants to make music the way jazzmen always have--spontaneously. Larry Coryell at the Village Gate, recorded last January for Vanguard, is just the best of two good nights of gigging with his usual sidemen. And Barefoot Boy, for Flying Dutchman, is a throwback to the crisp thematic-statement-and-improvisation methods of the pre-free '50s which doesn't sound old-fashioned in any other way. The old free jazz usages have jelled into an entertainment form familiar to artist and audience alike, slightly more structured than everybody-blow-at-once but a lot less rigid than the old post-bop model. The familiarity seems to encourage emotional range. Coryell's playing has never been noted for its warmth, and his previous attempts at lyricism have been flat, but on the live lp, warmth and lyricism abound. A vocal interlude featuring him and his wife (and co-composer) Julie is one of the highs of the record, rather than something to be endured, as with Williams. But the chief attraction is that almost cruel urban strength that only electric guitars seem capable of conveying. Augmented by Steve Marcus on the studio record, Coryell screams and flashes over a solid rhythmic backing in an ineluctably modern synthesis of beautiful and ugly that is recommended to anyone who suspects that pastorale ain't where it's at.

Which brings us back to Gato Barbieri at the Village Vanguard. What made his set so exceptional was that he too had evolved an entertainment form out of free jazz usages. The polyrhythms were exciting but conventional enough, although because they were propelled forward by the allusive off-beat drumming of Lennie White III they weren't as regular as what you might expect from Herbie Mann or Santana. There really was an almost organic flow, just like in jazz criticism. Barbieri situated himself above this flow, playing almost against it at times, up front both visually and aurally--a tree growing in the middle of a river. Yes, the nature image fits, because Barbieri maintains an almost fleshly tone on his saxophone, the antithesis of the sharp, tortured intellectuality of someone like Marcus. The nearest comparison is Archie Shepp, but whereas Shepp seems driven to break down his music, Barbieri keeps his moving. As I said, it's almost corny, too easy in a way. But it speaks to my condition, and his newest record, Fenix, is the first jazz I've played frequently for pleasure since In a Silent Way.

Village Voice, Nov. 25, 1971