Mass Music: The Band, Allman Brothers, Tony Williams and Miles Davis

EACH OF the record albums discussed here could be termed a masterpiece worthy of a full-length “rave.” But the Review format can often be nothing more than a limitation on that form of struggle for liberation called Criticism (Mao); while details of each album under consideration are easily fitted into this established form, larger, cross-influential questions may require a capsulized, comparative look at more than one source. Especially in an age of coming together. The important thing is to turn the reader on to the dynamics of our Mass Music, an esthetic, cultural and political form commonly referred to as Rock & Roll — from its explosive origins and for some time to come the metaphor and energy of change for the revolutionary youth movement.

The blues is a musical and political form of expression created and developed by black men and women learning to survive in a non-communal, non-collective, non-literate Amerika: the birth of the “I.” As part of the retribalization of young people throughout the world, this form finds sudden relevance to those who are undergoing the reverse experience: the death of the “I.”

The Allman Brothers Band brings to their involvement in the blues form a dignity and coolness that allows them to transcend the histrionics and sensationalisms that have often characterized and marred the success of their white co-practitioners. The Allman Brothers Band (ATCO Capricorn SD 33-308) is a brilliant, solid album of white blues. Duane Allman, one of the finest guitarists in all rock, has for the most part chosen as his instrument the electric slide guitar, potentially the most sensational soundmaker of all. Johnny Winter has turned us on to the flashy brilliance of his slide guitar pyrotechnics, but Duane Allman seems intentionally to underemphasize just those copyrighted aspects of this particular piece of musical technology (there is one blatant Winterism on one track in which the famous guitar/vocal simultaneous riff is followed by a hearty laugh from the band, just to let us know they know we know).

Allman’s use of his instrument is on a different plane, a more group-oriented one which allows for virtuosity but insists on its transmutation into a larger gestalt of sound. Vocals are almost by definition the weak spot in any white blues band, since pronunciations, inflections and word usage are not so easy to transmit across cultural barriers as the non-verbal utterings of musical instruments. Either you get into a black imitative role as singer (in which, for the most part, you can be judged only in degrees away from miserableness — Johnny Winter and John Mayall are two successes) or you take what you can from the blues vocal forms and do your own thing (Mick Jagger, Elvis Presley). Greg Allman has to be counted among those in the former category, but substantial praise is due him for the restraint and dignity he brings to the role; watching him sing is quite a cultural shock experience. He “sounds” of raw pain and gutsy life styles while his face looks like a figure from Renaissance painting. Greg Allman’s contributions on organ seem to flow more out of the Ray Charles sound than out of Jimmy Smith, i.e. closer to the rock end of the blues. (On this first record, the organ is poorly mixed and some of the excitement of the Allman Brothers’ sound is lost). 2nd lead guitarist Dick Betts is a superlative instrumentalist in his own right, and his inclusion reinforces the group orientation for these supermusicians. Berry Oakley is without question one of the heaviest and most swinging bassists in the music. Two drummers (one black, one white) provide adequate rhythmic punctuation and flow for the riffs and improvisations of the Allman Brothers Band, somehow coming off even better on record than in live performance.

There is very little to say by way of criticism except that the music of the Allman Brothers Band is among the very, very best of blues played by white young people.

JUST AS The Allman Brothers Band reveals the incredible impact of the blues form on white mass musicians, Emergency! by The Tony Williams Lifetime (Polydor 25-3001) bears witness to the impact of the black-white hybrid of Rock & Roll on the young black musician. For several years drummer for the Miles Davis group, Tony Williams now fronts one of the most exciting musical creations around. Built around the guitar/organ/drums sound (with more emphasis on the drums than we are usually accustomed to), the Lifetime expands this limited format into a swirling, churning mass of pure, mind-blowing electric waves of sound.

Emergency! is a two-record album, heavier than anything you’ve probably heard before (dig it one of two ways: either get into the whole thing at once, reeling under its impact, or sample a side along with other music, letting it be assimilated over a longer, more secure, span of time). Few drummers, especially in a style related to Rock & Roll (which has not yet developed a spectrum of talents and styles equal to that of vocalist and solo-oriented instrumentalist) can draw a spotlight over to their work, but Tony Williams can and does throughout all 4 sides of this album; the word “musical” is inadequate but useful in describing what he does with percussion. Larry Young is a monster talent on organ, requiring everything from the listener just to keep head above drowning water. British guitarist John McLaughlin provides a high plane for the group, keeping it all up there in a cosmic kind of esthetic space, using all the distortion and feedback techniques we have been accustomed to since Peter Townshend and Jimi Hendrix, but in an even more free, liberated area of expression.

The weak point in this music, as in the new jazz recording by Pharoah Sanders, Karma, is in the verbal statements interspersed (spoken rather than sung on Emergency!) throughout the separate pieces; the idea is a good one, a spoken, intimate voice now and then emerging over the sheer volume of instrumental sound, but the Content is not on the same high level as the music — just as the white blues vocalists’ delivery has never been up to the powercharged blues lyrics they inform. The tighter, more restricted form of the Rock & Roll song has provided Jimi Hendrix, for example, a more workable approach to this dilemma than the wide open territory of the Tony Williams Lifetime. As Mass Music forms itself, the Jimi Hendrix solution will approach the Tony Williams problem, and the sounds will become more and more exciting as convergence takes place.

IN A SILENT Way (Columbia CS 9875) is a journey into pure esthetic space, a tough, lyrical album of musical ripples and thunders that provides one of the perfect meetings, and fusions, of the Black western tradition of jazz with the new electric sound of a revolutionary youth music. What is it? Jazz, Rock, Jazz-Rock, or, as the liner notes suggest, a music of NEW DIRECTIONS? The closer we come to a musical synesthesia, the less adequate our verbalisms will become. It is almost impossible to describe the incredible beauty of the music on this album. Tony Williams and John McLaughlin of Emergency! are here, as are Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea (electric pianos) and Joe Zawinul (electric piano and organ); also Davis’ saxophonist Wayne Shorter, doing his best work ever; Dave Holland on bass; Miles Davis brooding through it all with his distinctive, untouchable trumpet. In A Silent Way is a profound statement of the impact of western civilization on the African tribal experience, and the rebirth of the collective psyche (and musics) of the colony within the heart of the mother country, a musical Trojan horse.

THE BAND (Capitol STAO-132), the second album by the creators of Music From Big Pink, is also not approachable through words. It travels freely through planes passing directly through the core of human experience. Plus it’s fun, and you can dance to it! The music of The Band comes closer to the synesthesia that will mark the birth of a new being on this planet than any other music made by white young people.

Drawing from three worlds of oppression — black, working class white, and youth — The Band weaves a cross-cultural web of Ray Charles (a much underestimated influence on their total sound), Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers, and The Coasters and Bob Dylan. All strains becoming one, with no one strain dominant — a new music, tribal, collective, communal, music of brothers totally involved in the transition from the “I” to the “We.” A restructuring of white western experience, a look by the new tribal man at the still extant cultural artifacts and fossils of a dying “civilization.” Perhaps the most significant re-examination of the function of words in music in all of Rock.

King Harvest has surely come.

© Miller Francis Jr.The Great Speckled Bird, 8 December 1969

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